The Astonishing History of Your Favorite Cocktails

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Names like Martini, Mojito, and Margarita are so ingrained in our vernacular that even most non-drinkers can identify these iconic drinks. Those classic cocktails tend to have a muddled history, with their origins just as flavorful as the drinks themselves. Time to break the facts down a bit and dive into cocktail history.

1. Martini

There are a few legends as to how this iconic American cocktail came to be, but the most interesting theory points to the West Coast, circa the 1860s. According to legend, a miner requested a special celebratory beverage after a successful day of panning for gold in Martinez, California. The bartender quickly mixed an impromptu concoction of sweet vermouth, Old Tom Gin, some bitters and maraschino liqueur, giving birth to the Martini. From gold miners to Goldfinger, the Martini has been the drink of choice for those in the know over the past 150 years. Get the recipe for the Martini.

2. Mojito

One of Ernest Hemingway’s drinks of choice, the Mojito’s roots are rather humble. The refreshing beverage was born out of the necessity to mask the taste of rotgut rum. The story goes that Cuban farmers would add lime, sugarcane juice, and a whole lot of mint to the cheap booze to create what is now known as the Mojito. The Cuban cocktail gained fame in the United States during Prohibition, when Americans would travel to Cuba for vacation and to indulge in all the alcohol they could get their hands on. The recipe was enhanced in the U.S. with the addition of sparkling water and lots of ice. Get the recipe for the Mojito.

3. Long Island Iced Tea

Long Island has given us the first private golf course in the country, the Nassau Coliseum, the nation’s first drive-up bank window, the Amityville Horror house, Ron Jeremy and the eponymous iced tea. Legend has it the potent libation was created in 1976 by a bartender named Robert “Rosebud” Butts at the Oak Beach Inn in Hampton Bays, New York. Rosebud had the idea to combine tequila, vodka, light rum, triple sec and gin with some simple syrup, lemon juice and cola. The end result was a powerful drink that resembled iced tea. Get the recipe for the Long Island Iced Tea.

4. Mint Julep

The Mint Julep’s association with the Kentucky Derby began in 1938. Each year, about 120,000 Mint Juleps are consumed at the legendary horse-race. However, America’s relationship with the official drink of Churchill Downs actually goes back much further in the country’s timeline. Many believe the Mint Julep originated in the early 19th Century in Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky, where it was sold for its “medicinal” properties. Back then the beverage was made mostly using rye whiskey or brandy, as opposed to the bourbon that is commonly used today. Get the recipe for the Mint Julep.

5. Margarita

One common theory is that Tijuana restaurant owner Carlos “Danny” Herrera created the Margarita in the late 1930s for an aspiring actress named Marjorie King. Apparently, his beautiful patron was allergic to all hard liquor, aside from tequila, which she found had too harsh a taste. Combining tequila, lime juice and Cointreau or Triple Sec into a salt-rimmed glass, Herrera was able to offer the young lady a refreshing beverage that would go on to become one of the most beloved party drinks of all time. Get the recipe for the Margarita.

6. Moscow Mule

Contrary to the name, the Moscow Mule is an American invention. Created during the vodka craze of the 1940s and ’50s, this popular cocktail was a stroke of marketing brilliance. Liquor distributor—and owner of the Smirnoff brand of vodka—John Martin, was having a difficult time moving the newly acquired spirit. Martin teamed up with his friend Jack Morgan, owner of the Cock ‘n’ Bull restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, to market a cocktail that would help sell Smirnoff to the American public. Morgan just so happened to also sell the Cock ‘n’ Bull’s own brand of ginger beer. The two businessmen came up with a cocktail that combined Smirnoff vodka, ginger beer, sugar syrup, lime juice and mint into a copper mug. The drink was a hit, boosting the demand for Smirnoff across the country. Get the recipe for the Moscow Mule.

Devin Pratt is a U.S.–based writer and editor who has held various editorial roles at National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Men’s Fitness, FHM and Runner’s World. He’s traveled extensively, including hiking and whitewater rafting in Bosnia and Croatia. When not on assignment, he can be found exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion (3)

  • russ.cobleigh posted 1 year ago

    I still have a copper moscow mule cup from a long time ago !

  • jorgebottle83 posted 2 years ago

    Margarita was invented in Ensenada Baja California at Andaluz Bar at the historic and cultural center Riviera were Al Capone used to gamble at the prohibition times, there is a plate conmemorating the birth of the drink just outside the bar.

  • pouringpro posted 2 years ago

    Great list.
    The story citing Margarita Samms as the creator of the Margarita is the one that I believe.
    But as we all know it is extremely difficult to trace the origin of any drink. After all alcohol is involved.
    As for The Long Island Iced Tea, I always tell my students at #connecticutschoolofbartending that if you look at the list of the major Collins drinks and Sours in mixology, perhaps this bartender simply combined a Tom and Vodka Collins with a Daiquiri and a Margarita thinking it would be the ultimate sour. After tasting it he tossed in some Coke to make it drinkable. After all things go better with Coke.


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