Mixology: The Tale of the Cocktail

Mixology: The Tale of the Cocktail

By: Chris Haines, Food Chain Café Coordinator

When I joined the SCI team last year, it soon became clear that in addition to managing the café and catering jobs, I also would assume the role of resident mixologist. This was new and exciting, and so I began to explore the variety of drinks and concoctions we could make for our guests.

I’ve discovered many fun potent potables, and that got me thinking about where the cocktail got its start...

A bit of history

The origins of the cocktail are disputed – from stories of bar owners putting feathers in drinks as a garnish to the dregs of a keg being called the "cocks tail." Another theory is that it came from the "cocks ale," a colonial specialty where ale was added to a sack of parboiled chickens, raisins and spices. This mix was then allowed to sit for nine days before being served. Yum?

These less-than-appetizing concoctions bore little resemblance to the modern cocktail.

The first published use of the term "cocktail" was in a London newspaper in 1798. By 1803, the word shows up in a story where the farmer "drank a glass of cocktail." An official definition finally appeared in an 1806 journal: ‘a stimulating liquor composed of spirits, sugar, water and bitters.’ (Side note: at this time, cocktails became very popular in electioneering, with voters being inclined to favor a candidate serving the strongest sling. It’s said that the new Democratic\Republican party of Jefferson and Madison used this new popular fad to great effect.)

Throughout the 1800s, the popularity of mixed drinks increased. By 1862, a bartender’s guide included multiple recipes for punches, sours, slings, cobblers, toddies and flips. These beverages were beginning to resemble the modern cocktails we're used to today.

Over time, bitters became the key ingredient that differentiated a true cocktail from a simple mixed drink. Toward the turn of the 20th century, as the drink culture continued to grow, many of the drinks we’re familiar with came about. The cocktail evolved to become a before-dinner drink, designed to whet the appetite with only a hint of sweetness, and sweet drinks were relegated to after meals or earlier in the day.

So what is a cocktail, scientifically speaking?

The basic cocktail has three components: the base, the modifying agent and the flavoring or coloring agent.

  1. The base is the principle ingredient and is usually a spirited liquor (such as rum, gin or whisky) and makes up 75% of the drink.
  2. The modifier is what gives the cocktail its character. The modifier is used to soften the base while enhancing the flavor. Typical modifying agents are bitters, aromatic wines, vermouth, fruit juices or things like sugar and cream that are used to smooth the raw taste of the base liquor.
  3. The final component is the flavoring or coloring agent. Always used sparingly, these can be liqueurs, cordials or sweet syrups (like orgeat or grenadine).

The ratio for these components is generally 8:2:1 for Base: Modifier: Flavor.

The ever-evolving cocktail

As the trends of mixed drinks evolve, we’ve seen a return to the classic cocktails of another era. We haven’t quite gone back to the late 18th century when the "cocks ale" first evolved, but at least today’s popular cocktails are reminiscent of a time before appletinis and nasty-named shots… a time when a Manhattan , a sidecar or an old-fashioned weren’t trendy, they were just good drinks.

So come on down to Mixology at the Science Center Iowa and try some history in a glass. I promise no par-boiled chickens – just some fun delicious cocktails and a great time.

The next Mixology is this Friday night – December 7 from 5:30-9:00 pm! Enjoy music from DJ 2-4-8 and learn the science of the REALLY big screen with a "behind-the-screen" IMAX tour!

Chris Haines is SCI's Food Chain Café Coordinator and resident mixologist.

Category: General SCI