THE RISE OF THE COCKTAIL by CHRISSIE MASTERS for THE COUNTY CHRONICLE December issue
Cocktails are back in style. The total experience of finding inspiration, preparing and imbibing an exotic mixture of ingredients has enthralled generations of pleasure-seekers. While we may associate cocktail drinking with the 1920s aristocrats of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, or James Bond’s “shaken, not stirred” Vesper Martinis in Casino Royale of 1953, the tradition appears to have started in the early 1800s. The origin of the word is disputed but by 1862 a bartender’s guide “How to Mix Drinks” was published, featuring 10 recipes.
It was the American Prohibition of 1920 to 1933 that popularised the concept. Home-distilled “moonshine” served in speakeasies was frequently of appalling quality and could be made more palatable with bitters, sugar and juices. In 1930, Harry Craddock – the bartender at the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar – wrote the Savoy Cocktail Book featuring 750 recipes. While the first edition with its iconic cover can now fetch over £1000, later editions remain in print.
Cocktail cabinets soon became statement pieces within residential interiors, with British, French and American designers producing extraordinary Art Deco designs. Figured walnut and bird’s eye maple veneers decorated the “demi-lune” and geometric cabinets. In the UK, leading manufacturers included Epstein, Hille, Betty Joel and Waring & Gillow. A well-conceived cocktail cabinet will offer plenty of storage for your bottles, glasses, shakers and other accoutrements; it will light up; and have a Vitrolite glass top or a pull out shelf for cutting lemons and preparing olives.
Many variations on the cocktail culture theme are available for the discerning customer, from sideboards and tallboys that open to reveal full bars, to coffee tables that have secret compartments for shot glasses, and miniature pop-up bars on castors that your personal “Jeeves” can propel to your armchair.
Cocktail accessories make ideal presents for those included to partake of an intoxicating tipple or two. You can still buy an array of 1920s chrome-plated bar sets featuring cocktail sticks topped with red Bakelite “cherries” and original cocktail shakers. Cubist glasses and decanters from the period are widely reproduced at affordable prices, and books on the art of what is today called “Mixology” are fun stocking fillers. When asked how a cocktail should be drunk, Harry Craddock answered “Quickly…while it is still laughing at you.” We would agree.