NYC Cocktail History and Prohibition Tour: Bottom’s Up

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NYC Cocktail History and Prohibition Tour: Bottom’s Up

September 13, 2016 No Comments »

Let me just start with; there’s a lot of myth involved when it comes to the cocktail. Where it started, how it got its weird name, when it was created; it’s complicated.

It’s complicated because most of what we know about cocktails and early saloon/tavern going was not written down – it’s an oral history. But there are a few brave individuals who relentlessly research and delve into the history of the cocktail and try to understand its origins.

However, I’m not one of those people, I’m lazy and prefer drinking cocktails instead of researching them. Instead of trying to dig through piles of research, I simply decided to take the easy route and have an expert tell me about it, all while sampling a few cocktails of course.

Cocktails come in all shapes and sizes…and I’ve tried a few.

Take a Cocktail and Prohibition Tour While In NYC

I met Chantal, my NYC prohibition and cocktail expert, in midtown New York City to start my prohibition tour via the Context Travel Tour – Birth of a Cocktail, A Drinkable History of New York. Chantal doesn’t simply hang out at cocktail bars, she actually is a journalist and author who specializes in writing about cocktails, food, and wine. I was pretty sure I was in good hands.

Learning from the Best, A Cocktail Historian

“I’m going to be a cocktail historian when I grow up” I can’t even imagine uttering those words, but believe it or not, there is such a profession. Cocktail Historians are obviously people who relentlessly study the history of cocktails, spirits, bars, prohibition, distilleries, and anything having to do with booze. “What do you do if you are a Cocktail Historian?” I ask Chantal in a somewhat incredulous tone. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I could’ve studied cocktail history instead of accounting when I was in college. I really missed the boat on that one. Chantal explains that cocktail historians are actually in big demand to consult on movies, books, and TV shows like Mad Men. Yes, Mad Men had its own Cocktail Historian on staff.

cocktail bar new york city
The King Cole Bar in NYC feels a bit Mad Men-ish

Cocktails – Made in America

So, I started my Birth of a Cocktail tour already with my mind blown…but wait, there was much more to come – like this next fact…

“Cocktails are an American invention,” Chantal said.

I didn’t think that America had any food or drink that really originated from here since most recipes were brought with immigrants. However, Chantal informed me the earliest-known use of the word “cocktail” in print was from 1806 in an upstate New York newspaper and it was described as something made of spirits, sugar, bitters, and water– so there you go – we have staked our claim!

Cocktail History Timeline

The beginning of a cocktail movement, death, and rebirth.

bartender's guide
  • 1600 – Sailors drank ‘punch’ on ships. Punch was really our first foray into alcoholic drinks.
  • 1700 to 1800 – Alcohol was originally used as true medicine – stuff to kill all of those germs and bacteria floating around in the 1700’s. You found alcohol at pharmacies dispensed by Chemists.
  • 1806 – the word “cocktail” in print. Chemists started to morph into what we call bartenders today. And it was a specialty profession, one in which you apprenticed for it.
  • 1862 – Jerry Thomas, a Connecticut native wrote the first book to contain a section of cocktail recipes.
  • 1882 – Harry Johnson wrote a manual on how to do a bartending job with tips on how to keep ants out of the bar, and how to clean brass and other metals.
  • Late 1800s – Patents for bar gear came out in the late 1800s the shaker, jigger, and things started to become standardized.
  • 1920-1933 – Prohibition. The 18th Amendment forbids the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the US. Since alcohol was forbidden here, bartenders and thirsty tourists arrived in London in droves. US bartenders started opening ‘Bar Americanos’ all over Europe. After Prohibition, the bartenders came back to the US and wowed everyone with their new European recipes.
  • 1950’s – The home moved to suburbia and the bar moved into the home. Wives everywhere were making martinis for their husbands returning from a hard day at work. More importantly, though, canned juices and vodka were invented during this time which was really the death of the historic cocktail; all of the art was removed from the cocktail and the bartender.
  • 1980s – The era of sweet drinks began thanks to Tom Cruise and his bottle-throwing antics in the movie Cocktail. Think Sex on the Beach, Fuzzy Navel, Tequilla Sunrise, Pina Colada, Slippery Nipple, etc. Sugar, sugar, sugar.
  • 1990s – a slow rebirth of the classic cocktail in New York City’s Rainbow Room. Bartender Dale Degroff finds the old bartending books from the mid-1800s and translates the books into modern-day 90s recipes. He implements a new cocktail program at Rainbow Room. His apprentice leaves and opens his own bars and the cocktail renaissance is born.
  • 2000’s a full revival…

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The Making of a Cocktail

cocktail history tour -06146

Traditionally cocktails were a mixture of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters, but over the years things have of course changed a bit. Chantal led me through various famous bars and prohibition bars in New York City telling me surprising stories of prohibition, and how certain drinks became popular, and we even sampled a few drinks. After all, I needed to do my research on what made up a good cocktail.

