Classic Cocktails – The History
In my mind, classic cocktails are defined as any cocktails invented 50+ years ago but is still being ordered today. A modern classic cocktail is 20+ years old and still being ordered today. To understand classic cocktails is to understand cocktail creation. Those cocktail recipes that have lasted fifty years or more must have something special about them. What keeps people ordering them? The magic behind the creators and those that documented and spread the word (and knowledge) of the recipe!
Many of our great classic cocktails would have died many years ago had it not been for some of the personalities that documented their existence. Today, let’s take a look at some of the authors that have either developed or helped document and spread the word of these great cocktail creations. We will also look at some of the key things that made them famous.
Jerry Thomas / 1830 – 1885
Best known for publishing the cocktail book, Bar-Tenders Guide alternatively titled How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion. Read The 1876 publication of it here. Jerry Thomas was both an author and a bartender / showman. He was nicknamed the “Professor” Jerry Thomas.
Jerry Thomas was most noted for publishing the first cocktail book in the United States. He was the first to categorize and break down Fizz, Sours, Flips, Daisys, and Fixes. His 1876 edition featured the Tom Collins cocktail and some of the earliest forms of a Punch. Jerry Thomas didn’t invent all the cocktails in his books, but he was one of the first to document it for bartenders to use over the next 140+ years!
Harry Craddock / 1876 – 1963
One of the most famous bartenders of the 20s and 30s. Harry Craddock is most well known, today, for publishing The Savoy Cocktail Book (available online here). This book, still in print today, collects 750 vital cocktail recipes bringing European and American cocktails together in one publication. He is credited with inventing the Corpse Reviver #2 and the White Lady. He spent a good deal of his career at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel.
Gary Regan believes Craddock’s book is one of the most important publications in cocktails in the 20th century. His book publishes many old recipes that would have been lost to time had he not documented them.
Harry published the Bartender’s Manual which is still being reprinted today. This book lists popular drinks such as the Martini, Mint Julep, Brandy Crusta and Brandy Flip. The publication also covers how to be a bartender, how to handle lunch, purchasing supplies and other important bartender duties. You can find the 1888 publication (and others) here.
David Embury / 1886 – 1960
Author of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks first published in 1948. David Embury is best known for documenting his 8:2:1 ratio for cocktail sours. He also documented his own components of a cocktail and tried to organize the cocktail formula for bartenders to follow.
While David Embury wasn’t a bartender, he was a cocktail enthusiast with a book that became popular very quickly. David’s guidance to cocktail creation is one of the most cited and most referenced of all time. The information he documented has influenced bartenders for generations and will continue to be one of the “bibles” of the cocktail world for years to come.
Donn Beach / 1907 – 1989
The founding father of “tiki bar,” Donn Beach born Ernest Raymound Beaumont Gantt legally changed his name to Donn Beach. Don Beach, best known by the name “Don The Beachcomber” was responsible for creating a chain of tiki restaurants with his ex-wife Sunny Sund. His classic cocktails are mainly in the realm of tiki and do not date back prior to prohibition.
Donn Beach created the Faux Polynesian Culture that so many people still associate with Hawaii. Donn took rum cocktails to a new level while also founding original American “Chinese Food” as we know it today. He marked his place in cocktail history with the mythical secretive cocktail known as The Zombie and was one (if not the first) inventor of the Mai Tai.
Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron / 1902 – 1984
Founder of Trader Vic’s Restaurant, Victor Bergeron wrote many books on both food and drinks. His restaurant career started when he borrowed $500 and opened Hinky Dink’s which later would become known as Trader Vic’s. When you walk into a Polynesian restaurant and see all the kitsch artifacts of crab traps, bright flowers, tiki masks and all that… you can thank Trader Vic!
Trader Vic is well known for saying he invented the Mai Tai (also taken claim by Donn Beach). While we may never know whom invented the drink first, Trader Vic’s Mai Tai is by far the industry standard in terms of overall design and flavor.
There is no doubt Trader Vic helped push Tiki Culture to new levels as well as became the benchmark for themed chain restaurants. He also invented some of the most fantastic rum based tiki drinks in circulation today.
Gary “Gaz” Regan / Present Day
A well known cocktail columnist, bartender and author of The Bartender’s Bible in 1991. While he produced many books over his career he is well known for his 2003 book The Joy of Mixology which catalogs many great recipes as well as a how-to to bartending.
Gaz is also responsible for the highly utilized Regans Orange Bitters No. 6. He has influenced bartenders through his publications, his speaking engagements, his work in the industry as a bartender and the creator of a popular orange bitter brand.
Dale “King Cocktail” Degroff / 1948 – Present
Head bartender at the Rainbow Room in New York City in the mid 1980s. While Degroff has helped create many cocktail recipes, he’s also spent a great deal of time cataloging classic recipes. Degroff is well known for his cocktail book The Craft of the Cocktail which has his take on 500 modern and classic cocktails (it sure is one of our references!)
Dale Degroff is responsible for founding the Museum of the American Cocktail as well as being one of the worlds foremost cocktail experts.
Classic Cocktail Historians & Publishers
The historic personalities of the past have helped instill knowledge in our current generation of bartenders and classic cocktails. David Wonderich is one of those memorable personalities that has helped document and spread the truth behind cocktails. David is also responsible for uncovering some of the missing history on famous cocktails like the Harvey Wallbanger. He helps bartenders and historians understand how some cocktails were born and their significance in our culture.
From the Tiki / Rum / Island perspective, we have folks like Jeff “Beachbum” Berry digging through archives and bartenders notes. Jeff Berry is responsible for uncovering many of the secrets to Donn Beach and Trader Vic’s success. Jeff Berry is building historically accurate accounts of the Zombie cocktail and other tiki drinks lost to history. Plus, Jeff Berry shook our hand after dinner at his restaurant Latitude 29 in New Orleans–any restaurant owner that stands at the exit to say goodbye to guests is okay in our book!
Others Not Forgotten
The list of historic personalities that influenced generations of bartenders goes on and on. Ada Coleman was the first lady to blaze a path for female bartenders around the world. Ada mentored Harry Craddock in creating the Hanky Panky cocktail. Harry MacElhone was part of the conception of the French 75, Monkey Gland and Bloody Mary. Hugo Ensslin published a 1917 book Recipes for Mixed Drinks (available here), the last book published before prohibition. Hugo’s recipe book included that of the Aviation, a very memorable cocktail recipe.
You’ve got the likes of Constante Ribalaigua Vert (1888-1952) who helped to perfect the Daiquiri in Cuba. Constante is responsible for putting “quality” into craft cocktails and inspiring the likes of Ernest Hemingway. He is also responsible for cocktails like El Floridita and over 200 other drinks where he thrived in Cuba during prohibition in the US.
Becoming A Better Home Bartender
There are dozens of inspirational bartenders and industry changing personalities. Learning the history and the influences these personalities made on the cocktail industry will help you become a better home bartender. If cocktails were a country, these members would be the forefathers (and foremothers) of its creation!
You will become better at your craft when you learn from their teachings. You will better appreciate what went into a cocktail when you understand how it evolved over the century. Classic cocktails are classic because they stand the test of time.
Your responsibility will be to spread that knowledge to the next generation of consumers!