How Immigrants Created America’s Cocktail Culture
American drinkers owe a debt to a truly multicultural group of bartenders.

12.02.16 6:02 AM ET

Imagine if the only drinks we had to wash us over the rocky shoals of life were the same ones our American ancestors drank on the brink of the nineteenth century, before all those waves of immigrants hit our shores.

Back then, American drinking was English drinking, with just a shade of Dutch and German and West African drinking mixed in, along with a handful of local twists and hacks. That meant that the basic building blocks were rum, raw rye whiskey, Dutch-style gin—often made from that raw rye—plus apple and peach brandy, Madeira wine, cider and ale. For mixers, if you went in for such refinements (many didn’t), you had plain water, of course, plus lemons and limes (when you could get them), sugar, molasses, eggs, milk, apples, dried peaches, mint in season, bitters, a few baking spices and the occasional pineapple.

Admittedly, at first that doesn’t sound so bad. Combine the rum with the sugar, the lemons or limes, some water and a scraping of nutmeg and you have Rum Punch, and nothing’s better than Rum Punch for shoal-washing. If you got tired of that you had Juleps and Cocktails and Slings and Toddies. Not a bad spread—at least until you look at things a little more closely, at which point you realize that a Julep is just Punch with the citrus replaced by mint, a Cocktail is a Julep with the mint replaced by bitters, and a Sling or a Toddy is Punch with neither citrus nor mint nor bitters—unless, that is, it’s an Apple Toddy, in which case you add a mushed-up baked apple to the thing. There were a few other drinks floating around, along the lines of Egg Nog, Flip (hot beer with rum, sugar and eggs) and Black Strap (rum with molasses and water or spruce beer, made from the new tips of pine branches), but that’s about it.

If you find all that a bit monotonous, you’re not alone: in fact, that’s pretty much what drinkers thought then. The first 30 years of the nineteenth century saw American bartenders making extraordinary efforts to, if you will, shake things up. With the help of Frederic Tudor, an old-line Yankee who had an epiphany when he was sweltering it out in the Caribbean and returned home to Boston to build a company that would deliver clean, cold and, most importantly, cheap ice to your neighborhood saloon in the middle of the summer, they started icing their drinks, and copiously. They came up with fanciful names—Hail Storm, Timber Doodle, Moral Suasion.

Following the lead of the African-American bartenders of the South, they even took to garnishing their drinks with lavish abandon. They took to replacing some of that rum with imported French brandy. Yet that Hail Storm was still simply a Sling with little lumps of ice in it, that Timber Doodle was brandy, cider and ice and that Moral Suasion was more or less a glass of punch with a splash of peach brandy in it.

Then came the immigrants. The 1840s brought vast numbers of people to America, mostly from Germany and Ireland. Many of the “native” Americans (i.e., descendants of earlier waves of immigration) regarded these newcomers with, at best, suspicion and at worst open anger and contempt: they mocked their English, refused to hire them, exploited them and harassed them. That suspicion extended to the way the newcomers drank. The Irish, who had not yet taken up stout as their primary national drink, at least brought no innovations: they drank whiskey, we had whiskey (in fact, Irish whiskey then had a considerable proportion of rye in it and they had no trouble adapting to our straight rye). Their particular genius lay more in hospitality than mixology, although in time they would make contributions there, as well.

The Germans, however, brought real novelties. Lager beer, their national drink, was as yet unfamiliar in America, strange as that might seem considering the oceans of the stuff we drain every year. It was not greeted with universal approbation. On the far end of the spectrum was a Philadelphia editor who in 1851 called it a “vile compound of dirt and poison” and insisted that lager was “worse, far worse, than rye whiskey; a mixture to madden and destroy.” But even the (then new) New York Times thought it was, along with cigar smoking, “theater pits” and “yellow-covered literature,” one of the things that was enervating American youth.

Even worse was the German custom of spending Sunday afternoons in beer gardens in family groups, singing, listening to music and, of course, drinking lager. Pleasant as this sounds, it was completely un-American; here, saloons were for men, period. The practice was widely attacked and discriminatory Sunday closing laws were passed against it. When the establishments tried to fly the American flag in protest, nativists would rip it down.

But the Germans brought more than lager with them. They also brought their own tradition of mixology, one that was a good deal more fanciful than the one they found here. Germany has a long tradition of elaborately-garnished wine-based “cups” and cleverly-compounded regimental, club and association drinks, each one attempting to distinguish itself from the others by its unique combination of various spirits, wines, liqueurs, flavored syrups and the like. When German immigrants began stepping behind American bars, naturally they turned to this tradition.

