10 Incredible Origin Stories Behind Famous Cocktails

Like any good recipe, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint just who put it together first, and cocktails are no exception. Also, considering that bragging rights are involved, sometimes there are pretenders to the title. Here we examine 10 perennial favorites and their incredible beginnings.

Screwdriver

One of the simplest drinks on this menu, consisting of vodka in orange juice, has a somewhat muddled history. It’s claimed that western workers in the Persian Gulf oilfields, who spiked their juice in secret and stirred it with their screwdrivers, first made this in the early 1950s. Others claim it goes back further, to the 1920s and Prohibition, and “screwdriver” was a code word to mislead federal agents.

Brandy

Technically not a mixed drink but rather a deconstructed one, brandy is actually wine that has been reduced down to a concentrate. While it goes back to the 13th century, and considered medicinal, it was first mass-produced during the 1500s, so that wine could be condensed for transportation by ship (space was at a premium). But people liked the “burnt wine” (brandewijn in Dutch) better without adding all that water back in so it became a drink in its own right. Also known as cognac, but only when made in the Cognac region of France.

Margarita

Whether by accident or design, this is still one of the most popular drinks today, so there are many claims to its recipe. Legend says it was made when a bartender used tequila instead of brandy while making another drink entirely, but the mistake was delicious. The original drink was called a Daisy, so they called the mistake a Margarita (Spanish for daisy). A woman named Margaret tried to claim it as hers in 1948, but the first recipe had been published back in 1930, and it was popular enough that Jose Cuervo featured the drink in its ads in 1945, so that claim is pretty much discredited.

Mojito

Here’s a drink that’s had a resurgence in recent years. Rum and mint and sugar and lime juice, how can you go wrong? Even Hemingway loved this drink. But it didn’t start out delicious, that’s for sure. All the other ingredients were added to make bad rum (a bitter, cheap type called aguardiente) taste good. It’s thought “mojito” is the diminutive for “mojo”, which is a Cuban spice blend that is heavy on the lime (but also garlic, which they thankfully left out of the drink).

Tom Collins

This drink is so famous that tall drinking tumbler glasses are named after it. But it started as a 19th century prank, whereby someone would tell you that this guy named Tom Collins was running around spreading rumors about you and he could be found at a certain bar… and when you went to the bar and asked for Tom Collins, they would hand you the drink instead. Whether this was the first viral marketing scheme or what passed for humor back then, that’s up to debate, but this was years before you could ask someone if their refrigerator was running so, I guess they made do with what they had.

Old Fashioned

It’s funny that this drink is not one of the older ones on the list, but this one only dates back to the 1880s. Again, people added things to bad liquor to make it palatable. In this case, bitters and sugar were added to bourbon whiskey. This blend was called a whiskey cocktail. Later, as more recipes became standard, it was necessary to call this one the “old fashioned” whiskey cocktail to distinguish it from the later ones… and finally they just called it the “old fashioned.” It is still one of the most popular bar drinks and an industry standard, so if your bartender does not know how to make one, find a new bar.

Long Island Iced Tea

The youngest cocktail on the list only dates back to 1972, and is claimed by a bartender named Robert Butt (no, really) as his entry in a cocktail-making contest. It became extremely popular among women who wanted to go out drinking without getting disapproving looks from people who should be minding their own business. What looks like a glass of iced tea is actually a delicious but dangerous concoction consisting of gin, rum, vodka, tequila, and triple sec, with just a splash of cola for color. You’ll never forget your first one but you’ll forget all the ones after it because that’s over 20% alcohol content in a single drink.

Gin and Tonic

Another simple recipe with a medicinal past, but not the way you’d think. In this case, it was the tonic water and not the gin that was the medicine. During the colonial days of 19th century Britain, anyone posted to a tropical station was at risk of catching malaria. The only treatment for that was quinine, a bitter, nasty drug administered in liquid form (hence “tonic”) but many thought the cure worse than the disease (and malaria is a horrible disease so that’s saying something). Until some enterprising soul added gin (made from juniper berries) to the tonic, and the rest is literally history.

Mai Tai

The origin is disputed; two legendary characters each claim to have invented it. First, Vic Bergeron, owner of iconic restaurant Trader Vic’s, claimed that in 1944 he made the drink, a blend of rum, triple sec and limejuice, for some friends visiting from Tahiti; “maitai” basically means “it’s good.” Second, Donn Beach (who basically invented the tiki bar) claimed to have created it in 1933. Since Vic’s restaurant is in Northern California and Donn’s is in Southern California, you can imagine that this argument has some rivalry behind it. Nevertheless, it really took off in the 1950s when it was featured in Elvis Presley’s movie “Blue Hawaii.”

Manhattan

Of course this drink is on the list. It’s iconic, classic, and its origin is the stuff of legends. A mix of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters, it was created in 1874 in honor of New York Governor-elect Samuel Tilden. Allegedly, the party was hosted by socialite Lady Randolph Churchill — who was pregnant at the time. You might have heard of the boy; his name was Winston Churchill. Of course, the fact she was in Europe at the time, in labor, and not in New York does nothing to dampen the mythical status of this drink. Likely it was created for Governor Tilden, who then unsuccessfully ran for president, at the party; it’s just that the party was not Churchill’s. But considering everything Churchill actually did, it sure could have been.