The Origins of Classic Cocktails

Renewed interest in classic cocktails over the last decade has inspired mixologists and cocktail lovers alike to research the origins of their favorite adult beverages. While the history of some concoctions are more certain than others, here are the tales (some true, some most certainly fiction) of five classic mixed drinks.

Noted 20th century essayist H.L. Menken once said the martini was "the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet." Despite its status as the ultimate cocktail, the origins of the martini are disputed. One tale attributes the creation to a bartender in San Francisco's Occidental hotel in the 1860s. Another story says it was first served in Martinez, CA, a town outside San Fran. Yet another theory is that the martini was invented at the Knickerbocker hotel in NYC in the early 20th century. Wherever it was first mixed, we're just thankful it was!

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The popular rye-whiskey-based cocktail is noted for being the oldest American cocktail. The concoction of rye, absinthe, and Peychaud's bitters originated from pre-Civil-War New Orleans at an establishment called the Sazerac House-it's not hard to see where the drink got its name! Originally made with imported cognac, the cocktail's primary ingredient changed to rye when an insect blight struck French grape crops in the late 19th century. The Sazerac was adopted as the official cocktail of New Orleans in 2008.

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Irish Coffee
Irish CoffeeIrish Coffee
This popular concoction of coffee, whiskey, and sugar was first served to a group of American tourists in a west Irish airport in the 1940s after a particularly dreadful PanAm flight. In the early '50s, San Francisco Chronicle travel writer Stanton Delaplane returned to the States from a trip to Ireland and sought to recreate the drink with help from the owners of the Buena Vista Cafe bar. Delaplane frequently wrote about the cocktail in his column, helping to popularize it.

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The Manhattan-a cocktail of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters-can, not surprisingly, be traced back to a New York City club in the late 1800s. The legend indicates it was created by Dr. Iain Marshall during a party given by Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill's mother. The banquet was so well-received, demand for the cocktail grew. However, as Lady Churchill was likely in France at the time, the tale is probably a fiction. While we can't pinpoint exactly where the mixture originated, there are multiple references to Manhattan-like drinks in vintage New York bar guides from the 1860s.

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Mint Julep
Mint JulepMint Julep
The Mint Julep has been promoted by Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby since 1938, but the cocktail is much older than that. The drink was first referenced by British traveler John Davis in his 1803 book detailing his four years of travels in America. Davis tied the drink not to Kentucky, but Virginia. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky is known to have introduced the cocktail to the Willard Hotel bar in Washington D.C. in the early 19th century. Today, over 120,000 juleps are served during the two-day Kentucky Derby each year!

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Photo credits:
Martini: coffeegeek on Flickr
Sazerac: kevinomara on Flickr
Irish Coffee: reeselloyd on Flickr
Manhattan: ctankcycles on Flickr
Mint Julep: kchrist on Flickr

Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.