The thing about studying history is it’s always more complex and nuanced than we assume, whether that’s the civil war or cocktails. I recently finished A Proper Drink: the untold story of how a band of bartenders saved the civilized drinking world. In essence, it documents the drivers and unfolding of the cocktail renaissance in this country and globally. But before we talk about a few interesting things I learned from the book, let’s go back to prohibition to talk about why a renaissance even happened.
Here is where the older part of history comes in: What I knew about prohibition came from history class, stories of gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano and the notorious speakeasy. I also knew that while it had curbed the amount alcohol available in this country, for many the desire to have a drink persisted. What I did not peace together until recent is the effect prohibition had on cocktails. Many of the drinks referred to as classics come from the pre-prohibition era but when drinking went “underground”, a couple things happened:
Many of the bartenders who knew the trade and recipes well left the US and went to work in Europe and other parts of the world where they could practice in the open
Speakeasies had alcohol but many of the pre-prohibition ingredients were not available or hard to come by and so many cocktail recipes were irrelevant and therefore shelved, forgotten or lost
In short one of the things prohibition did that had not occurred to me was eliminate many key cocktail ingredients along with the knowledge and expertise of the craft. As a result, America largely “forgot” how to make good cocktails.
There are many things to share about the cocktail renaissance but below are two I found fun:
In the 1970’s, TGI Fridays had become a well-known singles bar and popular spot. Playing off this they created a highly rigorous training program for bartenders. As reported in the book, “To become a bartender you had to learn four hundred drinks and pass a test. Twenty-five of those drinks you had to make blindfolded, in a certain amount of time, knowing by memory where each bottle was… The juices used in the drinks were freshly squeezed, and a house ‘sweet and sour’ mix was made every day with citrus and fresh eggs.” Fridays scaled this training program, reaching their employees in the US and Europe. A legion of bartenders were relearning true bartending as a result of this and when many of them left as the cocktail movement began to emerge, they were then ready to be fine-tuned in emerging craft establishments. As Phil Duff says in the book, “There would be no cocktail movement without them [Fridays]… It’s absolutely true.”
Sex and the City
Due to James Bond and a handful of other factors, the martini is perhaps the most recognizable drink on the planet and has always had a following. But when the characters of Sex and the City popularized the Cosmopolitan, it created a surge of interest not only for this drink but patrons began to want to
know what else could be put in these martini glasses. While this arguably lead to many forgettable drinks (e.g. Appletini, Chocolatini), the cosmo gave bartenders license to put new (and classically old) recipes into martini glasses, which helped fuel the movement’s fire.
You can't know where you're heading if you don't know where you've been.