To appreciate, or even understand, the cocktail as a culinary artform, it is important to take a close look at cuisine in general and how it has evolved over the centuries.
The dining options in America have never been better. During the many generations that have transpired from the conception of our nation, we have seen both the availability and the diversity, of culinary choices available to us constantly expand and refine themselves. Even though we have virtually always been represented by a collection of nationalities and culinary traditions, we often found that acceptance and appreciation of such diversity was rare. To be fair, much of this was born out of necessity. The life of the early settlers and immigrants was a hard one. They grew what they could, ate what was available, and it was often hard enough just to make it nutritious, with little time or energy to spend trying to turn it into a culinary masterpiece.
During the 1800's we saw some culinary advances start to slowly take shape. With our acquisition, of Louisiana from the French, and California from the Spaniards, we were to find ourselves suddenly in possession of some well defined culinary traditions that had even already been able to take root in the New World. However, the invention of "canned food", was to forestall any grand forward movement in our culinary evolution. While it provided us with the capability of having almost any fruit or produce at any time of the year, it also brought these ingredients down several notches from the quality available in fresh and in-season products. During the Civil War, canned food was an important staple, and returning soldiers had grown so accustomed to the blandness imparted by the process that they requested more of it when they got home. Canned food became a sort of status symbol, which reveled in the ability to have out-of-season products, regardless of their quality. In the late 1800's we also saw a new health-craze break out which embraced bran, roughage, and the simplification of ones diet. Advocates claimed that the road to better health was to see food purely as sustenance and fuel, and that our downfall would be to seek any pleasure from it at all.
Throughout the 1900's we saw the commercialization of a bland diet. Perhaps it got its start in 1865 when the Burpee seed company introduced iceberg lettuce, which finally provided the convenience of fresh lettuce that was sturdy enough to be shipped across the country, but at the cost of significant flavor. In 1897, came canned condensed soups, which would quickly supplant home-made soups and sauces with a product that was far inferior. We soon grew complacent about our cuisine. We bought our meals ready-made, or nearly so, and felt satisfied in the results. Culminating perhaps during the 1940's and 1950's when countless manufacturers would regale us with recipes targeted at the busy housewife to help her produce quick and nutritious meals, with the least amount of effort.
Because of the weight of this culinary past, citizens of the mid 1900's found themselves eating over cooked vegetables, molded Jell-O™ salad, canned fruit cocktail, salad's made from wedges of iceberg lettuce, and tuna-noodle casserole. They ate, and loved, things that many would consider culinary atrocities today. Trying to convince them of the wonders of such delicacies as foie gras, truffles, sushi, calamari, much less such simple things as duck, lamb, or even vegetables cooked al dente, during that time would have been difficult to say the least. We were a nation of culinary xenophobes, afraid of the true cuisines that the rest of the world had spent thousands of years perfecting, unless we had "modernized" it through American ingenuity. Fortunately for all of us, people like Julia Child, James Beard, Graham Kerr, and others were determined to share their passion for fine cuisine with the rest of the nation. They opened our eyes to not only what exciting foods were out there, but also proved to us that they were within the reach of the common man.
Today, we know better, and we eat better. Scattered across almost any sizeable city you can find countless dining options which will accurately reflect the culinary traditions from far off countries and cultures. Better yet, we can find specialized and unique restaurants that thoroughly embrace the well crafted classic cuisines, and then build off of them to create richly inspired creations that present the best of the old as well as the new. The chef's that are evolving our cuisine in America have spent long years studying the culinary traditions of Europe, Japan, China, and the Middle East. First they learn to the fiber of their being what makes these cuisines work, and then they blend them together in a well-balanced form that can often make it difficult to identify any individual source of inspiration.
By now, as interesting as you might find all of this, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with cocktails. If you've been reading much of my other articles, then you are well familiar with my insistence that cocktails represent a form of cuisine, and that a well made cocktail can provide the same careful balance of flavors and ingredients that any classically trained French chef will tell you is so important to their art. So it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to attempt to draw some comparisons between the evolution of cuisine in America, and the evolution of America's first true cuisine, the cocktail.
While too direct of a comparison might be an over-simplification, when I look at today's cocktail culture I can't help but be reminded of the cooking and eating habits of the 1950's. I say this because it is quite likely that the drinks you are being served today aren't much more than the cocktail equivalent of molded Jell-O salad... and you don't even know it. Don't worry, you aren't to blame for this situation, instead the blame is simply on the culture and environment that we currently find ourselves in. It wasn't until the 1980's that we started to wake up and realize that perhaps there was something better then canned coffee, or that these little local breweries could make some pretty good beer. Cocktails are more complex of a culinary topic than coffee, beer, or even wine, and so it shouldn’t be too surprising that it might take a little more effort in order for us to learn how to fully appreciate them.
Just as the 1950's housewife was eager to follow the recipes provided by the marketing programs of the major packaged food producers, I see today's drinker as being far too willing to accept the marketing propaganda presented by many of the liqueur and spirit producers. Playing the role of iceberg lettuce, with its bland and flavorless addition to the diet, we have Vodka, which through the wonders of modern marketing has countless drinkers energetically debating one brand over another, when in truth they can rarely detect the differences when used in a cocktail. Hot and trendy new cocktails pop onto the scene and are quickly spread around not based on their culinary quality, but due to their perceived status because what singer or movie star was seen drinking one. And just as canned food destroyed many recipes through the appeal of its cheaper price and broader availability, we find many people growing accustomed to inferior versions of classic cocktails because they are made with little concern for using quality ingredients or methods.
While all of this might sound a little bleak, there is hope on the horizon. In the midst of such atrocities as the Apple Martini, or Red Bull and Vodka, we see that some of the trendy directions that some drinkers are heading in are starting to look to foreign classics for inspiration. The Mojito, a classic Cuban drink from the early 1900's has already been going gangbusters for a couple years now. The Caipirinha, a simple and long time Brazilian staple, is just now starting to gather a firm following. The danger of course for how these, and other internationally inspired drinks might aid in our cocktail evolution is firmly based on the quality and dedication provided to their preparation. Already I see bars skipping the use of fresh mint and limes in the Mojito and opting instead to use mint flavored limeade, and with Cachaça sometimes being difficult to find, many bars will just substitute vodka, even when white rum would be a more appropriate replacement. But with any luck, and with diligence and determination by the consumers, we just might see the return to the culinary craftsmanship in cocktails that was once this nation's hallmark.
NOTE: While not of a cocktail nature, if you are interested in further reading about the evolution of cuisine in America, I can heartily recommend "American Appetite: The Coming of Age of a Cuisine" by Leslie Brenner. While it is currently out-of-print, used copies appear to be available via Amazon.com