Daniel Day-Lewis wasn't sucking back any mai tais in Lincoln, so if you want to coordinate your Oscar-party cocktail menu with this Best Picture nominee, you'll have to think historically.
When our country's very first bartender's guide, How to Mix Drinks, was published the year after Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, America entered a golden age of cocktails. As it turns out, a lot of what was available to drink back in the 16th president's day has now come back in fashion. (Today: cocktails. Tomorrow: top hats?)
We paged through the 152-year-old drinker's bible and gleaned a few time-honored lessons. (In typical 19th-century fashion, the full title is a little hard to swallow: How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant's Companion, Containing Clear and Reliable Directions for Mixing All the Beverages Used in the United States, Together With the Most Popular British, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish Recipes, Embracing Punches, Juleps, Cobblers, Etc., Etc., Etc., in Endless Variety.)
The Cocktail Was a Specific Drink
Nowadays we refer to any mixed drink as a cocktail, but in the early 1800s, it meant the combination of spirit, sugar, water, and especially bitters (Red Bull and vodka would not have qualified). By the time Lincoln made it to the White House, there were "fancy" versions of these cocktails, which were poured into different glasses with excess garnish, and soon there would be "improved" cocktails that included splashes of absinthe, maraschino liqueur, and orange curacao. Things only got more complicated from there, so some libation-seekers began ordering the old-fashioned cocktail, which was just the original-recipe cocktail without all the fluffery.
In most mediocre bars today, the Old Fashioned will have a muddled cherry and orange slice in it, and some come with a splash of soda and mint garnish on top of that, but at craft cocktail bars, mixologists tend to make them the original way—only now they'll have to call the drink the Old-Fashioned Old Fashioned.
DIY or Nothing
How to Mix Drinks came bundled with another book, A Manual for the Manufacture of Cordials, Liquors, Fancy Syrups, &c. &c. It included 463 recipes for ingredients like bitters, infusions, ginger beer, orgeat syrup, and other flavored syrups. Back then you couldn't just walk into the local beverage superstore and pick up a bottle of artificially colored grenadine with a shelf life of 400 years, so bartenders had to make their own mixers. Today, we can shop online for cocktail ingredients or to find recipes for better, homemade versions.
In Lincoln, there were a lot of small wine glasses around, the type we associate with fortified wines like Madeira and sherry. These were commonly used in drinks like the sherry cobbler, sherry egg nog, and sherry sangaree, the precursor to sangria.
Sherry fell out of fashion as a cocktail ingredient for a number of years, though it's currently experiencing a healthy resurgence. It pairs well with tequila, oddly enough—though that wasn't readily available in 1861—and some bars have begun sherry-centric cocktail programs, like Gitane in San Francisco, the Beagle in New York City, and the forthcoming Mockingbird Hill in Washington, D.C., from the owner of the Passenger.
Spirits: Stronger, Spicier, Less Vodka-y
To keep your cocktails era-appropriate, you'll have to make some changes in your liquor cabinet.
- Throw out your vodka. Vodka wasn't available in America yet, and it didn't become popular until the 1940s cocktail sensation, the Moscow mule.
- Swap your gin. Though gin was a popular cocktail ingredient, it wasn't the same gin we know today, but its precursor: genever, from Holland. Genever tastes like gin infused with grainy beer (it tastes better than it sounds). Look for Bols Genever for stirred gin cocktails, but don't mix it with tonic water.
- Try rye. There was plenty of rye whiskey around in Lincoln's day, but it was about to lose the popularity contest to bourbon. Today, rye is on the upswing, and it makes a way tastier Manhattan.
- No tequila for you. Tequila only started appearing in cocktails after 1930.
- Get funky. Lighter-style rum is not a new invention; it was actually made by Bacardi back in 1862. Until then, most rum was downright funky and high-proof. We covered some modern funky rums a few months ago.
- Pass on the Courvoisier. Cognac cocktails were still popular in the 1800s, though the Cognac used then was likely to be higher proof. Today Louis Royer Force 53 and Pierre Ferrand 1840 are probably the only two high-proof Cognacs you'll find.
—Camper English is an international cocktails and spirits writer and the publisher of alcademics.com.
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