A Brief History of Craft Cocktails

Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.
— Ernest Hemingway

Fruit + Fermentation: A gift from the gods


Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been fascinated by alcohol; first observing the natural fermentation process in fruits (yeasts + sugar = ethanol), and then harnessing that technology for reproduction and use in society. Evidence of beer and wine cultivation by ancient civilizations in China, Georgia, and Mesopotamia dates back as early as the 3rd century B.C. Grapes and berries were the first fruits used, but in the New World, agave, and in Northern Europe, honey, were also utilized for fermentation. While delicious, the naturally fermented product was not very potent, topping off at 18% ABV (the level at which the ethanol killed off the yeast in the fermented mixture). And thus, for thousands of years, the natural fermentation process was the only means of alcohol production, until…


Distillation: A more refined approach

Originally developed by the Greeks in the 2nd century AD as a means of water purification, the distillation process was applied to wine in 12th century to create brandy. The process, at its most basic form, involves heating a liquid (in this case a fermented mixture) to water’s boiling point, and allowing the water in the liquid to turn to steam, at which point it travels to a separate receptacle, leaving behind a more potent alcoholic mixture. The term “spirits” traces its origin to the ghost and spirit-like qualities of the gaseous water vapor being removed through distillation. Through trial and error, different distillation processes were developed to yield different types of spirits.


Cocktail: An origin story


As spirits became more potent, their palatability decreased. Imbibers wished to concoct potent elixirs pleasing to the taste, and thus the ‘cocktail’ was born. One of the earliest descriptions of a ‘cocktail’ can be found in the early 19th century publication The Balance and Columbian Repository (New York), where it is described as a blend of a distilled spirit, bitters, water, and sugar. This definition is quite similar to what we now know as the “Old Fashioned”. Widely recognized as the purest and eldest expression of a cocktail in its stripped down form, the Old Fashioned remains one of the most popular and quintessential drinks of all time – as popular today as it ever was.

Whisky is liquid sunshine
— George Bernard Shaw