Long ago, bartenders didn’t bother with bottles. They slung spirits from the barrel using a tap—or cock. When the barrels got low, and straits got dire, you’d commingle the dregs, the “cock-tails,” into a single glass and serve over ice. Thus, the cocktail was discovered.
I don’t believe this story and neither should you.
I discovered the cocktail a dozen years ago. A lemon drop changed my mind, turning hard liquor into easy math. Two years after that profound sip, I took a bartending course. The kind that used terms like “build drinks” and eschewed terms like “mixologist.” I shook and stirred my way to a certificate. I was going to be a builder of drinks.
And right after that my spirit was slung, unexpectedly, to San Francisco, California; origin of the lemon drop, terminus of my bartending aspirations. As penance, I doubled down on consumption. I downed drinks like novels and read them the same way. They say there are seven basic plots, and I say every glass is a variation on a theme: Guy loves spirit. Guy also loves sweet. A chase scene with bitters, a fight scene with lime, and a wedding in act three.
Cocktails are remixes. West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet and the Manhattan is a whiskey martini. What’s a Cape Codder but a Cosmo that lives in the suburbs? Every rum punch is every rum punch, and yet each is a harlequin unto itself. The Sazerac is a somber cognac in a psychedelic suit; the aviation cocktail is a stumbling dry gin in a tuxedo jacket. Every drink is a story and every story is a spoonful of honey to make the medicine go down.
I don’t drink cocktails anymore. I’ve tried mocktails, but they are as risible as the name suggests. A drink without spirit is a corpse, ain’t it?
I don’t miss drinking cocktails, but I sure do miss mixing them.