Historical eras of the Cocktail

Working on a project related to our discussions on essential drinks, essential figures, the Cocktail Canon, and the literary/cinematic culture of cocktails, I’ve been contemplating how to broadly characterize the eras the these drinks have passed through, balancing their evolution with the greater historical context.

Up until now, I sort of had four in mind:

  • the Formative Period, from around 1800 until around Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book (which @Splificator’s research has shown was a significant filter on that era)
  • the Mainstream/Globalization Period of the cocktail, until roughly around the 1960s
  • the Decline Period until the mid-1990s
  • the Cocktail Renaissance from there until around 2018

The relative long “Mainstream/Globalization” period felt right to me, initially, because it dodged some US-centricity, but I’ve recently been thinking it should really be divided in two:

  • Mainstream/Globalization Period of the cocktail, from roughly Jerry Thomas until somewhere in the time range (1920-1945) with American Prohibition/WW1/Great Depression/WW2; this would roughly correspond to what some call the “Golden Era” of the Cocktail
  • the Traumatic Period, from then through the first decades of the Cold War and up to the Decline period, characterized by the shock of those wars and economic extremes, mass media, Modernism, and the parallel phenomena of the severe Martini/Vodka/Old Fashioned/Mad Men/cynical asceticism and the polar opposite Exotic/Tiki/Hollywood/Escapism


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I see your reasoning, but I personally would divide the Mainstream period into pre-Prohibition and Prohibition-and-post. Because things were so different before and after, drink-wise, bar-wise and bartender-wise. And Prohibition didn’t just affect the U.S. Bartenders left the country and went to work in other countries; citizens left the country and brought their tastes elsewhere. Etc. Just my take.

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I agree with Robert that a cut need to be made in 1920. That’s when the troubles began – not only prohibition, but also WWII and the economical ‘issues’ just before that.
However, I do feel that if you leave it at that, with the usual cursory explanation (US bartenders and drinkers’ influence) Robert alludes to for ‘global’ context, you’d be incurring in the US-centricity you’re trying to avoid.
People will probably disagree with me, but my feeling – having spent some time looking at first hand accounts of the cocktail’s development outside of the US – is that that narrative is deeply flawed. The years of real influence from US bartenders and drinkers were before prohibition. That’s when the bars of Paris Opera neighborhood first opened, for example. By 1920, cocktails were served and enjoyed well beyond the US microcosm.
The 20s is when the European and Cuban (and Argentinian, probably) cocktail came of age, with the first generation of local consumers served local formulas by local bartenders. US influence was mostly cultural – it was the dominant power, both economically and culturally. European cocktail drinkers went to the movies, listened to jazz, were fascinated by fast cars and by planes. Cocktails were part of that package and, reading the testimonies of the (non US) crowd that was drawn to this, prohibition had little impact. In Europe at least, WWI probably had more of an influence.

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“Usual cursory explanation.”

Why 1920 instead of, say, 1914 (include WW1)?

Perhaps a second cut is needed in 1947 with the advent of the Cold War, or perhaps a bit earlier? I am unsure. I feel there is something there, but I don’t feel I’ve put my finger on it.

Sorry if this reads wrong, @RobertSimonson. I’m not saying “cursory explanations” are your stock-in-trade, I’m trying to say that on most occasions, when people refer to prohibition and its effect outside of the US, the explanation is cursory. I disagree with the general narrative. I certainly meant no offense.

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It’s a tough one to call, precisely because we’re dealing with a period when the timeline started differing from country to country. If you don’t want to overcomplicate your characterization with subcategories, I’d be tempted to use 1918 as the general marker. 1914 is tempting as prohibitionist impulses everywhere where encouraged by the war effort, but in terms of drinking culture 1918 marks the end of the war and the start of the années folles for Europe and the home stretch for the road that led to the Volstead act.

As for the second cut, most war restrictions on booze weren’t lifted until the very late 40s, early 50s and I don’t think tourism recuperated until the 50s.

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While writing books and instructional materials over the years I’ve been forced to deal with this problem quite a bit , and I can’t say that I’ve been entirely consistent. I think Martin correctly identified the most difficult bit, as the other responses show. In some places, I’ve treated that whole stretch from the rise of the Manhattan to the death of the Old-Fashioned --say, 1880 to 1965–as essentially one period. In others, such as the B.A.R. manual, I’ve split it and taken the Dry Martini v Mai Tai 1960s as a new era.

These days, I prefer not to split it. That’s based on two things. One, a lot of time looking at drink menus, both American and not American, shows that the canon was very conservative throughout that long 80+ years, with cut-outs for Prohibition and the world wars, where things got simplified drastically. But at the end of each of those events, there were very strong efforts to bring things back to “normal.” Sure, a few new drinks came in in after each of those events, and sometimes new spirits came in (vodka, tequila) and old ones failed to come back (genever), but the heart of the canon remained remarkably resilient.

Tiki seems to me like a special case, because it was a parallel universe. But you can look through newspaper bar ads from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and go quite some time before finding a Tiki bar: it was never the dominant drink template and never replaced the canon.

In the late 1960s, however, the canon changed drastically. All kinds of new drinks and ingredients were in and plenty of old ones–rye whiskey, for example–were out. That’s far more of a change than what happened in the 1920s. I wouldn’t call this the Decline period, so much as the Alternative Canon or something like that. The Antithesis to the previous period’s Thesis (which means that, if you’re a good Hegelian, now we’ve got the Synthesis).

On the other hand, I find our closeness with the 20th century and the availability of sources leads us to exaggerate the effect of changes that aren’t all that significant when you step back a bit. The changes in Martin’s Formative Period were far greater, and yet we’ve got no trouble lumping the Julep made with rum, sugar, a sprig of mint and two small lumps of ice together with the one made with cognac, madeira and claret, with lemon, strawberries, segments of orange wheel, a mountain of shaved ice and a forest of mint. I don’t think we’re wrong to do that.

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