“Straight Up or On the Rocks,” by Williams Grimes

The bar owner was still managing Polite Provisions at the time, trying to weed out the unfit, presumably, before handing over the reigns to one of his groomed up and comers, when he hit us with this assignment. He gave us a list of books to read then write a summary (this of course, was after everyone had to read IMBIBE! by David Wondrich). I chose “Straight Up or On the Rocks,” by William Grimes. I just read over it and revised a few typos and such, but no sentences or ideas were added or changed. I hope you like what you learn…

Despite some accounts being pure speculation, fables or downright fiction, Williams Grimes’ “Straight Up or On the Rocks” gives great insight into the history of the American cocktail. Admittedly “rambling and digressive,” Grimes’ stories still lend important historical content that follow the roots of the American cocktail, and its evolution. Not only does Grimes attempt to place the origin on such classics as the martini, the Manhattan and the Mai Tai, he also connects historical icons such as presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, famous writers Mark Twain, Scott F. Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, and obviously, Ernest Hemingway. He ties in Rudyard Kipling’s admiration for Pisco, Christopher Columbus’ part in the spread of rum through pre-Colonial America, and J.P. Morgan’s habit of having one Manhattan at the Waldorf Hotel each day after the stock market had ended trading. More important than those well-known figures in American history, William Grimes briefly describes the importance of Jerry Thomas, Don the Beachcomber and Victor Bergeron’s place in the tradition, expansion and subsequent maturation of the cocktail in America.

Grimes describes three characteristics of the American cocktail, whose outreach stretches far beyond the confines of a saloon or hotel lounge; indeed, “experiment,” “improvisation,” and “breaking with tradition” define more than spirits in America, but rather American spirit. At the same time, these qualities still comprise the attitude in a bar, as “a saloon offered escape, the opportunity to project a different, more dashing image before an uncritical audience.”
Furthering the mark of experimentation, Grimes follows the transition in American’s drinking habits from rum, to rye; from rye to bourbon; bourbon to gin, then to tequila and vodka… most of which had to do with the expansion along the Western Frontier, as Americans migrated through the country. Some transitions were caused by necessity, while others were natural transitions caused by different tastes and surroundings. For instance, rum was so easy to make from molasses that Christopher Columbus traded sugar cane as part of the African – American – West Indies slave triangle. He traded African slaves for sugar cane in the West Indies; the sugar cane for rum in America; and rum for more slaves in West Africa. Fast-forward two hundred some years to the Revolutionary War, and Americans were refusing to pay taxes to the British on molasses (and everything else), so other means were sought to distill spirits. This led to brandies and rye whiskey. Troubled farmers found hope in Kentucky when they found out how to make bourbon whiskey from corn. This was moreso out of necessity when Washington imposed an excise tax on Pennsylvania farmers making rye whiskey, known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Luckily, at the same time there was a large influx of Scottish and Irish immigrants, who had the knowledge to distill these spirits.

Qualities of experimentation, improvisation and breaking with tradition remain consistent throughout different stages of the American Cocktail. This is proven with different variations of classic cocktails such as the martini. Franklin Delano Roosevelt for instance, liked his martinis with two ounces of gin, one vermouth, a teaspoon of olive brine, and a lemon zest dabbed around the rim. Others insisted on a 3.7:1 ratio of gin to vermouth, or French vermouth versus Italian, or no vermouth at all. There was a time when anything other than “dry” was considered blasphemous. The “correct” version is as arbitrary as the origin of the name, which may or may not have come from the Egyptian god of thirst… or England… or Italy. Regardless, these transcendent qualities epitomize the character of the American cocktail, which may be why the martini “is the only cocktail that has made the leap from drink to symbol.”

It is hard to imagine mixing cocktails without ice. However, in the Colonial Era, the “first duty of an alcoholic beverage was to ward off the chill and damp.” Grimes’ suggested characteristics of American cocktails may have led to the evolution of ice into the cocktail, but the main reason is due to affordability. As Mark Twain alludes, “Ice was jewelry. Only the rich could wear it.”Around the same time, however, ice was becoming less bourgeoisie. Mixing whiskey, sugar and bitters “marks the turning point” in American cocktails, which was “the beginning of the cocktail in a recognizably modern form.” Enter the Golden Era, which marked an age of hundreds of different drinks, with ingredients and bartenders from all over the world experimenting with an infinite amount of permutations to concoct.

One notable difference in pre-Prohibition versus post-Prohibition bars, Grimes notes, is the presence of women. In the Golden Era, businessmen were hotel bars and saloons’ majority of clientele. The transition of Prohibition sent men to drink in their homes, or secretly in speakeasies (which often enforced a club card or secret password for entry!). However, these speakeasies could not afford to discriminate, and women were “allowed” to join the men. This is a time where beer drinkers turned to whiskey out of convenience, and bathtub gin (40% alcohol, 60% water, and juniper oil) became so popular that The Bronx, a once classic cocktail, was overplayed like a radio hit, making people quickly move on.

Many of the classic cocktails were lost (or rarely used) after Prohibition, leading Americans back to the classics like the martini or Manhattan. However, advances in mass marketing led to mass consumption, which led to a decline in quality due to mass production. Double this with efforts of whiskey distillers moving towards producing “industrial alcohol” for World War II to help make smokeless gunpowder and rubber tires, and the opportunity presented itself for new liquors to stake their claim. Since whiskey had to be aged, there was a time after WWII where tequila, then vodka became popular. Since vodka is the most “convenient” liquor, it was highly marketable, but without a backbone, most cocktails of the era lasted only as long as their marketing campaigns.

The American cocktail still carries with it, through different eras, laws and advancements, qualities that guarantee its existence through consistent evolution and experiments of courage backed by knowledge and curiosity. This evolution will continue to include classics, encourage variations and define periods throughout the history of the cocktail, encapsulating the American spirit, “forward-looking and optimistic.”

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