Saturday, January 15, 2011

A couple of cocktail myths.

Charles Montgomery Skinner (1852 – 1907) was an American writer who published works on myths, legends and folklore around the world.

1898 - From "Myths and Legends beyond our borders"


NEW World drinks are a grateful astonishment to visiting foreigners, and a matter of joyful pride among the natives, for the performances of our bar-tenders have been studied by French, Germans, and English without avail, the strong or sodden fluids sold over the so-called "American bars" in Europe being a reflection on American art. Among these various beverages none is more popular than the cocktail: a gulp of liquor in a cold glass, with a dash of bitters and syrup, a drop of lemon, and a garnish of fruit; and it is said to be quite pleasant. In their names our various inventions are stimulative of curiosity, though stone fence, Tom Collins, high ball, whiskey rickey, gin sling, silver fizz, whiskey skin, whiskey daisy, cobbler, smash, and royal punch are more apt to excite apprehension than thirst among the uninitiated. Cocktail, especially, is a term that has not received the amount of study that was its due among philologists and historians, though lame attempts are made to account for it on the score that physicians used to anoint the sore throats and swollen tonsils of their patients with a cock's feather that had been dipped into healing lotions, —an operation that explains the Colorado terms "throat paint" and "tonsil varnish" as applied to whiskey, but that brings us no nearer to the origin of cocktail, it being a mere and obvious guess that gargles succeeded the feather applications, that doses succeeded the gargles, and that drinks succeeded the doses. Another ineffective tradition is that in the sixties sprigs of mint, used in the preparation of mint-juleps, were called cocktails, because they had not the slightest resemblance to any kind of tails, and are not used in cocktails anyhow.

No: the true tale of the cocktail antedates Columbus. It has to do with the Toltecs in the eleventh century. In Mexico the common drink is pulque, a poor beer made from the sap of the maguey plant. The exhilarating possibilities of this juice were discovered by a native of Tula, who was either a nobleman at the time or was ennobled for his service to the race. Finding pulque to be a good thing, from the Mexican point of taste, he sent his daughter, The Flower of Tula, to the emperor with samples. His majesty having consumed a couple of quarts of the beverage was vastly comforted, and, being in a mood to do good, he offered to let the nobleman's daughter be one of his wives. His offer having been suddenly accepted, for royal offers of this kind are never refused, he declared that the drink was fine enough to perpetuate in its name the beauties and graces of the demoiselle who had been his Hebe, and he called it, after her, Xochitl. Moreover, he started an inebriate asylum of his own, and kept his imperial skin well filled with the mysterious juice, thus offering an example to other kings, who are frequently in debt for their cheer.

The head wife of the king, who regarded this new-comer in the harem with sharp disfavor, was reminded that she had never invented a drink, and that silence was becoming to women. In time the inheritor of the kingdom was to be declared, and the choice fell, not on the son of the older wife, but on that of Xochitl. The family disturbance that began then led to faction fighting and the final disruption and downfall of the Toltec dynasty, though the Aztecs continued the brewing industry, and they keep on making pulque and the worse mescal in Tula to this day. People in Mexico and on the edge thereof worried along with the name of Xochitl for the insidious destroyer for years and years, for they had not gumption enough even to use an easy word, unless somebody showed them how. Somebody did. It was the United States army. It went to Mexico, conquered it, found it warm work, acquired a thirst, was served with xochitl, couldn't say it, though it could drink it, called it cocktail, and there you are.

1903 - THE VIRGINIA COCKTAIL (From American Myths and Legends by Charles Montgomery Skinner)

"WHILE Mexico has its cocktail legend, and while we know that the Dutch in America used to prelude their meals with a "haanstart" of gin and bitters, Virginia enters the lists with a counter-claim for the national beverage, and would feel hurt, indeed, if the award went to the Aztecs or the Knickerbockers. Her allegation takes this form: A comfortable tavern once stood and thrived near Culpeper Courthouse, in the Old Dominion, and exploited the sign of the " Cock and Bottle," the cock lustilycrowing the merits of the bottle. There was a certain play on words in this combination, too, for in those days the name cock was commonly applied to the tap, and it fell about by an easy use that the unfortunate who got the last drink or tail of the liquor had the cocktail. A certain doughty colonel of Culpeper went to the hostelry one day to slake for an instant the burnings of a perennial and joyous thirst. Great was his disgust when he was served out of the muddy tailings of the cask. He flung the liquor on the floor and threw the bar-tender out of the place with the sarcastic remark that if an honored customer was to be served with such leavings, he would drink nothing but cocktails of his own mixing. In a frenzy that he supposed to be due to craving, but that his disciples allege to have been genius or inspiration, he caught up a bottle containing gin and emptied half a glass of it, recklessly tossing in sugar, lemon peel, bitters, and a spoonful of vermouth, stirred a bit of ice with the mixture, and quaffed it at a gulp. And behold, the sorrow was gone out of his heart, and he kept no hatred for the bartender any longer. He had invented a cocktail that would go down to posterity, and down posterity's throat, and life was once more filled with sunshine and alcohol."

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