the surprising history of the cocktail
Ask any American. They will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the cocktail was an entirely American invention. But exactly what, beyond the ice, is so American about a drink of British gin and Italian or French vermouth mixed by an Irish or German immigrant? The evidence mounts in favour of the cocktail having far more British roots than previously imagined.
Though fermented beverages had dominated for centuries, in the 17th century London turned from drinking ale and cider practically overnight. When King William of Orange was enthroned in 1688, he was faced with an enviable dilemma. Years of good harvests left the nation with a grain surplus, driving down prices. To take advantage of this bounty — and “for the health of the nation” — he reduced taxes on distillation. British distillers produced around 500,000 gallons of neutral grain spirit the following year.
The health of the nation? The most common causes of death at the time were water-borne pathogens: cholera, dysentery, E. coli and typhoid to name a few. The only known preventative was the daily, even constant, consumption of alcohol. A balanced breakfast included a small beer: unfiltered and nearly as thick as porridge, with about 2 per cent ABV.
This sudden abundance of hard alcohol found its way into the pharmacies. The second medical patent, issued in 1712, was for Stoughton's Elixir, an alcohol-based medicinal bitters. However, much more of it was consumed in the public houses and on the streets. By the 1720s, London distillers alone produced 20 million gallons of spirits, not including an equally staggering amount of illicit alcohol. It was estimated that one out of every four habitable structures in London housed a working gin still. Within four decades of William’s initiative, the city was plunged into the 18th-century equivalent of a crack cocaine epidemic.
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