10 Classic Cocktails and How They Got Their Names

Drink Lists cocktails

Thanks to hipster culture and Mad Men, a resurgence of classic cocktails is spreading across the country. It’s kind of cool to order a drink that your grandfather once drank, or maybe still does. But where did the names come from? We investigated, and in most cases, it’s hard to say. Conflicting reports abound, but keep in mind that we are talking about adult libations. Memories may have become a bit fuzzy over the years.

A gimlet is a tool, sort of a hand-held drill, commonly used on sailing ships. It’s also a cocktail. There’s a connection. Maybe. The most popular origin story for this lime-juice-and-gin concoction involves the invention in the 1860s of a lime juice cordial by a Mr. Lauchlin Rose that did not require refrigeration, thereby making it valuable for British Royal Navy sailors on long sea voyages who risked the dangers of contracting the disease scurvy without regular source of Vitamin C. (Rose’s Lime Juice remains a staple for mixologists). Sailors being sailors, they began adding gin to it. Another possibility is that it was invented by a naval surgeon named Thomas Gimlette. Either way, it dates to the days of wooden sailing ships. Maybe the tool came into play because of its “sharp” taste?

The Alexander
The original version of this cocktail is gin-based, with crème de cacao and heavy cream added, but other versions use brandy or cognac. The history of its invention is as blurry as its effects after consuming a few, but theories cite it being created in the 1910s at the New York restaurant Rector’s by a bartender named Troy Alexander. He made it for the wedding in 1922 of Lord Lascelles and Princess Mary in London. Or The Alexander was named after the renowned drama critic and commentator Alexander Woolcott, who lived from 1887 to 1943.

Again, there are some conflicting stories on how the martini got its name, but the most logical is simply the result of using Martini & Rossi vermouth and gin in its creation, dating to around the turn of the 20th century. Many variations developed over the years, with vodka martinis being the most popular. The Ian Fleming-created character James Bond is famously known for ordering his martinis “shaken, not stirred.” Even though the line was uttered in the movies several times over the years, he only orders a “shaken” drink one time in the original novels. That was in Casino Royale, and was actually a martini variant of his own invention that he named a “Vesper.”

Tom Collins
You would think this cocktail would be named after a person. Well, sort of. According to popular accounts, it started in the summer of 1874 as a prank. The basic premise was that a gent would encounter a friend and tell him that a fellow by the name of “Tom Collins” had been saying hurtful and slanderous things about him at a particular watering hole. The friend would rush to the bar, where the bartender was in on the joke, and be told that “Collins” had moved on to another bar across town, where the wild-goose chase would continue. The hoax spread across the country, and pretty soon, the theory goes, the drink followed, with the bartenders handing over the gin cocktail to the gentleman rather than playing along.

Cuba Libre
A few fanciful tales revolve around this drink, but it’s fairly certain that this mixture of Bacardi Rum and Coca-Cola with a twist of lime came about in Havana shortly after the Spanish-American War around 1900 or so. Whether it was invented by one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, another American soldier, or a Cuban bartender, it is a fact that “Cuba Libre” translates to “Free Cuba” and celebrates the Caribbean island’s independence from Spain.

Tom and Jerry
The popular Christmastime cocktail was not named after the ever-warring cat and mouse in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Instead, an eggnog-ish concoction mixed with brandy and sugar and served hot was reportedly invented by British journalist Pierce Egan, author of a popular novel of the time with the tongue-twisting title of Life in London: Or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom. After the book was adapted into a stage production, with the more manageable title of Tom and Jerry, or Life in London, it’s said that Egan created the drink as a publicity stunt. Popular for many years as a Yuletide drink in the Upper Midwest of the U.S., it has recently started a comeback in other areas of the country.

Tequila Sunrise
This mixture of tequila, crème de cassis, lime juice and club soda and garnished with fruit has fallen out of popularity in many cocktail bars in recent years, but made its mark on popular culture both as the title of a 1973 song by The Eagles and a 1988 film starring Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer. Whether it was created at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in the ‘30s or at a south-of-the-border Mexican resort during Prohibition, the mixture of colors in a tall glass evokes an actual desert sunrise for many. Or maybe it just looks like a sunrise after imbibing a few.

One of the most flexible cocktails around gets its name for being, well, old-fashioned. At its most basic, it’s a bit of sugar or simple syrup, a splash or two of aromatic bitters, maybe an ice cube or a bit of water, and spirits. Take your pick: Irish or rye whiskey, bourbon, gin, brandy, rum – all are legitimate variations, though purists will choose one of the whiskeys. Sometimes a maraschino cherry or other fruit is added, but purists again say this should not be done. Its origin is muddled in history, perhaps dating to as early as the late 1700s, but it is believe that this may be the first mixed drink to which the term “cocktail” was applied. One thing’s for certain – it’s the favorite drink of Don Draper in Mad Men.

The Manhattan
All origin stories for this drink place it in Manhattan. After that, things get cloudy. It may have been invented at the Manhattan Club or at another watering hole in the borough in the mid-19th century. The recipe calls for whiskey, vermouth, and bitters, and some say it may have been the first cocktail made with vermouth.

Rob Roy
Finally, a cocktail named after somebody, or at least a play about somebody. Rob Roy the person was Robert Roy MacGregor, a Scottish folk hero of the early 18th century (think Robin Hood with a brogue). Then in 1894, an operetta based on MacGregor’s life debuted in New York and a bartender at the Waldorf-Astoria concocted the drink, similar to a Manhattan, for opening night. As with many cocktails, there are various versions, but the basic ingredients are Scotch whisky (naturally!), sweet vermouth, and a dash of bitters.

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