A Brief History of the American Cocktail

By David Alan
Photography by Aimee Wenske

Excerpted from Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails from the Lone Star State by David Alan (Andrews McMeel Publishing, June 11, 2013)

The mixing of drinks dates back to time immemorial, with recipes in all manner of ancient texts for drinks to cure what ails you. The history of the cocktail, by contrast, is comparatively modern, and distinctly American. Our colonial forebears came to these shores with plenty of intoxicating cargo, but only rudimentary ideas for mixed drinks—lightly alcoholic drinks such as syllabubs, caudles, and flips that were rich in calories from eggs and milk. Punch was a noteworthy exception and reigned supreme over the pre-cocktails.

Within one hundred years of the nation’s founding, however, a wildly innovative, distinctly American cocktail cuisine would emerge and begin to be exported to points far and wide—an alcoholic ambassador from the fledgling United States.


In colonial America, the idea of the individual drink had not yet taken hold. Communal drinking was the norm, punch was often drunk straight from the bowl, and toasting to health was widespread. Those were bibulous times, with per capita consumption many times higher than it is today. Not only was it uncommon (even unhealthy) to drink straight water, it was considered pitiable by some commentators. Much community activity centered around the tavern, and the tavern centered around the punch bowl. To the modern eye, one of the first things we notice when looking at engravings of these old “bars” is that there is no bar—customers sat around tables, facing one another. They did not sit at a long counter facing the bartender, because that person had not yet emerged as a professional distinct from the multifaceted tavern keeper of yore.

As the young nation began to industrialize and urbanize in the nineteenth century, drinking habits likewise evolved. It was not unusual for apprentices and masters working in small shops to go through much of their day under some kind of mild inebriation. Alcohol was a good source of calories— fermentation and distillation are above all else a means of preserving grain and fruit. Likewise, before the advent of modern purification techniques, alcohol was added to water for its antibacterial qualities. This all changed as the factory system developed. Whereas a few men can safely sit in a workshop making saddles under the influence, the game changes when hundreds or thousands of people have to work in close proximity, around expensive (and dangerous) manufacturing equipment. It is no coincidence that it was not just religionists who were the most vocal proponents of Prohibition, but also industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller.

The evolution of the commercial ice trade was also a major contributor to the emergence of cocktails and professional bartenders. Whereas ice had previously been available as a luxury for the wealthy, the development of sophisticated harvesting, storage, and transportation techniques by Frederick “the Ice King” Tudor enabled the democratization and spread of ice. Cut in winter from northern ponds, lakes, and rivers, huge blocks of ice were shipped in insulated cargo vessels to ports as far away as New Orleans, Havana, and Calcutta. New tools and techniques were developed to incorporate ice into drinks, and with them countless recipes, many of which were collected in the first known drinks book to be published in the United States, The Bar-Tender’s Guide (1862), by Jerry Thomas. The age of the cocktail bartender was born, and many of the modern tools and major recipes that are in use today were developed by the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

However, the cocktail party didn’t last long as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the largest and most powerful women’s organization of its time, advocated for temperance, not complete abstinence—moderation, not abolition. But temperance evolved into a full on prohibition movement with the emergence of such single-issue parties as the Anti-Saloon League. The ASL was so effective at making it untenable for a politician to be publicly wet that both major political parties added Prohibition to their respective platforms by 1918. The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified by the states on January 16, 1919, and went into effect the following year, thus beginning the thirteen-year drought known euphemistically as the Noble Experiment.

Prohibition largely failed at its main objective of drying out the nation. It gave a mammoth boost to organized crime and made criminals out of ordinary citizens. Whereas Prohibition was a monolithic, complete effort that was national in scope, repeal was the opposite: piecemeal, fractional, and hyperlocalized in scope. The Twenty-first Amendment threw the decision to the states, many of which in turn passed the responsibility on to counties, cities, and even justice-of-the-peace precincts—hence the incredible patchwork quilt of liquor regulations that result in different degrees of “wet” virtually every place you go. The entire state of Mississippi was bone dry until 1966. Many readers will remember when you couldn’t buy liquor by the drink in Texas, and as of 2012 the denizens of Tyler still have to leave the city limits to buy a bottle—one of the many lingering effects of Prohibition.

The middle decades of the twentieth century were for the most part an unfortunate time for American cocktail mixology, the profession emerging from Prohibition in a state one might predict it would be in, having been forced underground, unable to evolve for over a decade. We went from exporting our ideas and traditions about cocktails to exporting the very talent, as professional barmen sought wetter pastures abroad. Others left the business entirely, or continued to practice the craft in illegal speakeasies, working with whatever ingredients they could get hold of.

One exception to the general malaise of mid-century mixology was the tiki movement. Tiki was a glorious pastiche of tropical and Asian design aesthetics conjured by Hollywood, pioneered by such colorful characters as Don the Beachcomber and “Trader Vic” Bergeron. The tiki bars offered a cuisine of cocktails based on tropical flavors, but built in a classical fashion with balance and complexity in mind, and practitioners of the art were massively successful. In the 1930s, the early tiki bars and restaurants offered a Technicolor culinary fantasia against the black-and-white backdrop of the recent Depression; a decade later, they offered solace to the souls of weary soldiers and provided an escape to citizens.

With countless soldiers returning from the Pacific theater, and with the popularization of Hawaiian tourism (and eventual statehood), an increased interest in the South Pacific manifested itself across the middlebrow culture of the day. Americans had now been exposed to the allure of the Orient, and “Polynesian Pop” took the country by storm. What started in the backyard of Hollywood in the 1930s had spread by the 1950s such that one could escape to the tropics in just about any city in America—everything from shopping malls to home decor soon benefited from a touch of the islands.