Throughout the afternoon we talked about the importance of spirits, ice, and of course the bartender – and all of it was surprising to me.

The Spirits

“Vermouth is supposed to be refrigerated,” Chantal said nonchalantly. My reaction was one of disbelief, “What?! The vermouth you make martinis with?”

Chantal’s declaration about vermouth makes me question my whole knowledge about drinking. I’m starting to think that I’m going to have to turn in my ID and retire from drinking since I’m apparently so bad at it!

“Yes, refrigerated,” she responded calmly to my shock and dismay.

Chantal explains that vermouth will go bad in a week if left out. In addition, it should only really be kept for no more than 4 weeks when refrigerated. As Chantal told me this I had visions of all of the bottles of Vermouth I let sit out at room temperature. Bad Sherry.

“This is the reason why most people don’t like Vermouth. They are drinking a bad version of it that has gone off,” Chantal explains. Clearly drinking Vermouth that has ‘gone off’ won’t kill you, it will just not really make you like the taste of Vermouth.

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The Ice

Back in 1806, we called it ‘water’ since refrigeration wasn’t around yet. The importance of how ice is frozen, shaped, and used in a cocktail has way more importance than I ever imagined. “Ice is really the cornerstone of the American bar,” says Chad Solomon, a New York-based cocktail consultant.

Cocktail ice and history
Bartender Kevin shows me a perfect piece of dense cocktail ice.
cocktail ice
Pouring tonic over the perfect ice at a Gin & Tonic bar
cocktail ice
Makes you shiver…Chilling the gin and tonic glass with ice

I learned that one standard you’ll find in the best cocktail bars in New York is Kold Draft ice machines. They produce dense, frigid, 1 1/4-inch cubes by misting and freezing each cube. Chantal explained that you can make ice colder now and understand exactly how fast it will melt thereby controlling the precise amount of dilution in a drink. So yes, the size and density of ice do matter…more than I ever imagined.

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The Bartender

In the 1800’s, Chemists started to morph into what we call bartenders today. It was a specialty profession, one in which you apprenticed for it. Somewhere along the way it lost its standing and really just became an ‘in the meantime’ job – one you do when in college or just to make extra money. But that’s slowly changing now with the rebirth of the cocktail and bartenders all over the world are being held in regard for their craft once again.

cocktail history tour new york city
Bartender Kevin fits the speakeasy part.

Visit a Nod to the Prohibition Bar in NYC

We stopped in at Raines Law Room, a speakeasy-type establishment complete with a doorbell and secretive entrance in the Village. The bartender, Kevin, was dressed in a vest, with a pin strip dress shirt and tie that fit the part of a classic bartender completely.

“Where do you keep you Vermouth,” I asked Kevin.

He looked at me with a look of confusion, and answered, “In the refrigerator.”

I could tell he was wondering why I would ask such an obvious question. I looked at Chantal, smiled, and said, “I was just double-checking to make sure you were right.” She laughed at me and suggested I try the 50/50 martini; the holy grail of martinis, a REAL martini made with properly stored and chilled Vermouth.

I watched Kevin make my perfect 50/50 Martini and was surprised when he simply stirred my martini and then poured it into the glass. “You don’t shake the martini?” I asked poised to make some 007 jokes.

“Spirits are stirred and anything with citrus is shaken,” Kevin said with a smile. This reminded me once again, that even though I frequent many bars, I know very little about bartending and the art of how to make a cocktail.

But I do know how to enjoy a cocktail. And I did.  My perfect 50/50 Martini made by Bartender Kevin:

cocktail history tour
The 50/50

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Why You Should Go on this Cocktail History and Prohibition Tour in New York

Did I mention that drinks were involved?! This is a ‘must do’ tour if you like drinking…and who doesn’t like drinking?

I have taken Context Travel Tours before in Europe, but never since they started branching out in the US. All good businesses have something that makes them stand out, and Context Travel’s superpower is that they have true experts lead their tours; authors, professors, artists, historians, etc. My guide on this tour, Chantal, was full of information and fun.

Context Travel also only takes on small groups of 6 or 8 people so the experience is really an educational, individual experience that I love.

Book your Birth of a Cocktail Tour Here Check out all Context Travel Tours in New York.

Historical Cocktail Books and More

Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide: Harry Johnson’s Bartenders Manual: Dale Degroff and the Craft of the Cocktail: How the Gringos Stole Tequila by my Context Travel Tour Guide and Author Chantal Martineau:


I was hosted by Context Travel on this tour however all opinions are my own.

Ottsworld contains affiliate links throughout the site. If you choose to purchase items through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of running this site. Thanks!

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