Who Killed the Cocktail?

From the vantage of our current craft cocktail renaissance, it's easy to identify the cocktail's Dark Age. It's much harder to pinpoint the exact individuals who were responsible for it all. Christopher Ross goes on the hunt for the culprit—and finds that we may only have ourselves to blame.

Who is to blame for the Dark Ages of cocktails? Has anyone been brought to bear for the crime of causing American drinking to regress to a near-infantile state, for snuffing out the legacy of pre-Prohibition cocktails only to replace it with vodka and cranberry juice? Who fired the shot that caused the curtain to fall, the Gavrilo Princip behind those sorrowful decades—stretching, approximately, from the 1960s to the 1990s—of American drinking?

We can easily point to the architects of the cocktail renaissance of the past 15 years. Names like David Wondrich, Gary Regan, Dale DeGroff, Julie Reiner and Sasha Petraske are familiar to anyone acquainted with the story of how bars in the U.S. rediscovered the craft of high-quality cocktails in the 2000s. But it’s more difficult to single out the architect of darkness, the Lord Voldemort of mixology’s Late Middle Ages.

Perhaps we could begin by pointing a finger at Andrew Volstead, the member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota who gave his name to the infamous National Prohibition Act of 1919. If it hadn’t been for the cultural amnesia following Prohibition—in which America forgot how to make cocktails and what good cocktails tasted like—we may never have caved to the neon-colored test tube shot. But before we crucify Andrew, it’s worth remembering that he was primarily an avatar of a large, powerful segment of 20th-century society, comprised of temperance unions and women’s groups who were responding to real excesses in the nation’s drinking habits at the time.

If we fast forward into the 1960s, we may be able to locate the culprits in Henry Africa or Alan Stillman, the masterminds behind the “fern bars” and TGI Friday institutions which dominated the drinking landscape into the ‘70s and ‘80s. They should accordingly be held responsible for starting the trend of sacrificing quality for speed and volume and popularizing abominations like the Long Island Iced Tea and the Harvey Wallbanger. But here also it becomes complicated to disentangle Africa and Stillman from their times, the era of sexual liberation and yuppiedom which created a desire for sweet, stylish drinks and for bars that were more arenas for hook-ups rather than temples of mixology. We are forced to again reluctantly lower our pitchforks in the face of the fact that, if Africa had not invented a fern bar, someone else probably would have.

“There’s no one figure in the booze industry who did even a hundredth of the damage as people like Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Zimmerman as an accidental by-blow of their campaign to make old people and all their cherished things—from jazz to the cocktail—look old.”

When it comes to identifying the villains behind the cocktail’s Dark Ages, it turns out that the actors tend to be overarching historical movements—the tyranny of the masses, if you like—rather than the work of individuals. “I think, in general, bartenders were less to blame than larger social forces,” says William Grimes, author of Straight Up or On the Rocks. “The prefab aspect of modern cocktail-making simply goes in lockstep with the rest of the industrialized food system in the U.S. The same pressures that put Wonder Bread on the table and Hamburger Helper on store shelves stocked the bar with Bloody Mary and sour mixes and fake lemon and lime juice.”

Cocktail historian David Wondrich argues that mainstream society’s assimilation of hippie values in the ‘60s and ‘70s—such as the belief that tradition and the past were burdens to be rejected and mistrusted—affected bartending as much as any subculture, rendering the cocktail’s 19th-century Golden Age null and void. “There’s no one figure in the booze industry who did even a hundredth of the damage as people like Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Zimmerman as an accidental by-blow of their campaign to make old people and all their cherished things—from jazz to the cocktail—look old.”

The more you pull back the lens, the more visible a perfect storm of causes at play behind the cocktail’s Dark Ages becomes. Recreational drug use made drinks accessories to more powerful substances as opposed to the main event. Meanwhile, Madison Avenue seized on vodka, finding in the odorless, tasteless, colorless spirit an ideal canvas upon which to compose decades’ worth of marketing campaigns. What all these factors have in common—from the food industry’s glorification of convenience to the flower children’s equivocation of Martinis with the patriarchy—is an underlying urge to react against the past. It is the young eating the old.

“If you look at artistic movements, they always skewer the thing that came before them,” says Derek Brown, who owns a number of Washington, D.C, bars and curated a series of panels on the history of cocktails with the National Archives. “It’s a kind of necessary thing to do: ‘They were idiots; we’re doing the real thing.’ So when we look at the ‘90s, that’s the villain for us.”

In other words, the act of discovering and naming the Dark Ages was a retrospective one. People drinking in the ‘80s weren’t lamenting the near-extinction of the Julep and bonded rye whiskey or aware that we would later consider them to be wallowing in the nadir of 20th-century cocktails. “The drinks then were very acceptable to the public at large,” says bartender and author Gaz Regan, who began working in New York City in the ‘70s. “And we thought of ourselves as being masters of mixology.”

This is, of course, a line of thought that can lead down the path of historical relativism, which has its own problems. It’s hard to dispute that sour mix tastes like crap, at least when compared to real citrus juices, or that rude, cynical bartenders—of which we may have seen a slight uptick in the punkish ‘90s—are bad bartenders. But the point is that in their time, people were drinking just what they wanted to drink, in the kinds of bars they wanted to drink them in. Even when it comes to cocktails, there is no escaping from the dialectic of history—the same one that birthed our current, antiquity-revering renaissance out of a reaction to grunge drinks.

At this close proximity, the cocktail revolution of the early aughts still seems to be the work of independent individuals, agents of their own will and imagination. But already as the years widen, we are beginning to be able to see how larger forces, like the recession of 2008, have played their part in authoring that moment. “Traditional work has fallen apart in the last 15 years,” says Wondrich. “Suddenly, you’ve got educated, determined people who can’t find work, and bartending seems good. It created a way for the younger generation to take control of their own destiny. I think 20 years from now we’ll see that a lot more clearly than we do now.”

History is written by the victors, as the old saw goes, and it’s as true behind the stick as it is in any other sphere. If anything, bartenders today—that lot of tipsy, self-aggrandizing yarn-spinners—should be grateful to have the backdrop of Dark Ages to work against: a long fallow period that makes their own creations all the more lush and vibrant by comparison. “We’ve cherry-picked history,” says Brown, of how the current craft cocktail generation has used history to their advantage. “I’m as guilty of that as any bartender. We’re bartenders—we tell stories.”