In 1806, the editor of an upstate New York newspaper, The Balance and Columbian Repository, responded to a reader's query about the meaning of the word cocktail: “Cocktail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters – it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion.”
These earliest cocktails, vintage cocktails like the Old Fashioned
, were very simple: just water, sugar, spirit and bitters. Not all classic cocktails share the vintage cocktail flavour profile – a balance of bitter, sweet and herbal, winey flavours, with nary a fresh fruit in sight – yet all the old-time cocktail recipes we drink today share that same simplicity.
Be they Mojitos
, White Lady
or Sazerac, Martini
, all classic cocktails have three main points in common. They are simple: few classic cocktail recipes include more than five ingredients, and many use only three. They are spirited: the taste of the base spirit shines through in almost every drink. Most importantly, the classic cocktail recipes are balanced: the preferred flavour balance varies from era to era, and even from decade to decade. Yet, be it sweet and sour (like the Margarita
), bittersweet (like the Negroni
), fruity-creamy (like the Piña Colada
), or savoury-sour (like the Bloody Mary
), the ingredients form a harmony.
The turn of the 21st century saw a cocktail revolution as newly professionalised bartenders turned to old books to discover long-lost gems and reinvent vintage ingredients. And even today newly discovered – yet ancient – recipes continue to delight.