Is That Classic Cocktail’s Origin Story Actually True?

If the story of a drink’s invention sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Here, seven tips on how to tell fact from fiction.

Once upon a time, not too many years ago, the profession of cocktail historian didn’t exist. Oh, there was cocktail history out there, lurking in the dark corners of the yawning yarn of civilization, but no one was terribly interested in gathering it up and sifting through it—primarily because few folks gave much of a damn.

But then, slowly, people started to care again. Renewed interest in mixed drinks began with trailblazers like bartenders Dale DeGroff in New York and Dick Bradsell in London. By the early 2000s, cocktails were experiencing a new Golden Age. Because of this, cocktail history suddenly became a viable field of study. William Grimes, the New York Times journalist, arguably invented the job of cocktail historian as we now know it when, in 1993, he published Straight Up or on the Rocks, his comprehensive history of the cocktail. He was followed by such spirituous spelunkers as Ted Haigh, Paul Harrington, Gary Regan, David Wondrich, Eric Felten, Wayne Curtis, Jeff Berry, Philip Greene, Amy Stewart and others. The fruits of their research now fill several bookshelves.

Today, we know more about the lineage of cocktails than any generation in history. And yet, it can be argued, nothing has been learned and very little has changed. The average print or online article about cocktails is filled with misinformation and inaccuracies. The same old debunked myths and fables that were old hat 75 years ago are regularly trotted out and presented as possible fact.

Journalistic laziness? Surely, that’s part of it. The larger media’s tendency to not take cocktails seriously as a subject? Possibly. Most likely, however, the main reason is because the editors and writers behind these stories are just plain ignorant of the cocktail research that has been recorded over the last two decades.

So, what’s to be done if it’s unreasonable to ask the average beat reporter to comb through Imbibe!, Potions of the Caribbean and The Joy of Mixology before pounding out a piece on National Margarita Day? Perhaps, instead of a book, a cheat sheet could be devised, some rules of thumb to guide a person through the thicket of boozy balderdash that surrounds every famous drink.

With that in mind, I’ve concocted a short list of dicta. Call them the Rules of Cocktail History Verification. They are not airtight. There are exceptions to each directive, and the list will surely be revised as time goes on. But it’s a place to start. And, who knows, the list may prevent the next reporter writing about the Old-Fashioned from declaring, for the 1,000th erroneous time, that the drink was invented at the Pendennis Club.

1.) Stories that credit the creation of a cocktail to a specific place on a specific date made by a specific person, are very likely not credible.

Cocktail history is fuzzy. It originates in bars, where truth and memory are infrequent patrons. If a cocktail origin story has too many details, someone’s trying too hard to win you over.

2.) Stories that credit the creation of a cocktail to famous persons who are not bartenders are likely fabrications.

It stands to reason that most famous cocktails were created by bartenders, just as most buildings were designed by full-time architects and most music written by professional composers. And yet one continues to see renowned libations credited to random public figures who never once stepped behind a bar. George Jessel was a comedian; Charles Dana Gibson was an illustrator; Margarita Sames was a socialite. That they would manage, in their spare time, to toss off the Bloody Mary, Gibson and Margarita (as it is frequently asserted) strains credibility.

3.) Any story in which a bartender creates a classic cocktail on the spot in response to a single customer’s request is likely complete bullshit.

There are two popular stories about how the Martinez cocktail—a possible precursor to the Martini—came to be. One takes place in Martinez, California, the other in San Francisco. In both, a customer bellies up to the bar and requests refreshment, and the bartender—flying in the face of all common sense and professional instincts—decides to create a brand-new drink for this random patron right then and there. Just because. These sort of stories are not true, because no bartender does this. Let me repeat: No. Bartender. Does. This.

4.) If the sole source of a cocktail origin story is the person or bar who claims to have created the cocktail, the story is suspect.

Claim-grabbers are replete in every field of human endeavor. Bartending is no different. If you have to rely on the word of a single bar owner or bartender—with no corroborating testimony from a co-worker, customer or journalist—you don’t have a possible origin for the drink. You have a fish story.

5.) Stories about a cocktail’s origin that come from a liquor company that will benefit from the making of the cocktail are suspect.

For many years, the going story behind the Harvey Wallbanger, the drink sensation of the 1970s, was that the drink was named after a California surfer named Tom Harvey who, one day, drank so many of them that he began banging his head against the bar wall. Who came up with this cockamamie story has proved impossible to determine, but the likely culprit is McKesson Imports, the importer of Galliano, the Italian liqueur needed to make the drink. Big Liquor doesn’t care about setting the record straight, and whenever Corporate traffics in history, there’s only one reason: profit. (This rule also covers most “history” put forth by Bourbon producers.)

6.) If the dates are wrong, the story’s wrong; or, you can’t invent something that’s already invented.

The most infuriating breed of cocktail myth is the type that brazenly defies chronology. The Tom & Jerry is often credited to 19th-century barman Jerry Thomas, who himself claimed to have come up with the famous holiday drink. But Tom & Jerrys were being whipped up before Thomas was born. The Knickerbocker Hotel is regularly cited as a possible birthplace of the Martini, even though the New York lodging house was built in 1906, roughly two decades after the cocktail achieved popularity. Mentions of the Old-Fashioned appear in print prior to 1881, when the Pendennis Club, supposed home of the drink, was built in Louisville. Do the math, people.

7.) If a story about the creation of a cocktail sounds too good to be true, it is.

For 20 years, bartender Adam Seger, the one-time bar director of the The Old Seelbach Bar in Louisville, fooled the world with his story of the creation of the Seelbach Hotel’s lost house drink. It was 1912, the tale went. A honeymooning couple from New Orleans ordered a Manhattan and a Champagne cocktail. A clumsy bartender spilled the bubbly into the Manhattan. Thus was born the Seelbach Cocktail, a mix of bourbon, triple sec, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters and sparkling white wine. Yeah, right. The “you got peanut butter in my chocolate” thing has never resulted in a new classic. (The Seelbach story can also be dismissed under Rules 1 and 4.)

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