An Illustrated History of Cocktails in the South

An Illustrated History of Cocktails in the South

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Abbye Churchill
May 11, 2016
(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

It could be argued that the history of America is inexorably linked to the history of drinking. After all, legend has it that the real reason the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock was because they ran out of beer; they dropped anchor at first sight of land in order to, ahem, rectify the situation.

Flash forward a few years, and our nation's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, used the country's affinity for alcohol to pay back the debt owed from the Civil War. The taxation of the sale of liquor (88 million gallons of it were in production in the U.S. by 1860) led to the creation the Internal Revenue Service — so we have alcohol to thank for that, too.

Country-founding aside, perhaps nowhere has contributed more to the evolution of the drink than the American South. It has brought us some of our most iconic of American cocktails, and most alluring tales. Here's a look back at some key moments in the history of drinking below the Mason-Dixon Line.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

The Golden Era of Southern Cocktails

The 1800s were heady days for drinking in all of the United States, but especially in the South, where one of America's first cocktails (some say the first) was invented. The exact origins of the Sazerac aren't entirely clear (as seems to be the case with many boozy concoctions). One story claims it was invented in 1850 as the house cocktail at Sewell Taylor's Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans. An alternate history of the drink credits the apothecary of Antoine Amedee Peychaud, founder of Peychaud's Bitters, as having created the drink.

Either way you'll have it, the name of the drink comes from Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac, the brandy cognac used as one of the primary ingredients in the cocktail. It was revised to include rye whiskey in the early 1900s, and modern versions of the drink are made with either rye whiskey or the traditional cognac, a swish of Absinthe, two dashes of Peychaud's Bitters, and a sugar cube, served over ice with a lemon peel.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

The legendary Ramos Gin Fizz, a labor-intensive masterpiece that requires no less than 12 minutes of hand shaking, was also born in New Orleans. Invented by Henry C. Ramos in 1888 at his bar, the Imperial Cabinet Salon, the tall, icy drink combines gin, lemon juice, lime juice, sugar, cream, orange flower water, egg white, and soda water, all shaken to high clouds of aromatic meringue-like froth. In order to keep pace with the demand (and labor), legend has it that Ramos would employ 20 bartenders per shift just to shake his namesake gin fizz.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

America's Native Spirit

America's only native spirit was also created in the South. Made from corn that was prolific in Kentucky, bourbon hasn't changed much since the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, which set the standards for spirits to be officially labeled as bourbon: The liquor must be made in the United States, must be at least 51 percent corn mash, and must be aged in charred oak barrels.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

The introduction of this American brew set the wheels in motion for drinks like the Old Fashioned, a muddle of bitters, sugar, and bourbon or rye whiskey crowned with a cherry and an orange, and what might be the South's most beloved beverage — especially around this time of year. The mint julep features bourbon, combined with muddled mint, sugar, and water, and poured overtop a heaping mound of crushed ice.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

The advent of bourbon also meant the creation of Savannah, Georgia's contribution to legendary cocktails: the Chatham Artillery Punch. The story goes that Georgia's military would serve this potent combination of bourbon, rum, brandy, and champagne in horse buckets during celebrations. Some say it was invented to honor George Washington's visit to the Chatham Artillery.

Prohibition Leads to Moonshine

A few decades later, the tides had turned on how people thought about drinking. On January 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment was put into effect, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transportation, import, and export of liquor, and ushering in a robust era of illicit alcohol trade and manufacture.

During Prohibition, moonshine, that un-aged corn mash whiskey recently adopted by bearded bartenders, was prolific — especially among Appalachian distillers who would make their brew at night in order to go undetected. It is thought that the word "moonshine" is in tribute to their clandestine nighttime activity.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

Southern Cocktails in the Post-Prohibition Era

After Prohibition, Southerners were still quite fond of their native bourbon. In order to engage patrons with other kinds of liquor (read: get rid of some rum), New Orleans's Pat O'Brien invented the Hurricane in 1940: a white and dark rum punch served in a large hurricane glass. The drink was a hit with sailors at that time, but has since become synonymous with Mardi Gras festivities throughout the French Quarter.

Because of the country's engagement in World War II, whiskey and bourbon production in the South was diverted; many distilleries were repurposed to create industrial alcohol to power torpedoes. Then after the War, production of beer sky-rocketed and canned beer became the most dominant drink in America, outselling bottled beer for the first time in 1969 and taking away some of the popularity of liquor produced in the South.

However, there has been a resurgence in pre-Prohibition-era Southern drinking across the U.S. in the past few decades. Our country seems to be finding a new appreciation for the traditional cocktails of the South, and you can now sidle up to a bar almost anywhere in the country and ask for a mint julep.

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