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What is a cocktail? In 1806, the answer was “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters”.
That note, written by editor Harry Croswell in the May 13 edition of The Balance and Columbian Repository, a New York tabloid, is thought to be the first ever published definition of a cocktail, composed in response to a reader who was confused about the new-fangled term.
In recent years, the publication date of Croswell’s definition has come to be celebrated as World Cocktail Day, and what better date, then, to look back on the history of some of the world’s most beloved creations.
Jake Burger, drinks historian and co-founder of Portobello Road Gin, describes the origins of our favourite cocktails below along with recipes for the perfect serve – though as he explains, many recipes have been transformed over the years.
Best cocktail recipes on World Cocktail Day 2021
First created: 1805-1820, London
“The name of this drink is thought to date back to John Collins," Burger explains. Collins was the head waiter, bartender and face of one of the capital's greatest drinking institutions of all time: the Limmer's Hotel, which Burger describes as "a seedy establishment frequented by a colourful cast of characters drawn mostly from the sporting, military, and aristocratic world in the early 19th century.
“The drink John Collins was most famous for was his ‘gin punch’. We know it was a brand of gin called Hodge's Gin, mixed with lemon juice, sparkling water, and something called capillaire (a lot of these things were 'medicines' which found their way behind the bar), a sugar syrup which had been flavoured with maiden hair fern.
“John Collins' take on gin punch became so famous that people began attaching his name to it." At some point the drink found its way across the Atlantic, probably to New York, Burger suggests, and the name became mixed up; "the drink became known as the Tom Collins, perhaps because they were using ‘Old Tom’ gin.”
First created: Around 1896, New York
"There were lots of drinks with names such as the Martinez, the Martina, and the Martine in America towards the end of the 19th century, but usually with very different recipes to a modern Dry Martini that we know," says Burger.
"The earliest reference I've found to a Dry Martini was in a jokey article in The New York World on July 7, 1896, where the writer says he ordered a Dry Martini from a German bartender and ended up with three drinks. The joke is that 'Drei' is German for 'three', but for that joke to work the Dry Martini had to be a new enough creation that the bartender wouldn't be familiar with it.
"By 1900, it was dry gin and dry vermouth in equal proportions with an olive and with a dash of orange bitters; not a million miles away from the modern Martini. As the 20th century continued we started using less and less vermouth and more gin. Nowadays we've seen the vermouth take its place back; I make mine four to one," Burger explains. "And in the 1930s vodka entered the Martini, although I always like to say there's no such thing as a Gin Martini: there's a Vodka Martini and a Martini: the original one was definitely made with gin."
First created: 1899-1915, Singapore
Many places claim to be the home of certain classic drinks, Burger argues, but the Singapore Sling was "definitely invented at the Raffles Hotel by a man named Ngiam Tong Boon who worked there between 1899 and 1915.
"There is much debate about what goes into a Singapore Sling," Burger says. "The only ingredients that everyone agrees on are gin and sparkling water; most people say it uses lemon juice although some say lime, and most people would agree that there's some type of sweetener." Cherry liqueur is often preferred, but you might see cherry brandy, grenadine, orange Curacao, Cointreau or Angostura bitters. "Some would even call for a dash of Benedictine.
"The proprietors of Raffles do insist that pineapple juice was part of the original recipe, but it's thought that they added that into the story a little later.
"It probably wasn't called a Singapore Sling to start with. In 1903 we find a recipe in a French book which talks about 'Pink Slings'; the name 'Straight Sling' turns up in 1922, but by the 1930s it had been established as a Singapore Sling."
First created: Either 1921 in Paris, 1927 in New York, or 1930 in New York
"There are two conflicting characters who stake a claim on the Bloody Mary," Burger says. "The first is Fernand Petiot whose claim would date it to 1921, making this year the centenary of the Bloody Mary. Petiot was a bartender at Harry's New York Bar in Paris which often claims to be the home of the Bloody Mary. Except there's virtually no supporting evidence for that at all." The drinks of 1920s Paris were well documented, Burger argues. "There are some excellent books from that era including one from 1927, from that very bar, which doesn't mention a Bloody Mary. It isn't mentioned in any other books or newspapers from the time either. If it was served it wasn't popular.
"The other contender is a guy called George Jessel who was a vaudeville entertainer. He claimed that he invented the Bloody Mary in 1927 and that it was just a mixture of equal parts of vodka and tomato juice. There are accounts of contemporaries of Jessel who say he created and named the drink.
"By this point, Fernand Petiot had moved to New York and was working at the St Regis Hotel and he said in an interview around 1930 that George Jessel invented the Bloody Mary and he’d improved it. It was probably him who added the Worcestershire sauce, the tabasco, the lemon juice, the salt and pepper."
First created: 1985, London
"The man behind this drink was Dick Bradsell, one of the most influential and important figures in modern drinking. He also invented the Bramble and the Russian Spring Punch," Burger explains.
"Bradsell had a very well-rehearsed version of the history of this drink. He says he was working at the Soho Brasserie while the film Absolute Beginners was being filmed in London (1985). He'd just had training to use the espresso machine when ‘a famous supermodel’ came into the bar and asked for a drink to ‘wake me up and f*** me up’. And a legend was born.
"Bradsell never said who the supermodel was but people have suggested Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, and most famously Naomi Campbell. These seem unlikely because Moss was 11 at the time, Campbell was 14, and while Evangelista was 19 she wasn’t very famous then. We'll probably never know for sure.
"It was originally called the Vodka Espresso, served on ice in a rocks glass - vodka, espresso coffee, coffee liqueur, and possibly a bit of sugar syrup. Gradually, the same drink served in a Martini glass began appearing on various different menus across London and became known as the Espresso Martini. Dick might not have come up with the name but he certainly created the drink."