The bitter truth about cocktails

9 Aug

In the nineteenth century the word “cocktail” possessed a much narrower meaning than it does today: a cocktail, like the smash, sling, punch, cobbler, julep, toddy, sangaree, fizz, flip, sour, or shrub, was just one variety of “mixed drink” dispensed by the professional bartender. Each had its own defining characteristics, even if, as in the case of the smash and julep, the differences were negligible: the 1896 edition of the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia helpfully describes the former as “like a julep, but served in smaller glasses”.

What set the cocktail apart from its spiritous cousins? Let’s turn again to the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, which explains that a cocktail is “an American drink, strong, stimulating, and cold, made with spirits, bitters and a little sugar”. Two things are worth reiterating and expanding on here. First, a cocktail must contain bitters. Now, the addition of bitters to an “ardent spirit” was not itself an American invention: gin and bitters, for example,  had been drunk in Britain since the eighteenth century (also known as “pink gin”, it was and is most closely associated with the officer class of the Royal Navy). But like ale, it was enjoyed, if that is the right word, at room temperature. The real American innovation was to sweeten the deal with sugar and serve the drink cold: the moment the Yankee discovered crushed ice is the moment at which the paths of European and American drinking diverge. (Belle Livingstone once recalled meeting Lord Kitchener in Cairo and sipping “a warm gin and bitters, which the English persist in drinking, in spite of the introduction of our more refreshing cocktail (Belle of Bohemia [New York: Barse, 1928], p . 182).)

Second, a cocktail is stimulating. It was not uncommon to draw a distinction between those mixed drinks that were meant to quench the thirst, to refresh or even to nourish (through the addition of, say, an egg) and those that were, as A. E. Wuppermann put it, “designed particularly to increase the desire for food, that is, to promote the appetite and stimulate the activity of the digestive organs” (“Mixed Drinks and their Ingredients”, in Beverages de Luxe, ed. by George R. Washburne and Stanley Bronnner, 2nd edn (Louisville, KY: Wine and Spirit Bulletin, 1914 [1911]), no page numbers). Cocktails belonged to the latter group, “appetizers”, which is why they were habitually taken before a meal, during that happy time of the day which later became known as the “cocktail hour”. It was the addition of bitters to brandy, whiskey or gin that transformed the base spirit into a cocktail (“aromatic bitters administered in its most delightful form”) and produced the desired salutary effect; for, since at least the 1700s, bitters had been thought important in managing alimentary health:

There are many vegetable substances possessed of a bitter taste, which are highly useful both in diet and medicine. They produce a powerful effect on the digestive organs, and through them on other parts of the system. […] In man, slight bitters produce invigorating effects on the stomach; and their presence in malt liquors not only renders such liquors less injurious to the system,  but also, when taken in moderation, assistant to digestion. Bitters stimulate the stomach, correct unwholesome food, and increase the nourishing powers of vegetables.

— Alexander Macaulay, A Dictionary of Medicine, Designed for Popular Use (Edinburgh: Black, 1831), p. 65.

For this reason bitters, “compounds of dilute alcohol with certain drugs”, were first marketed as medicines “with tonic virtues” (Appleton’s New Practical Cyclopedia [New York: Appleton, 1910]).

But ventral tranquility was not the only benefit of adding bitters to your booze. Taken in the morning, a cocktail or appetizer was  known as a “bracer”, something to stimulate the nerves or, in Wuppermann’s words,  “to counteract mental depression or temporary melancholia”. While there were certainly many doctors who warned of the dangers of the Demon Drink, and particularly of the pernicious consequences of the new Cocktail Habit, there also some who saw cocktails and other alcoholic concoctions as necessary, at least when taken in moderation, to keep the body ticking over. Rich, meat-heavy diets, excessive “brain work” and lack of physical exercise, the frenzied pace of modern life—all these had led to an epidemic outbreak of ailments, both real and imaginary, including dyspepsia, constipation and nervous exhaustion or neurasthenia. Its pipes blocked and battery drained, the fragile human machine needed fuel and lubrication. Hence the cocktail:

The stock market, athletic sports, and cocktails were the tutelary saints of this section of society. […] And after exercise, before lunch and dinner, and on every other excuse, they imbibed a cocktail or a whiskey and soda as a fillip to the nervous system.

