New Orleans, La. –
The rise of the craft cocktail is sometimes lauded as a return to artisanal practices, as bartenders working this niche embrace the small batch ingredients and hands-on techniques that were the rule before modern brands and premade mixes. But just how far back does this return stretch?
People who look into such things often posit the start of the age of the cocktail at 1862. That's around the time when your better-equipped bars started getting ready access to ice, when bitters became a bar top staple and it was also the year when American bartender Jerry Thomas published his "Bar-Tenders Guide," the first book to codify cocktail recipes. Increasingly, however, craft cocktail enthusiasts are reaching back even farther into cocktail history and discovering a whole world of mixed drinks that were the toasts of many an early American town throughout the 18th century.
One such enthusiast is New Orleans-based journalist Wayne Curtis, who got on this early American drinks trail while conducting research for his book "And a Bottle of Rum," which traces the impact of rum from colonial American history on. References to creative, cocktail-esque concoctions cropped up throughout his source materials, and recently he put some on display at the Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, pulling archaic recipes and their lore out of the archives and sharing them with modern bartenders gathered from across the country.
These drinks, usually based on rum, represent a rich, if sometimes obscure, realm of tastes, with names to match. There's syllabub, made with warm milk, rum and spices. Spruce beer and rum was a sailor's specialty called a calibogus. Add egg and sugar to that and you had an egg calli, or you could heat the mixture for a king's calli. The 18th century tavern patron could order up a mimbo (or rum and water with shavings from a sugarloaf), or choose a bombo for rum and water with a load of molasses. As Curtis details in the pages of "And a Bottle of Rum," there were also drinks by the names of flip, bellowstop or Sampson.
The earliest rum could be harsh stuff. It was plentiful, portable and potent, but making it palatable called for all the colonial creativity tavern keepers could muster, and they turned to the flavoring agents they had at hand. They turned to nutmeg, vanilla, pumpkin and even twigs, needles and bark, steeped and concentrated to lend their aromatic essence to strong drinks.
Another example from this ilk is a drink called the stone fence, made by mixing rum, hard cider, allspice and nutmeg, plus a dose of white vinegar. Now, the public appetite for vinegar drinks today may be limited to historical purists. But another vestige of our drinking past is seeing a comeback, and that's rum punch. Mixed with juices and served in large, communal bowls, they were the centerpieces for drink-ups in colonial taverns, fine homes and sailing ships wherever rum was found. Today, modern renditions are increasingly turning up at stylish clubs and bars across the country.
The old-fashioned punch is now downright trendy, but from a certain point of view its resurgence also shows how some of very old conventions of the American tavern can make a popular comeback. So keep your eyes peeled. As today's boundary-pushing bartenders keep experimenting with different flavors and ingredients, you might start seeing a bit more history in your glass.