A Brief History of the Cocktail

//A Brief History of the Cocktail

We love cocktails, and we love history. The combined love of spirits and their tradition and history are high on the list of things that led us to create Lifted Spirits. Here are some interesting tidbits about the history of cocktails…

From Noble Roots

Jeremiah Thomas – Believed to be the “Father of American Mixology.”

While alcohol dates back to biblical times and before, and mixed drinks popularly known as “punch” (or “juleps,” for example) had been around since the 1500s, cocktails are relative newcomers by comparison. The precursor to the cocktail was largely medicinal; bitters, “elixirs,” amari, tonics, and even spirits such as absinthe were invented and consumed for their health benefits, and alcohol was the beverage of choice all day long. At a time when water-borne illnesses were major threats to public health, they may have been on to something…

The first known reference to cocktails occurred in the early 1800s, specifically, “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water, and bitters.”*  The mixology renaissance which we have witnessed in Kansas City and around the world is, in large part, a return to this basic starting point.

The interesting Origins of 5 Cocktails kansas city gimlet

  • Gin and Tonic – Invented by the British East India Company as a way to make quinine tonic more palatable. Quinine repels mosquitoes and helped protect against malaria. Guess British imperialism wasn’t all bad…
  • The Gimlet – Invented by the British Navy to fight scurvy by making lime juice into a delicious cocktail.
  • The Tom Collins – According to legend, this dates back to a common prank in the 1870’s. You’d tell a friend that a man named Tom Collins was spreading terrible rumors about you at a local bar. Your friend would then go to the bar demanding to see Tom Collins in order to defend their honor, much to the amusement or confusion of the other patrons. A bartender decided to capitalize on this gag by inventing a cocktail by the same name. Lucky for us, the cocktail turned out to be more memorable than its namesake prank…
  • The Daiquiri – Invented by American miners stuck working in Cuba around 1900. Daiquirí was the name of the iron mine that drove them to drink, and there was no shortage of rum and citrus to work with.
  • The Mojito – Depending on who you believe, this tasty lime and mint concoction may trace its roots all the way back to Havana, Cuba in the 16th century. Sir Francis Drake and his troops mixed aguardiente de caña (translated as “fire water,” a nasty precursor to rum) with lime, sugarcane juice, and mint. This concoction was a local remedy for scurvy, dysentery, and other tropical illnesses.

Why the name cocktail?

There are quite literally dozens of explanations for the name “cock tail,” many of which are dubious, though we probably buy the explanation given to us by The Balance, and Columbian repository that when drunk, these drinks made you “cock your tail” up in the same manner as draft horses of the time, whose tails were often cut short in the 18th and 19th century, causing those hairs to stick up, like a rooster (cock’s) tail.

Cocktails in KC long ago…

In fact, Kansas City was a part of the development of the cocktail in the United States. During Prohibition (1919-1933) the only place you could get one was in a speakeasy, and speakeasies were all over Kansas City.

[bctt tweet=”…Kansas City was a part of the development of the cocktail in the United States.” username=”@LiftedSpirits”]

“I have seen the streets of Paris at their worst, or best, but they are nothing like Kansas City. If you want to have a good time, go to Kansas City.”

– Georges G. Valot, 1934

The downside was that the quality of liquor available during this time was dreadful, and there was a shift from whiskey to gin as the base of cocktails, as gin doesn’t require aging.  You also saw honey, fruit juices, and other flavorings playing prominent roles in masking the poor taste of these liquors.  A sweet cocktail could be downed quickly, especially if the police were coming in the front (or back) doors!

and KC cocktails today…

What gives gin its flavorToday in Kansas City you’ll find bitters, often homemade, behind the bar of any respectable drinking establishment.  Bitters are made from botanicals, such as bark, roots, fruit, or aromatic herbs.  You take those ingredients and infuse them into a flavorless alcohol in order to create liquid magic to add to your drinks.  Think of bitters the way you might think of salt for your food.  It brings out flavors.

Some of the most popular cocktails in Kansas City are traditional Horsefeathers and Moscow Mules, and the President Hotel even features a “Truman-hattan,” a take on the classic Manhattan, which is considered the original cocktail in the United States.  All three of these drinks are a throwback to that original and simple view of the cocktail.  A Horsefeather is rye, ginger beer, lemon juice, and bitters.  A Moscow Mule (which has nothing to do with Moscow or Mules, alas) is vodka, ginger beer, and lime.  And the Manhattan is whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters.

Want to learn more about cocktails and spirits? Swing by the Kansas City distillery for a free tour, or talk with the bar staff in the tasting room to quench your thirst for knowledge (or for cocktails)! Stop by and say hello.

*for those of you keen to pore over old books, The Balance, and Columbian Repository is where you can find this definition.


About Lifted Spirits

Distillery, craft cocktails, and events in Kansas City’s East Crossroads. Spirits worthy of the people they bring together.

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1734 Cherry St, Kansas City, MO 64108

Phone: 816-866-1734