No one knows when cocktails were first invented, but we do know why they were: to make the taste of liquor bearable.
Sure we don’t have the exact date of the invention of cocktails, but it was sometimes between the XVIII and the XIX century, most likely in America. At that time the consumption of spirits in the US was very high, apparently because water was so unhealthy that drinking liquor was safer. Just a shame that the quality of liquor was so poor that it tasted pretty bad. That was why people started to add flavours to it, to mask the bad taste of the liquor. In the early 1800s cocktails were mixed with a base of spirits (whatever available), a bit of bitter, enough sugar to make it palatable and water (Not ice. Cocktail were unlikely to be chilled at that time).
But soon cocktail became so popular that mixing them turned into an art. At the end of the century, the most fashionable bars and restaurants employed professional bartenders mixing cocktails, people who had studied the art and were very particular about the row material they used. The quality of liquors had also improved over the century.
All of this came to an end with Prohibition.
After the Eighteen Amendment was passed, dealing in spirits became a hugely profitable business, one mostly ran by the underworld, for whom the higher the profit, the better. This means the quality of spirits dropped drastically.
During Prohibition these were the kind of spirits you would be likely be served:
- Denaturated alcohol, which was one of the very few exception to the prohibition to producing alcohol. The law permitted to produce this alcohol specifically for the industry and it was denaturated so to make it undrinkable, usually adding poisonous wood alcohol. Bootleggers would divert huge amount of this alcohol from stockhouses and transportation, renaturated it, diluted it, flavoured it with some juniper oil and sell it on the market for people to drink.
- Bathtub gin, Moonshine, any home-made spirits. The law permitted to produce a little amount of alcohol for personal consumption. This also became a huge profit for the underworld and a small extra income for thousands of families. People would distil spirits in their homes and then sell them to bootleggers. The quality of this kind of liquor was anything but good, because seldom people really knew how to do it. Corks would often pop out or the bottles would explode before the content was mature enough to be drinkable and even when the process was completed, you then had a mud-brown, foul smelling, horribly tasting liquid as a result.
- Smuggled liquor, which came mostly from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and some all the way from Europe. This was quality liquor, but because bootleggers tried to make the most money out of it, what ended up on the market was a hugely diluted version. What little did get on the market intact cost a fortune.
So most of spirits available during Prohibition were at best undrinkable and this is the reason why cocktails became even more popular. Adding juices, sugar, bitters, then diluting with ice was a way to just get the thing drinkable. But because the whole business of illegal drinking was so huge and because most of the places where you could drink alcohol just wanted to profit the most from it, the quality of cocktail sank. Not only was the liquor used of very poor quality, so were also all the other ingredients. Besides, people didn’t drink to savour a cocktail, they drank to get as drunk as possible.
So yes, a lot of cocktails we drink today were born during Prohibition, but what people drank at that time was a far cry in terms of quality to what we are used today.
Okrent, Daniel, Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, 2010
Kobler, John, Ardent Spirits. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Putnam, New York, 1973
Hess, Robert, The Essential Bartender’s Guide. Mud Puddle Books, New York, 2008