Portland Walking Tours

Something to Sip On: A Brief History of the Cocktail

January 12th, 2016

“Let’s meet for cocktails.” Doesn’t that sound sophisticated, and have a vastly different ring than “let’s go for few beers,” or “let’s have a glass of wine?” If you’re invited to a cocktail party you instantly start envisioning an elegant affair replete with crystal goblets and hors d’oeuvres that are definitely a step up from pigs in a blanket. This stylish libation has made its way deep into our culture. Did you ever wonder where it came from? Let’s take a little trip through its history. But be warned: you’ll be thirsty by the end (but don’t worry, we have a solution for that, just read on!).


Photo courtesy of star5112 on Flickr

The first appearance of the word “cocktail” referring to a drink and not a horse (long story) was in 1798. In 1803, the official definition of the cocktail described it as an alcoholic beverage made with spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. Essentially originating from the medicine cabinet, cocktails helped deal with illnesses and improve digestion. Toward the mid-19th century cocktails gained widespread popularity, and by 1862 “Professor” Jerry Thomas wrote what is considered the first bartender’s guide which included recipes for 10 cocktails. Ones that were originally found in that book that we know today include the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan, which used the key ingredient of bitters to distinguish them from other drink types such as sours, slings, or toddies.

The first “cocktail party” was in 1917, hosted by Mrs. Julius Walsh Jr. of St. Louis. It was held from 12 noon to 1 PM with 50 guests who hoped to inflame the increasing number of temperance advocates for Prohibition. If you’re ever at a loss for a toast at a cocktail party, you can make a tribute to Mrs. Walsh’s fine instincts. We salute you, Mrs. Walsh!


Image courtesy of Dewar’s Repeal on Flickr

And now we come to Prohibition from 1920-1933. Who ever thought that was going to be a good idea?? The Roaring Twenties were certainly not lacking in alcohol consumption, and indeed cocktails had a heyday in speakeasies in spite of the laws, or shall we say because of the laws. Wine and beer, previously very popular, gave way to hard liquor which was easier to produce and smuggle. Gin supplanted whiskey because it did not require aging and the practice of people making gin in their bathtubs is a favorite legend from the era. Flavorings like honey and fruit juice were used to cover up the bad taste of the crudely made spirits, and also served a purpose since sweet drinks were easier to down if a place got raided. Fun fact of Oregon: we started a state prohibition five years before the national one!

In the 1980s the Margarita began its reign as one of the most popular cocktails ever ordered. It’s probably safe to say that if you drink alcohol, you have had at least one margarita in your life! Can we say Cinco de Mayo? In the 1980s the US fell in love with vodka, and began substituting it for gin here, there, and everywhere. The vodka martini is a prime example of this. An iconic advertising campaign for the Swedish vodka company, Absolut, in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to the surge of sales of the brand and the spirit in general. Soon after, the trend of flavored vodkas became popular and are still used liberally today. Known as mixology, our modern-day cocktail culture celebrates seemingly endless variations of novel ingredients, complex flavors, and inventive combinations. Just look on a menu today and your head will spin from the many concoctions available.

In the late 1990s through the beginning of the new millennium, the tv series Sex and the City showed fashionable women drinking cocktails with each other in the glamorous backdrop of New York City. This influence sparked the practice of women getting together for cocktails as an alternative to drinking wine with each other, and played an important role in the cocktail’s renaissance in popular culture, specifically the Cosmopolitan among women. We have a feeling Mrs. Julius Walsh would approve!

Thirsty yet? Since we’re sure this brief history of the cocktail has wet your whistle for an actual libation, be sure to check out our We Got Tipsy in Portland walking tour, given every Saturday at 1:30 PM. It’s a fun excursion through the streets of Portland and in and out of cider bars, restaurants, breweries, and wine shops, and gives you the opportunity to experience Portland’s liquid assets in all forms, including the venerable cocktail. To purchase tickets, or for more information, visit portlandwalkingtours.com or call 503-774-4522.

Article by Natasha Kelly

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