Samui Wining & Dining
Cocktail Tales

3From cock-fighting to molecules – a look at the emergence of today’s most popular holiday drink.

Cocktail party. Cocktails on the beach. A lethal cocktail of drugs. Even a Molotov cocktail! It’s a word that you’ve said so many millions of times before that it slips effortlessly off the tongue with no analysis or thought. It’s such a familiar little word that images conjured by the separate words of ‘cock’ and ‘tail’ aren’t triggered at all. And yet there was a time when the only occasion you heard these two words used together was in an assembly of poultry farmers. But, like most of the compounded words that have eased their way into our language, the emergence of ‘cocktail’ didn’t happen overnight. It took several generations of usage for the word to gain common parlance and it had to cross some pretty sturdy social barriers, too. And, curiously, the story begins with the ‘lower orders’, so to speak!

But first of all it has to be pointed out that ‘cocktails’ had already existed for quite a while before anyone put a name to the phenomenon or began having gatherings to celebrate it. Looking back through the writings of the great English diarist, Samuel Pepys, you’ll find references to ‘it’ (the embryonic cocktail) as early as the mid-1600s. This was because the first blending of alcohol with other beverages was initially in a restorative or medicinal context, such as brandy combined with sugar, honey or even laudanum; rum with egg and so on. It was Dr. Samuel Johnson who observed that, “Gentlemen partake only of the grape: gin and rum are for stevedores and cab drivers.” And yet it was from this lowly section of society that eventually emerged that most elevated form of High Society gathering, the cocktail party.

It wasn’t until the American War of Independence in the early 1800s that the word ‘cocktail’ finally became coined. The American army was ‘rough and ready’ by any standards and it was common to mix a splash or two of spirits into the odds and ends of whatever beer they could get hold of. James Fennimore Cooper’s novel of 1821, ‘The Spy’, encompasses the factual tale of American troops celebrating after having won a skirmish with the British and making off with a quantity of their mess-house roosters. During the revelry that followed, the poultry was roasted and the soldiers began gleefully decorating their glasses of hybrid hooch with the birds’ tail feathers. Whatever the provenance of this legend, it is certainly true to say that by the mid-1800s the word ‘cocktail’ was being used by such eminent writers as Wilkie Collins, Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Makepeace Thackeray.

On the overall landscape of the cocktail, one or two landmarks stand out. The historical martini gained popularity at the beginning of the new century but, alas, there is no definitive saga to point to its origin. It is said that it was the offshoot of another popular drink of the era, the martinez. Some declare that the martini was named after the Martini and Rossi vermouth that in turn was named after the British Martini-Henry rifles which were used by the British army at that time. What is known for a fact is that in 1944 the author, W. Somerset Maugham, wrote, “Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lay sensuously one on top of the other.” An observation that, although wittily intentioned, was to be taken most seriously 50 years later, as shall soon be revealed!

The other high point on the cocktail’s timeline occurred in 1862 with the American publication, A Bartenders’ Guide. In addition to listings of recipes for ‘Sours, Slings, Cobblers, Shrubs, Toddies and Flips’ there were ten (just ten!) recipes for drinks referred to as ‘Cocktails’.

Cocktails didn’t become a popular drink with Joe Public until the years of Prohibition in America in the 1930s. And this was more from necessity than desire, as the quality of the illicitly-distilled booze was generally so dire that it just had to have something added to it to drown out the taste!

Over on the other side of ‘The Pond’, however, the gay young things of the elite were embracing the marvellous new cocktails with abandon – an acceptance which did not spread to the general public for almost another half a century. It took cheap air fares and discount package holidays for the masses to venture abroad, and to the Mediterranean regions in particular. It was there that happy bartenders rubbed their hands with glee as day-trippers guzzled these exotic-yet-watery drinks that sold for a lot but cost very little to prepare.

Today, the cocktail has become more than respectable; it’s now an established art-form in its own right, and more than ever has become an integral part of any sunshine holiday experience. Cocktails are not only refreshing, but can be ‘loaded’ to any degree of impact that’s desired – with the added benefit of disguising that ‘alcohol blast’! But, whereas most folks are content to sip dreamily, there are others that are deadly serious about it all.

They’re taking their rum & chocolate gelée mix, adding a pinch of bicarbonate of soda and sprinkling it gently on a sample slab of the jelly with a sterilised ceramic spoon. And this is not some weird science experiment. This is what the bar industry today calls molecular mixology. This approach uses the avant-garde cooking techniques that started in Paris in 2005, when the luxurious Hotel Plaza Athenee’s bar introduced apple martini lollipops and bubble gum piña coladas for the first time. Old Somerset Maugham was something of a prophet, perhaps?

This is not a common approach. But there are places on Samui where you can explore this fascinating genre of beverage. One of these is the innovative Natura restaurant, on the ring-road close to the traffic lights in Bo Phut, where Master Chef, Stefano Leone, is working his own blend of mixological magic. Or you could paddle over to Padma, the signature fine-dining restaurant of Karma Samui, just outside Chaweng on the road leading towards neighbouring Choeng Mon, where you’ll find a similarly wonderful world to explore.

And, needless to say, at both places the food is pretty special, too! But whether you’re on the cutting edge of today’s technology or simply sitting sipping at the sunset (say it three times fast to check whether that piña colada’s working), no relaxing day on Samui is complete without a cocktail of one sort or another. Molecular it might be – but the cock-fighting’s extra!

 


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