As the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, a cocktail is “an alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit or spirits mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit juice or cream”. The very first definition of the word ‘cocktail’ appeared in the May 13, 1806, edition of Balance and Columbian Repository, a federalist newspaper in Hudson, New York. It described the term as a combination of sugar, bitters, water and liquor.
While that is the original blend of a cocktail (or what we call Old Fashioned), cocktails have come in many and all sorts of combinations since the 19th century. Ever wondered how the Negroni, Manhattan or Singapore Sling came about? Read on for the origin stories of classic cocktails, perfect conversation starters for your next trip to the bar.
G&T (Gin and Tonic)
One of the go-to ways to drink gin, the G&T is a popular cocktail with a multitude of different variations. Essentially, you add tonic water to gin. This match made in heaven is thought to have been invented by British sailors in the 19th century to offset the bitter taste of quinine, an anti-malaria medication taken daily for prevention. Mix soda water, quinine, sugar (the components of tonic water) and gin, and you’ve got yourself a palatable concoction, all while keeping malaria at bay.
“The Negroni is one of the simplest and most elegant drink formulas around: combine one part gin, one part sweet vermouth, and one part Campari, then stir and serve over ice.” - The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita, with Recipes & Lore, Gary Regan
Sweet, bitter, and smooth, order a Negroni if you want to show others how much of a savvy drinker you are. In circa 1920, French general Count Camillo Negroni was at Bar Casoni in Florence when he decided his usual Americano—sweet vermouth, Campari and club soda—lacked a little zing. He asked a bartender to replace the club soda with gin to give the mixture some added kick, and the Negroni was born.
A sugar cube soaked in bitters, a shot of Bourbon, and an orange peel, this drink is precisely what the word ‘cocktail’ referred to 200 years ago. The Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, is said to be the birthplace of the Old Fashioned, where people asked for a cocktail “made the old-fashioned way”, by adding sugar and bitters to make harsh alcohol taste better.
Predating other vermouth classics like the Martini, the Martinez, the Rob Roy and the Bobby Burns, the Manhattan was invented sometime in the late 1800s, though its exact origins remain unknown. There is the rumour, however, that the Manhattan was invented at the Manhattan Club in New York, for a party thrown in 1874 by Jennie Jerome (Lady Randolph Churchill), Winston Churchill’s mother. Don’t take our word for it though, other records say that Lady Randolph was in England at the time she was supposed to be partying with a Manhattan in hand.
With a name that sounds just as old as it does Russian, the Moscow Mule disappoints in both aspects. It was actually invented in 1941 at a Los Angeles British pub, Cock ‘n’ Bull. But we don’t deny that it’s a great cocktail, refreshing and simple.
One night, John G. Martin, an executive at the Heublein drinks company, walked into his friend Jack Morgan’s bar with a bottle of Smirnoff vodka in hand. His company had just acquired Smirnoff and he was having a difficult time convincing Americans to drink the distilled spirit. Coincidentally, the bartender at the time, Wes Price, was trying to get rid of excess ginger beer that no one was buying. Put two and two together and we’ve got a spicy, zingy cocktail.
As for the iconic copper mug, Morgan’s girlfriend owned a copper goods business, so you can see where the idea came from.
In the 1940s, Foynes in Ireland was one of the biggest civilian airports in Europe. Hollywood celebrities and political figures would often stopover between flights and a new restaurant opened for those seeking shelter from the cold and rain (common in that part of the world). In the winter of 1943, head chef Joe Sheridan mixed Irish whiskey into coffee as something special for the guests to drink. If you are looking for something that will keep you warm and fuzzy, we say try Irish Coffee.
Back in the 1920s, distinguished ladies did not drink anything other than tea in public. Or so as far as societal expectations go. How can one tolerate the muggy tropical weather without a cooling cocktail or two? Well, Singapore’s upper-class ladies had a secret: The Raffles Hotel, home to the Long Bar.
Ngiam Tong Boon, a Hainanese bartender at Long Bar, created the Singapore Sling in 1915, as a socially acceptable ‘punch’ for ladies to drink in public. This pink, tropical concoction looks deceptively modest, but instead packs a punch! Pun intended. A mix of cherry brandy, gin, Cointreau, grenadine and Dom Benedictine, topped off with lime and pineapple juice, the alcohol effects of this sweet drink can sneak up on unsuspecting drinkers.
“The Singapore Gin Sling is a delicious, slow-acting, insidious thing.” - Around the World with Jigger, Beaker & Flask (1946), Charles Baker
Try your hand at Mixology!
In a hidden cocktail bar set within a shophouse nestled in culture-rich Haji lane, learn how to play with flavours from around Asia and expand upon classic recipes (Sour-style, stirred-down Old Fashioned, Negroni) to create any type of cocktail. Become an instant mixologist!
Find out more here.
• • •
Ever wondered how the first gin made in Singapore tastes like? Learn mixology with Culturally x Oriental Elixir, and mix not one, but three customised cocktails using the local gin! Find out more here.