Early British accounts of American cocktails

16 Aug

A few days ago I posted a humorous poem, published in Punch in the early 1860s, which listed a number of typically American drinks. That made me wonder: when did Britons start to hear of the alcoholic inventions indigenous to the great western republic? A little digging in nineteenth-century travel writing and related literature turned up the following; it seems that, alongside what quickly became the cliché descriptions of their characteristic wealth, religiosity, friendliness and vulgarity, our American cousins’ bibulousness and predeliction for novel beverages were frequently marvelled at, and from an early point.

1. I have heard young men boast of having drunk forty glasses of mixture in the short space of six hours. Of this, compound spirit was the principal ingredient, and a glass would hold nearly half a pint. These drinkers commence in the morning before breakfast with brandy and bitters, or gin and bitters, eye-openers, or fog dispensers, &c.; afterwards, during the day, toddy, milk punch, mint julep, &c. are introduced.

— Isaac Holmes An Account of the United States of America: derived from actual observation during a residence of four years in that republic (London: Caxton, 1823), p. 352.

2. To drink with a friend when you meet him is good fellowship, to drink with a stranger is politeness, and a proof of wishing to be better acquainted.

Mr. A. is standing at the bar, enter B. “My dear B. how are you?” — “Quite well, and you?” — “Well, what shall it be?” — “Well, I don’t care—a gin sling.” — “Two gin slings, Barkeeper.” Touch glasses, and drink. Mr. A. has hardly swallowed his gin sling, and replaced his segar [sic], when, in comes Mr. D. “A. how are you?” — “Ah! D. how goes it with you?” — “Well, I thankey—what shall we have?” —“Well, I don’t care; I say brandy cocktail.” — “Give me another,” both drink, and the shilling is thrown down on the counter.

Then B. comes up again. “A. you must allow me to introduce my friend C.” — “Mr. A.” — shake hands — “Most happy to make the acquaintance. I trust I shall have the pleasure of drinking something with you?” — “With great pleasure, Mr. A, I will take a julep. Two juleps, bar-keeper.” — “Mr. C. your good health—Mr. A. yours; if you should come our way, most happy to see you,”—drink.

— Frederick Marryat, A Diary in America, with remarks on its institutions. Part second (London: Longman, 1839), vol. 1, pp. 123-4.

3. The Americans consume pretty much the same quantity of ice in the winter as in the summer. With every meal it is placed upon the table, and it forms a constituent of all their drinks. In England, a publican will tell you that two-thirds of his spirit-drinking customers will call for hot brandy-and-water; in an American liquor-store, the constant demand is for a glass of sherry with a knob of ice in it, or cocktail, or mint julep, with the like accompaniment of liquefying crystal.

— Andrew Wynter, “Wenham Lake Ice”, in Pictures of Town (London: Routledge, 1850), pp. 85-93 (p. 87).

4. The Americans kept up their national character for liquoring, and were, I must say, by far the most cheerful portion of the society. Their “custom of an afternoon”, was to prepare and drink a favourite compound, which went by the name of “brandy-cocktail”. The avowed object was to stimulate their appetites for dinner, (though for this there appeared no absolute necessity,) and as it seemed to have the desired effect, I may as well add, for the benefit of other weak and delicate individuals, that brandy-cocktail is composed of equal quantities of “Stoughton bitters” and Cognac. Under the benign influence of this pleasant compound, the Americans on board, though, somewhat noisy, were never offensively so, and when subjected to unavoidable sea-going annoyances, such as receiving the contents of their soup plates in their laps, or the candles against their noses, they only laughed more, while some of our military countrymen looked on and frowned, in all the double distilled dullness of English exclusiveness. The cheerful Americans, meanwhile, were nowise affected by their solemnity, and seemed perfectly contented to have all the fun and all the “cocktail” to themselves.

— Mrs. Houstoun, Hesperos: or, Travels in the West (London: Parker, 1850), pp. 13-14.

5. It was even a matter of conscience with me to taste, for once at least, some of the beverages technically called “drinks”, such as mint-julep, sherry-cobbler, gin-sling, gin-cocktail. These two latter delicacies I never tried. The first I did try, and found it guilty; I thought it detestable; bad as a cordial, and worse as a physic. The second being simply a glass of sherry, with sugar, lemon, and ice, is delicious. Snakeroot bitters, timber doodle, egg-nog, and some others I have only heard of, but have never been tempted with. The bad taste, in giving vulgar names to their articles of food or refreshment, is an obvious defect in manners, and is certainly unpleasing to a foreign ear.

— Thomas Colley Grattan, Civilized America, 2nd edn (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1859), vol. 1, p. 62.

6. XII.

Oh! Yankee-land. Oh! Yankee-land! We smile

At thy eccentric men and curious ways—

Thy customs would be laugh’d at in our isle;

Nor would thy manners gain the meed of praise.

But one may travel weary mile on mile,

May thirst and hunger many, many days

In England, till exhausted nature shrink,

Nor find thy sweet variety of drink.


Thy Cobbler, Julep, and thy Cocktail are

To thirsty souls perfection in their way;

And he may bless indeed his lucky star

Who can refresh him with them every day—

When the sun scorches him, there is the bar

Affording means of moistening his clay—

And if by Temperance he’s rendered nice

He can water there sublim’d with ice.

— George Tatam Hardy, The Buggy: or, Mr Turnbull’s Adventures in the New World (London: Mair, 1860), p. 4.

7. Breakfast at 8:30 a.m., luncheon at mid-day, dinner at 4 p.m., tea at 7.30, while supper commence at 9, terminating about midnight with every species of grog hot, with and without, the intermediate hours between meals being filled up with various courteous hobnobbings with every stranger—for the most part Yankees—who did me the honour—scarcely the kindness—of an invitation to “liquor up”, or taste—only taste—one or more of the twoscore pleasant American concoctions, commencing with harmless sherry cobbler or brandy cocktail, ending with brandy smash or delirium tremens, the culminating drink of friendly association on the sea, ay, and on the land in America. At first I own that I evinced some delicacy in receiving so many favours; moreover, a distaste to early potations induced me courteously to refuse such numerous offers of hospitality. I was, however, soon given to understand by some friendly passenger, by no means averse to these harmless drinks, as he termed them, that a refusal, however mild and courteous, would be construed into a disinclination to fraternize with the people of a nation I was about, for the first time, to visit; and that if I took brandy cocktail with Jones before luncheon, Brown would be reasonably offended if I refused to accept a mint julep before dinner; bitters gave an appetite, and ice was wholesome; so I gave in without further struggles, and submitted with calm resignation, begging that the ice and iced water, as necessary to the existence of an American as is bitter beer to young England, should form the larger portion of any potations.

— Major Byng Hall, “Across the Atlantic”, St James Magazine, vol. 7 (1863), pp. 170-76 (p. 173).

8. This endeavour to get up a system by stimulation has given rise in America to the manufacture of “cocktail” (a compound of whisky, brandy, or champagne, biters, and ice), dexterously mixed in tall silver mugs made for the purpose, called “cocktail-shakers”.

— Anon. “Byeways of English, Meliora, vol. 12 (1869), pp. 21-50 (p. 48).


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