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16 february 2013

Among the insights in Joseph M. Carlin's global history of the cocktail is this: cocktails are chilled drinks. They're inseparable from ice.

Cocktails are thus a product of historical contingency. It comes as no real surprise that the cocktail is a distinctly American invention. It is a bit surprising to learn that Americans invented it so early on. By all evidence, cocktails originated in the taverns of the early Republic, as icy alternatives to the hot punches, flips, and toddies that kept colonial Americans legless. Ice was comparatively cheap year-round in Old New England, thanks to the icehouses that can still be seen on older estates. After entrepreneurs developed an ice industry that shipped the contents of glacial lakes to the tropics, cocktails caught on in the Caribbean as well.

Punch was traditionally made from five ingredients (hence its name, a version of an old Indo-European root for the word "five"). To make it, you needed liquor, water, sugar, lemon juice, and spice. But to make a cocktail, Carlin theorizes, you need simply liquor, a fruity mixer from somewhere provocative on the pH scale, and a garnish of some sort – cherry, olive, onion, twist, whatever; most people throw them away in any case. And ice, which is usually shaken with, then strained out of, the drink.

Personally, I think that cocktails are pretty disgusting. Most of them are made with noxious liquors that become even more noxious in the mixing. Mixers ruin good whiskies, and can't save bad ones; to my mind, nothing at all can save tequila or gin.

But cocktails, as Carlin observes, can take on a bewildering number of permutations, based on a few combinatory elements; they're a truly generative phenomenon, like language. And like language, their associations are perfectly arbitrary. There are cocktails coded as masculine, as feminine, as effete, sophisticated, hip, naff, kitschy, campy, working-class – even cocktails coded for children, like the Shirley Temple. (One of my fondest memories is sucking down the Kiddie Cocktails at the Hi-Way Lounge in Aurora, Illinois, while my grandfather drank highballs and my grandmother sampled brandy stingers.) There are, paradoxically, even plenty of temperance cocktails: Virgin Marys and their ilk, but also cocktails invented under the Volstead Act where the liquor and even the liquid totally disappears: shrimp and clam cocktails, or the canned "fruit cocktail" that used to feature in so many school lunches. (Carlin suspects that roadhouse signs advertising "clam cocktail" during Prohibition were coded messages indicating that genuine cocktails could be had for the money.)

The one cocktail I'll drink is Campari and soda, and I'm not sure that even counts. It's not very advanced mixologically, and in point of fact Campari cannot be drunk without soda; something dissolved in the water counteracts the hideous poisons of the aperitif and makes it potable. But though I have only the most passing acquaintance with the language of cocktails, I have new respect for it after reading Carlin's analysis.

Carlin, Joseph M. Cocktails: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2012.