Stirred but unshaken, cocktails and controversies

Topeka Metro News.
October 14, 2005.

As you know, this column is dedicated to research, and this morning, we turn our attention to the intriguing question of how various alcoholic mixed drinks got their names. It is a worthwhile pursuit. Even teetotalers should want to know the name of the drink they’re not drinking, and how it got that name.

Some, like the Harvey Wallbanger, are easy. Some years ago, the makers of Galliano liqueur, figured out they would sell more of it if it were incorporated into a popular drink. So they invented one, made of Galliano, vodka and orange juice, and called it a Harvey Wallbanger.

For their advertising campaign, they also created a surfer named Harvey. This sort of backfired, because today many students of alcohology say the drink was named after a real surfer named Harvey who banged into walls after having one too many, or maybe just one. That is not what the promoters had in mind.

Nobody knows how long ago man first settled on a barstool and ordered a shot and a beer. It probably was centuries ago. But after World War II, or maybe it was World War I, a variation was created.

Instead of drinking the whiskey and chasing it with beer, patrons started dropping the shot glass full of booze into a mug of beer, and watched it settle to the bottom before drinking the resulting mixture.

They called the drink a Depth Bomb. With a delayed fuse, they might add.

The martini is a simple mixture of gin and vermouth, with an olive or onion or lemon twist, or what have you. They also are made with vodka, although some purists say a vodka martini is not really a martini. Whatever, it should be served colder than a well digger in the Klondike.

The question is, where did it get its name? Some historians say it comes from Martini & Rossi, famous makers of Italian vermouth, but others say there were martinis in this country. But others say there were martinis in this country before that brand of vermouth was imported here.

There is a school of thought that says the drink is named after the Martini-Henry rifle used by the British Army, but no solid connection between the two has ever been established. Another theory has the concoction being named for the city of Martinez, Calif., where a dry tourist asked for “something new.” Others say this happened in San Francisco, and the tourist was on his way to Martinez.

The drink has other names, most offered by those who have had a bad experience with it, something that is easy to do. The names include White Loudmouth, Broken Glass Soup, Rocket Fuel and Silver Bullet. Georgi Malenkov, a Soviet diplomat, called it, “America’s secret weapon.”

In the 1920s, the martini was the drink of sophisticates, and poet Ogden Nash wrote this about it:
“There is something about a martini,
A tingle remarkably pleasant;
A yellow, mellow martini;
I wish I had one at present.
There is something about a martini,
Ere the dining and dancing begin,
And to tell you the truth,
It is not the vermouth.
I think that perhaps it’s the gin.”

The drink properly is called a dry martini, and most of its devotees insist the dryer they are, the better. Dry refers to the gin, so the less vermouth, the dryer the drink. Some say the way to mix a martini is to pour the gin and then merely glance at the vermouth bottle. Others say you actually should put some vermouth in the drink.

In the TV series. M*A*S*H*, Alan Alda, as Dr. Hawkeye Pierce, always followed surgery with a martini, and he said it should be so dry “there’s dust on the glass.” And there are the famous words of Robert Benchley: “Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”

The martini is classified as a cocktail, So the bigger and more controversial question is, where did the word “cocktail” come from, or, if you prefer, from whence did it originate? There is little agreement on this, and the most popular theory is called a total fraud by some noted historians.

This story, reported by no less an authority than James Fenimore Cooper in his 1821 novel, “Spy,” has it that in the time of the Revolutionary War, American and French officers would gather at a tavern in New York State Owned by one Betsy Flanagan.

They drank some kind of booze that was called a bracer, and one night Betsy decorated the bracer bottles with a cock’s tail feather. When it came time for the toasts, one French officer rose and said, “Viva la cocktail.” Supposedly, the name stuck, even to this very day.

But some historians say horse feathers to these chicken feathers. They called this theory “the Flanagan fallacy,” and say we still don’t know where the word originated. For proof, they point out that believers of the Flanigan story have since located her tavern in four different places in writing histories of the American cocktail.

In some places in this country, they’ve never had any trouble naming what they drank, or in understanding what it meant. The natives drank, “Moonshine” or “White Lightning” and didn’t worry about who created the names. They knew what was in the Mason jar, and they knew what it would do for them, and to them.

The word “moonshine” probably came about because they ran illegal stills at night to keep from being caught by “revenooers,” and “White Lightning” undoubtedly came from an imbiber who thought that’s what hit him.

I tasted it once, and I have a name for it. I can’t use here.


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