The traditional history of cocktails

Food and Drink

Cocktails are ubiquitous and all around us now. Cocktails abound at bars around the world and a good portion of restaurants serve them regularly as well. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the first recorded use of the word “cocktail” was in the London-based publication The Morning Post and Gazetteer in 1798. It took a few more years for the word to cross the Atlantic to the United States – it was first published in The Farmer’s Cabinet in 1803.  

  Before Prohibition

Cocktails started to become readily available and familiar to the general public in the United States in the early 1860s when printed recipes and books describing cocktails and proper measurements were released to those in the foodservice industry and spirit trade. A few of the cocktail styles that were popular then like punches and sours – the whiskey sour, for example – are still fairly popular today. Other types of drinks like cobblers and shrubs have gone by the wayside, and if you asked a bartender today for a shrub, which actually contains vinegar, you would probably get a confused look instead of an old-time cocktail. Some history and cocktail buffs will tell you that the word cocktail was only used when bitters was added to a drink with two or more ingredients, one of them being a spirit. However, this issue is still debated. Before prohibition, whiskey was the most popular spirit among drinkers.


Prohibition, which took place between January 16, 1919 and December 5, 1933 in the United States, made the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages illegal. However, officials in many larger cities like New York and Chicago were not particularly interested in enforcing the law because a portion of its residents didn’t support the law. During prohibition, clandestine bars known as “speakeasies” popped up, selling what was often lower quality alcohol at a fairly high price. While whiskey was the most popular spirit before prohibition, gin became more popular during this period because it doesn’t need to be aged before it’s consumed, making it easier and faster for bootleggers to manufacture. Many cocktails devised during the prohibition era are still popular to this day, including the Sidecar, French 75, Mary Pickford and the Dubbonet cocktail.

After Prohibition

Once prohibition was repealed and the manufacture and sale of alcohol once again became legal, cocktails reached new heights of popularity, as they were widely available in bars and restaurants. The 1940s and 1950s were particularly good decades for the cocktail. Notable cocktails like the Sazerac, Moscow Mule, Grasshopper, Negroni, Ramoz Fizz, Manhattan, Champagne cocktail and the Madras cocktail. More ornate cocktails with more than two ingredients waned in popularity during the 1960s and 1970s before experiencing a moderate resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2000s, traditional cocktails became incredibly popular again, with many bars specializing in prohibition-era cocktails with themed décor to match

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