A history of cocktails, the contemporary era
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After analyzing the reasons and seeing the inventions that paved the way for the creation of cocktails and having identified the roots of modern mixology, it is time to plunge into the contemporary era and understand why and how we drink cocktails today.
Cocktails were, for a long time, the territory and delight of the Americans, born from the inspiration and genius of Professor Jerry Thomas, who was the first to publish a book on the art of mixology.
Prohibition, however, caused a real diaspora of American bartenders, who either changed jobs or became criminals, or, a much wiser choice, decided to operate abroad. And Thomas’ art, permeated by the European trend of aperitifs (which started in Italy with the Vermouth) gave birth to that explosive mix of “wanting to drink something strong” and “wanting to drink something good”, bringing together the excellent European raw materials and the creativity of American bartenders.
But to understand contemporary cocktails we must take a step back, and precisely during the years of Futurism.
Born as a movement to “climb the sky”, Futurism was an avant-garde movement eager to make a clean sweep of all forms of art of the past, classical or traditional. The movement, led by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, involved literature, painting, sculpture, but also music, architecture and – hear ye– cooking.
Marinetti and Fillia, the pseudonym of Luigi Colombo, wrote in 1931 a pamphlet called “La cucina Futurista” (“Futurist cooking”), the last but certainly not the least important battle against «starchy food» (that is, pasta), guilty of generating «weakness, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism» in its addicted consumers.
Fighting “pasta” meant breaking down any food and wine conformism, including the trend of Vermouth-based aperitifs that was very popular in the cities of the Belle Epoque. And so, futurist “polibibite” (literally, “multi-drinks”) take the stage: extroverted and very complex mixes of alcohol and different ingredients, which included fruit, honey, spices, infusions, flowers, berries but also raw ham, parmesan, lettuce leaves, liquid chocolate and much more.
The greatest lesson of the Futurist “polibibita” was to separate drinking from thirst and thirst from conviviality. Drinking was not done to feed or satisfy oneself, nor for the joy of being together: drinking was to be done in the head, building the taste of the cocktail with one’s mind before tasting it with the mouth, designing the drink according to an idea, not a flavor, nor a trend.
Futurist “polibibite” were divided according to functional categories, decided a priori: the decisoni (hot-tonic drinks for making important decisions), the inventine (refreshing and slightly intoxicating drinks for finding new ideas), the prestoinletto (drinks for warming up during the winter), the paceinletto (sleep-inducing drinks) and the guerrainletto (aphrodisiac drinks for conceiving).
Even today, large mixologists look at “polibibite” with a certain envy, seeing in them the freedom of imagination applied to the science of cooking.
Cinema and mass society
But cocktails really began their path to global success when they became a status symbol of the new post-industrial mass society.
The cinema, more than any other form of art, has shaped the collective imagination. Briar counters, dim lighting, discreet lights, the smoke of cigarettes, the leather of the armchairs, writers and intellectuals, femme fatale and chatty barmen. And also, Casablanca and James Bond, The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Big Lebowski and Sex and The City.
Films, especially American ones, have associated cocktails and its rituality with something noble, elegant, distinct, but, at the same time, profoundly vital and even a little corrupt. In short, it is habit that is suitable for everyone, both beautiful and damned, fashionable and rebellious.
The Martini, perhaps invented by Jerry Thomas himself, has seen its true consecration thanks to the 007 films, becoming the drink of celebrities, politicians and intellectuals such as Humphrey Bogart, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway, who became so fond of this cocktail that he combined his name to a particular variant. Ordering a Martini, sitting at the bar counter, or sipping it while batting eyes with other patrons meant imitating, at least for a few moments, the lives of celebrities, their ways and values, according to canons rewritten by the media.
Between hyperlocalism and Instagram
Today the world of cocktails is no longer marked by such a strong imitation of proposed models, but by the right balance between futurist flair and fashion. The great barmen of the moment call themselves “mixologists”, or professionals in the art of mixing. They live suspended between the desire to create globally successful cocktails and unrepeatable drinks, which can only be enjoyed at their counter.
A trend towards exclusivity that has led modern mixology to invest its best resources in the research of ingredients and in the science of combinations. Cocktails are the signature of their creator, but they also entail the study of the right combination with food. They are popular, drinkable, always pleasant, but also containing special formulas and techniques, perhaps unique and local ingredients. Hyperlocalism is likely one of the contemporary dogmas that seeks to liken cocktails with wines, drinks that are strictly linked to their territory and the raw materials that originate from one’s garden.
However, in the age of social media, cocktails must take a step forward and embrace the most developed sense of the moment: the sense of sight. The extreme research of contemporary mixologists shifts its attention from flavors to appearance, celebrating color and composition. After all, one must not miss engaging with Instagram, whose “drinkstagrammers”, photographers focusing on drinks, exceed 32 million views a day using the hashtag #cocktail and #cocktails.
Read on the History of Cocktails, Part 1
Read on the History of Cocktails, Part 2