One can see the fruits of it early on. Here is a description of one of the Juleps George Vennigerholz was mixing in 1840 at the Mansion House in Natchez, Mississippi:

“It was in a massive cut goblet, with the green forest of mint which crowned it frosted over with sugar snow, and the whole mass underlaid with delicate slices of lemon piled in the pyramid of ice. As for the liquor, it was so skillfully compounded that no one could detect its several parts. Ladies drank of it and supposed that some huge grape from the south side of the Island of Madeira had burst open on a sunny day and been crushed in the goblet.”

In German hands, Juleps weren’t just spirits, sugar, ice and mint. They were cunningly blended from imported brandy, ports, sherries, dashes of this and splashes of that. And, it turns out, American drinkers liked that: Vennigerholz was known as the Julep King of the Mississippi River, a title that would have been hotly contested.

The list of famous German-American bartenders is a long one, including the great Harry Johnson, master of bar management; Henry Carl Ramos, inventor of the Gin Fizz that bears his name; Louis Eppinger, of San Francisco, Portland and then Yokohama and inventor of the Bamboo Cocktail; Frank Haas of New York, inventor of the Whiskey Daisy (and thus, indirectly, the Sidecar and the Margarita and the whole school of drinks related to them); Hugo Ensslin, inventor of the Aviation Cocktail; and William “The Only William” Schmidt, the second most famous American bartender of the nineteenth century, after Jerry Thomas. Under their influence, American drinks gained shade and nuance and complexity. Not everyone liked that—as Mr. Dooley, the Irish saloonkeeper who was alter ego for Irish-American humorist Finely Peter Dunne put it, “whin me frind Schwartzmeister makes a cocktail all it needs is a few noodles to look like a biled dinner”—but their opinion became less and less important as Germans, along with their cold, refreshing beer and their fancy way with a cocktail, became an accustomed part of the American scene.

While the Germans, as a group, had the greatest impact on our way of drinking, there were plenty of other immigrants who made their mark. French and Italian immigrants brought their vermouth with them, and their own mixological skills. In the years before the Civil War, Joseph Santini, an Italian, ran the fanciest bar in New Orleans, inventing the famous Brandy Crusta in the process. Jerry Thomas himself may have worked at Santini’s Gem of the South and included three of his recipes in his pioneering 1862 Bar Tenders’ Guide, an honor he extended to no other bartender.

In New York, “Panama Joe” Fernandez, who came here from that country in 1846, became the city’s acknowledged master at mixing the plain Cocktail, even presiding at a famous contest between the Irish Lord Louth and one Mr. Tracy from Buffalo to see who could drink more of them. (According to Fernandez the men, both 350-pounders, drew at 55 each. Others had Louth ahead, 45-44.) Also in that city, by the end of the century one found Russian Jews getting into the game; men such as Jacob “Jack” Grohusko, inventor of the Brooklyn Cocktail, and Joel Rinaldo, whose Blue Moon was one of the sensational drinks of the decade before Prohibition. Even the Irish finally broke down and got into the mixology game, producing one of the great successes of the early twentieth century, the Bronx Cocktail. This drink was a product of the famous bar at the Waldorf-Astoria, whose staff was mostly Hibernian, although experts disagree on whether the individual responsible was Johnnie Solan, Curly O’Connor or Michael Killackey.

Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

I could go on; the twentieth century brought its own immigrants and their own contributions—vodka, tequila, the Daiquiri, to name three—that are now indispensable parts of what we drink. But by then the framework had been set. If we could drink only what Americans were drinking in 1900, we would barely miss a beat.

It wasn’t just that immigrants invented specific cocktails or brought specific ingredients with them when they came here. They changed the American mind when it came to drinks. Bartenders learned to welcome new ingredients, rather than reject them; if not everyone went along, there were plenty who would. (That spirit continues today—modern American bartenders are even working with Chinese baijiu, one of the world’s more pungent and mixology-resistant types of liquor.)

Mixology became a habit of mind, rather than a set canon of pedigreed recipes; a flexible mental toolset of ways to turn even the unlikeliest ingredients—say, vodka, tomato juice and Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces—into something delicious. In the late 1800s, when this new, inclusive American mixology spread around the world, the resulting “American bars” that popped up in every major city had no trouble enlisting local ingredients and enticing local drinkers. This was America’s first great cultural export, before all the music and the movies and whatnot. Like them, it appealed to the world because it rejected narrow traditionalism and sterile authenticity, but let its influences play and mingle at will, trusting that the result would be something fabulous. If there’s a lesson in that, so be it.