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New Orleans likes to claim that it is the birthplace of the cocktail. As the story goes, in the 1830s pharmacist Antoine Amedée Peychaud created a tonic of brandy spiked with bitters — an elixir made with aromatic herbs and roots. It was dispensed in an egg cup, or what the local French-speaking population called a coquetier (pronounced koh-kuh-tyay). Truth be told, the term “cock-tail” had already appeared in print. In 1806, The Balance and Columbian Repository, a periodical published in Hudson, New York, described it as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” Later, its stemmed glass defined it more than its ingredients. Over time, the definition expanded to include any iced, mixed alcoholic beverage.
The precursor of the American cocktail is British punch, a popular 18th-century concoction of rum, fruit juices and spices. Our taste for liquor — applejack, rye, bourbon and gin — dates back to Colonial days, but by the mid-19th century, drinkers increasingly fancied something more than a shot of straight booze. Juleps, fizzes and smashes soon became the libations of choice, made possible by the innovation of a new ingredient: ice.
Even though people have been drinking alcohol for hundreds of years, it wasn’t always socially acceptable. Prohibition is proof of that. But what should have been the death knell for imbibing hooch actually birthed the modern cocktail. Speakeasies and country clubs were popular with those who sought out an illicit tipple, but bathtub gin and doctored liquor were gut-wrenching. Creative bartenders soon learned how to make it more palatable, shaking up drinks like the gin rickey, Sidecar and Bee’s Knees.
The abandonment of The Noble Experiment in 1933 and movies like “The Thin Man,” and “Casablanca” fueled the cocktail culture. The consumption of adult beverages continued to grow after World War II. The musical “South Pacific” inspired a frenzy of Tiki bars and fruity libations with paper umbrellas. The ’50s marked the era of the three-martini lunch and daiquiris on the deck. The cocktail ceased to be cool in the ’60s and ’70s, supplanted by the hippie psychedelic experience. It came back with a vengeance during the ’80s, and the Cosmopolitan cocktail, glamorized by the TV show “Sex and the City,” became the nation’s happy hour libation.
The roots of the current craft cocktail craze actually go back to Prohibition. Back in the ’90s, more places strived to recreate the intimate, dimly lit atmosphere of the speakeasy and boasted long lists of classic cocktails as well as imaginative house creations. An alternative to noisy bars and indifferently made swill, the concept took off. Hallmarks of these postmodern saloons are small-batch distilled spirits, homemade syrups and unique bitters, all presented with showmanship and swagger. Madison has a slew of craft cocktail lounges including Gib’s and the Robin Room. Many restaurants like Heritage Tavern, Merchant and Graft feature hip sips as well.
Here’s to the cocktail — “May the best of your past be the worst of your future!”
Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.