Whereas tiki palaces provided the most flamboyant means of escape, the most common sanctuary was the home itself. As Elaine Tyler May writes in Homeward Bound, “The home seemed to offer a secure private nest removed from the dangers of the outside world.” Seeking respite from the din of war, the deprivation of the Depression, and the chaos of crowded cities, Americans flocked to the countryside to populate it with suburbs. America flexed its industrial might in a mind-boggling collusion of developers and homebuilders, automobile manufacturers, tire makers, and road building contractors, all supported by government will and the GI Bill. In a short time, suburbanization forever changed the American landscape, and it also changed the way we drink.

As Americans strived to escape the chaos of the city for the calm of the suburbs, our drinking habits changed. Without the convenience of the corner tavern or neighborhood pub, we saw the rise of the home bartender and an explosion of gear catering toward that emerging market. Whereas cocktail manuals from before Prohibition were sparse guidebooks for working professionals, those that emerged afterward were lush with detailed descriptions and images. Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up (1951) featured pinup gals from the brushes of America’s top commercial illustrators; Esquire magazine’s Handbook for Hosts (1949) offered not just an elaborate selection of cocktail recipes but also meat-carving tips, jokes, toasts, and rules for canasta and bridge.


The landscape for beverages remained bleak throughout the 1970s and ’80s, but during this time, the foundation was being laid for what ultimately would result in the cocktail and spirit renaissance whose throes we currently occupy. What is good for the kitchen is good for the bar, and so the work of natural foods pioneers such as Alice Waters helped create the space in which artisanal beverage producers would later flourish. In the late 1980s and 1990s, a few American bartenders, notably New York’s Dale DeGroff, started to excavate traditional recipes and techniques that had largely disappeared from the mainstream culture.

The cocktail has once again regained a distinguished place in the American culinary conversation. The esteemed James Beard Foundation now confers its honors upon top talents not just in the kitchen but also behind the bar. And it is now difficult to find a new chef driven restaurant of any worth that has not given serious consideration to its cocktail menu.

If the narrative of American cocktails and spirits has mostly been told from a coastal perspective, Texas is finally getting its due. Cocktails and cocktail culture have traveled inward from such markets as San Francisco, Portland, and New York to such cities as Austin and San Antonio; in the next wave we will see these people and concepts expand outward from urban cores to the suburbs. Two of my favorite cocktail dens that have opened in recent years are Whiskey Cake (Plano) and 400 Rabbits (Circle C, Austin); both operate not in hip, restored warehouse districts but in suburban strip malls.

TipsyBook-1813 edited

VIDEO: History of the Sazerac from Edible Austin on Vimeo.




Makes 1 drink

1½ oz. 100% agave silver tequila
¾ oz. St. Germain elderflower liqueur
1 oz. pineapple juice
½ oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
½ oz. Canela Syrup
Pineapple wedge, for garnish

Combine the tequila, elderflower liqueur, pineapple juice, lime juice, and canela syrup in a mixing glass and shake vigorously with ice to chill. Strain into a tiki mug filled with crushed ice. Garnish with the pineapple wedge.




Makes 1 drink

2 oz. 100-proof rye whiskey or Cognac
¼–½ oz. Simple Syrup, or 1 or 2 sugar cubes
6 dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters
Herbsaint or absinthe
Lemon “coin,” for garnish

Combine the whiskey, simple syrup, and bitters in a mixing glass with ice. (If using sugar cubes, muddle the sugar and bitters and the smallest amount of water if necessary to create a syrup, then add the whiskey.) Stir to chill, and adjust the syrup to taste. Rinse an Old Fashioned glass with the Herbsaint and discard the Herbsaint. Strain the cocktail into the absinthe-rinsed glass. Flame the lemon “coin” over the glass and discard.



Makes 1 drink

¾ oz. Honey Syrup (recipe follows)
2 sprigs fresh thyme
¾ oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1½ oz. Tito’s Handmade Vodka
½ oz. Paula’s Texas Lemon (or limoncello if you are outside Texas)
1 oz. natural lemon or lemon-lime soda
Lemon wheel, for garnish

Combine the honey syrup, one thyme sprig, and the lemon juice, vodka, and Paula’s Texas Lemon in a mixing glass and shake vigorously with ice to chill. Fine-strain into a Collins glass with fresh ice. Top with the lemon soda and garnish with the second thyme sprig and the lemon wheel.


Honey is a fabulous cocktail ingredient and dates to ancient times as a sweetener for beverages. Unfortunately, you can’t use honey as-is, straight out of the jar, as ice and honey don’t mix. Instead, make a syrup of equal parts hot water and honey. It will not only pour more easily than straight honey, it will also dissolve more readily into your cocktail. Store it covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.



Makes 1 drink

1½ oz. vodka
¼ oz. passion fruit syrup or puree (if using puree, the sweetness may need to be adjusted)
½ oz. Orgeat (recipe follows)
½ oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
1 barspoon St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
2 dashes of Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’s Own Decanter Bitters
Several sprigs fresh seasonal herbs and citrus zest, for garnish

Combine all the ingredients, except the herbs, in a mixing glass and shake vigorously with ice to chill. Strain into a highball glass or tiki mug filled with crushed ice, and garnish with a “headdress” of herbs and citrus zest—mint, basil, lemon verbena, lavender, kaffir lime, edible flowers—whatever you have on hand. Give this beauty what she deserves.