City A.M.’s cocktail expert
The history of cocktails is infused with myth. A book or two could be written dispelling them. Even the derivation of the term “cocktail” suffers from more dodgy accounts than Bernie Madoff.
There are a number of stories recounting how the term came about. Did it stem from a New York barmaid named Betsy? Her alcoholic concoction supposedly caused an American soldier to toast with the phrase: “Here’s to the divine liquor which is as delicious to the palate, as the cock’s tails are beautiful to the eye.” After which, a French officer replied: “Vive le cocktail!”
Or do we have fellow New Yorker Peggy – the daughter of a tavern keeper – to thank? Peggy allegedly fell for a sailor with a fighting cock (named Lightning); Peggy put Lightning’s loose tail feather into her then husband’s drink (why, it is not clear) and exclaimed: “Lightning names this drink! Drink this cocktail, sir, to your success with my father, and as a pledge to our future happiness!”
Or perhaps the name comes from dear Old Blighty, where thoroughbred horses had their tails docked to set them apart form the equine rabble, and in the process took the name cocktails. When Dr Samuel Johnson was drinking wine laced with gin alongside his friend James Boswell, Johnson is said to have told him “to mix spirits to wine smacks of our alcoholic hyperbole. It would be a veritable cocktail of a drink.” He might be one of England’s greatest men of letters but Johnson would have been a lousy bartender.
Whatever the truth, the secrets and lies surrounding the word “cocktail” are harmless enough – sadly, though, some myths come at a heavier price.
The fairytales surrounding the liquor absinthe were so powerful that the spirit was banned in many countries – including, crucially, France. Absinthe, known in France as la fée verte (the green fairy) is an anise distillation distinct from other anise drinks by the inclusion of wormwood (absinthium in Latin). Although created in Switzerland, this restless alcohol soon left home and took up residence with soldiers and artists across the boarder in France. However, an unholy alliance between the temperance movement and the wine industry (which had recently been devastated by the phylloxera bug) led to the spirit being banned in Switzerland (1905), America (1912) and France (1915), based on claims that the drink was driving people crazy.
Although absinthe wasn’t banned everywhere, this was enough to destroy the key brands and more crucially its reputation. The fate of Van Gogh and his ear became (and remains) the motif in absinthe’s mythology. This is despite the dearth of evidence that thujone levels – the chemical compound in absinthe that has since been blamed for its supposed psychedelic effects – were too low to be detrimental, while there remains no evidence that thujone has mind-altering effects.
There is a happy end to this tale. In recent years, most bans have been lifted and the green fairy is flying high once more. Just make sure you avoid the plethora of awful absinthe that trades quality for mythology. Kensington’s Brompton Bar and Grill (BB&G) is on the right track. Using the traditional (and theatrical) water fountain, BB&G serves up some top absinthes: La Clandestine, Angelique and Butterfly Boston 1902; or you can order half a dozen different absinthe cocktails. For those new to the spirit (or a quality version of it), it makes sense to start with the simple Death in the Afternoon. It was invented by Ernest Hemingway, a man who knew a thing or two about myth-making. He instructed people to: “Drink three to five of these slowly.” Of course, Hemingway famously suffered an inglorious end at his own hand, so you might want to err on the side of caution and opt for just the three.
DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON
Fill a champagne flute or coupe 3/4 with champagne
Top up with a double shot of absinthe