— Robert Grant, “The Undercurrent”, chap. 12, Scribner’s Magazine, vol. 35 (1904), pp. 529-45 (p. 530).

Here are some instances of physicians prescribing cocktails for conditions that were accompanied by digestive disorders (and even a viral infection!):

In occasional cases of neurasthenia, anemia, malnutrition, and inertia of the stomach, with imperfect gastric secretion, a small cocktail before meals may be justifiable and proper, but, rather than select a known alcoholic beverage for this purpose, some bitter dilute tincture will do as well, and will more readily preclude the possibility of acquiring the habit.

— O. T Osbourne, “The Legitimate Therapeutic Uses of Alcohol”, Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 41 (December 5 1903), pp. 1385-8 (p. 1387).

The so-called “Angostura Cocktail” is sometimes useful to sufferers from anorexia.

— John C. Hemmeter, Diseases of the Stomach (Boston: Blackiston, 1898), p. 445.

The use of liquor in incipient tuberculosis has been as strongly advocated by some authorities as it has been condemned by others. There seems to be abundant evidence, however, that the judicious use of stimulants is of very great benefit in promoting appetite and assisting assimilation of food. Our two best agents for this purpose are whisky, in small doses of one or two drams three times a day, or a Manhattan cocktail half an hour before meals . . .

— J. Edward Stubbert, “Some Practical Points on the Treatment of Pulmonary Tuberculosis”, Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 39 (6 December 1902), pp. 1442-45 (p. 1443).

A gin cocktail for yellow fever.— Dr. G. T. Maxwell, of Jacksonville, Florida, recommends the following as a specific for yellow fever: Good gin, eight ounces, compound tincture of cinchona, two ounces.

Physician and Surgeon: A Journal of the Medical Sciences, vol. 12 (1890), p. 278.

In their purported medicinal qualities, cocktails had much in common with the claims made on behalf of the innumerable tonics, extracts and elixirs by the unscrupulous mountebanks of nineteenth-century America. That was unsurprising, since many nostrums were nothing more than mixtures of alcohol and bitters: cocktails by another, fraudulent name that got unsuspecting teetotalers drunk (or “Peruna drunk”, as the phrase had it, after an especially notorious panacea). In his famous exposé of the quack medicine trade Samuel Hopkins Adams observed that “Paine’s Celery Compound relieves depression and lack of vitality on the same principle that a cocktail does”—namely, through inebriation. And further:

 A distinguished public health official and medical writer once made this jocular suggestion to me:

“Let us buy in large quantities the cheapest Italian vermouth, poor gin and bitters, We will mix them in the proportion of three of vermouth to two of gin, with a dash of bitters, dilute and bottle them by the short quart, label them ‘Smith’s Reviver and Blood Purifier; dose one wineglassful before each meal’; advertise them to cure erysipelas, bunions, dyspepsia, heat rash, fever and ague, and consumption; and to prevent loss of hair, smallpox, old age, sunstroke and near-sightedness, and make our everlasting fortunes selling them to the temperance trade.”

“That sounds to me very much like a cocktail,” said I.

“So it is,” he replied. “But it’s just as much a medicine as Peruna and not as bad a drink.”

— The Nostrum Evil (New York, reprinted from Collier’s Weekly, 1905), p. 17 and 12.

During the second half of the twentieth century, bitters more or less vanished from cocktails, not least because the popular perception of what a cocktail was shifted with the tiki and -tini crazes. Now bitters are back where they belong and in a big way. Although no doctor would prescribe them today, they are once more lifting spirits—and not just those in the glass.


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