The mystery of classic cocktails — Photo courtesy of Flickr/Edsel Little
Cocktail history is drunk history, equal parts truth, fantasy and hazy memory of previous events. Classic cocktails disappeared for the better part of the 20th century, so it's no wonder that the origins of many of our favorite drinks are about as murky as your brother’s bachelor party.
Take the martini and the southside, for example. Two cities battle over the claim to these creations like a couple of old drunks at a dive bar. Regardless, often the mythology is more fun than the truth.
Some drinks (like the Ramos Gin Fizz or Pisco Punch) might actually taste better in their places of birth. But will a Manhattan actually taste better if you drink it in Manhattan? Probably not. But it might be more fun, especially if you know the history. So in the interest of a little fun, we decided to explore the origins of 10 of our favorite cocktails in the cities in which they were (probably) invented.
New Orleans: Sazerac
The Sazerac is the official cocktail of New Orleans (because, of course the Big Easy has an official cocktail), and for good reason. It's perfectly balanced, the bitters are locally born, the absinthe gives it that touch of rebellion the city loves so much and it was originally made with cognac – a spirit distilled in country that put the “French” in “French Quarter.”
The best part about a Sazerac is that while any decent mixologist in the U.S. should know how to make one, in New Orleans, even a bartender at a dirty dive can probably mix one up. But you might be best off ordering it at the bar where it was invented – the Sazerac Bar.
New Orleans: Ramos Gin Fizz
The Ramos Gin Fizz (pronounced Ray-Mohs) was invented in the 1880s by a man named Henry C. Ramos who either had incredibly strong arms or a complete disdain for bartenders. This complicated cocktail has roughly eight ingredients – including heavy cream, egg white and orange flower water – and a bartender worth his salt will shake for a painful 2-4 minutes.
New Orleans is the one city where there’s a good chance your bartender will be so used to making these frothy, refreshing concoctions that they'll make it right (and without complaint). Keeping that in mind, try ordering one off-menu at Cure, a seminal bar in New Orleans’ cocktail revolution.
Louisville: Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned is one of the first cocktails ever created — Photo courtesy of Flickr/Krista
A cocktail, as it was originally designed, breaks down to four basic components: spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. And while some classics get a bit more complicated than that, the Old Fashioned is about as simple as it comes. Yet, ask any bartender what proportions to mix or which whiskey to use and you'll hear a different answer.
There's no better place to figure out your preferred recipe than in Louisville, the unofficial capital of bourbon, where virtually any bar you enter will have a healthy variety of Kentucky’s favorite tipple. We recommend Haymarket Whiskey Bar, where the price is right and the owner is a bourbon encyclopedia.
Detroit: The Last Word
This cocktail was created at the Detroit Athletic Club in 1920, as one final gasp of mixological creativity before the U.S. government banned alcohol.
This drink didn't even appear in a recipe book until the 1950s, but it wasn't until 2004 that a bartender in Seattle rediscovered the recipe and spread the word about this intensely flavorful drink, which calls for equals parts of maraschino, chartreuse, gin and lime juice.
At the time of publishing this article, Detroit's premier cocktail bar, The Sugar House, was serving a twist on this local classic, called A Machine Gun Is The Last Word – which features barrel-aged gin and swaps cardamaro and apreol for maraschino.
This history of the Southside cocktail is as disputed and convoluted as any drink created before prohibition. The most plausible story is probably that the cocktail was created at New York's infamous 21 Club. The less believable – but more entertaining – story is that the Southside's origins stretch back to Prohibition-era Chicago, when gangsters like Al Capone and Frankie McErlane were terrorizing the city.
The Northside gangs controlled all the premium booze coming across the border from Canada, forcing the Southside gangs to sell nothing but bathtub gin. To mask the impurities and inferior taste, bartenders would add citrus and sugar.
We recommend grabbing this classier, gin-based alternative to the mojito this summer at one of Chicago’s rooftop bars.
Philadelphia: Clover Club
Long before Samantha, Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda discussed their sex lives over a round of nuclear pink Cosmopolitans in living rooms everywhere, there was another pink drink being mixed up on the East Coast. Almost a century earlier, the original pink cocktail catered to a very different crowd: the lawyers, writers and titans of industry who belonged to Philadelphia's Clover Club.
Los Angeles: Zombie
Tonga Hut has been around since 1958 — Photo courtesy of Flickr/Sam Howzit
In 1930s L.A., during the Great Depression, people needed an escape and what better place to get away from reality than Hollywood?
Taking a mishmash of elements from disparate Polynesian cultures, a man named Earnest Raymond Gantt (who later changed his name to Donn Beach) created his own personal version of the South Pacific right in Los Angeles.
His bar, Don the Beachcomber, pioneered the tiki movement, creating a new type of bar that would bring rum drinks served in headhunter mugs and ceramic volcanic bowls across the country. The Zombie was just one of the tiki drinks created at Don's. The original location is now gone, but LA's still got a great selection of decades-old tiki joints including Tiki-Ti and Tonga Hut.
New York: French 75
Protip: When you're in New York, avoid any brunch place that serves bottomless mimosas. Instead, hit a brunch joint with a decent bar and start your day with a French 75. Like many of its pre-prohibition brethren, the French 75 has murky origins, but this is the one classic believed to have been created while alcohol was actually illegal in the U.S.
The drink got its name from the WWI-era field artillery/anti-aircraft gun used heavily by U.S. troops during the war. Just like the French-75 gun, the story goes, the cocktail packed a serious punch. And this champagne-and-gin cocktail might be on the boozy side for a daytime beverage, but it's also light, refreshing and a perfect summertime drink best enjoyed at a bar with an outdoor patio or garden – like Brooklyn's Maison Premiere.
San Francisco: Pisco Punch
In gold-rush era California, San Francisco was America's Sin City, and Pisco Punch was the fuel that kept the gamblers, drunks and prostitutes going. Just like so many others in search of riches, Chileans and Peruvians came to California, and they brought pisco – South American grape brandy – with them.
In the 1870s, a man by the name of Duncan Nicol mixed pisco with pineapple and, well, nobody really knows quite what else. Writers, newspapers and now spirit historians have waxed poetic about this almost mythical concoction and the man who created it.
Nicol took the recipe to his grave, but in their desire to revive anything created before their time, the suspender-toting, mustachioed hipsters of SF revived this long-lost beverage. And the bartenders have been left to fill in the blanks of the missing ingredients, adding everything from cardamom to orange juice to Lillet Rouge. Cantina serves a particularly interesting red version of this normally pineapple-colored drink.
Milan, Italy: Americano
Before there was the Martini, there was the Americano – at least for James Bond. It was the first cocktail 007 ever ordered in Casino Royale. For the rest of us, before there was the Negroni, there was the Americano, the one drink on our list that despite its name was actually invented in Milan in the 1860s.
This much lighter precursor to Negroni, and the entire family of cocktails that the Negroni inspired, is said to have been originally called the Milano-Torino because its ingredients (Campari and sweet vermouth) mixed with soda water came from those two cities, respectively.
The drink was later renamed, the story goes, for the visiting Americans who sucked down one after another during prohibition in their own country. Milan is still a great place to enjoy either of these drinks, especially during Aperitivo, a city-wide happy hour that usually comes with free food.