History 301: It took local media a while to warm up to cocktails

By CONNIE ZEIGLER, Contributing editor

In at least one ranking of states Indiana stands near the bottom, and that is probably a good thing. The online source, 24/7 Wall Street, ranked Indiana 30th in a list of “the drunkest states” compiled in August 2021. Still, while we may not be known as over-imbibers, Hoosiers have long enjoyed a nice cocktail and historic sources offer proof.

In his article, The History of Gin Cocktails, author Simon Difford wrote that the first use of the word “cocktail” came in London’s Post and Gazeteer in March 1798, to describe a mixture of gin and ginger syrup. Soon after, two landmark events provided the building bricks of tastier cocktails. First, ice companies began harvesting and selling huge blocks of ice to businesses and consumers around 1800. Then, in 1807, Benjamin Silliman started bottling seltzer in the U.S. The fizzy foundations of the cocktail were born just a few years before Indiana was.

James Pimm mixed the first Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, a gin-based summer cocktail with fruit, liquers and spices, in the 1840s and began selling it bottled in 1865 just after Jerry Thomas published the first American cocktail recipe book “How to Mix Drinks or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion” in 1862.

Cocktails probably made their way to Indianapolis by the 1860s, if not earlier, but the earliest mention of the boozy drinks come in the 1870s in local newspapers. Most of these articles are retold stories from newspapers elsewhere in the country, many are cautionary tales mentioning irresolute men having cocktails for breakfast or while in foreign countries. In that genre was this briefest mentions in The Indianapolis News “Scraps” column, an assortment of quips and brief weird news, in June 1871: “A tale of woe – the cocktail.” 

Despite the rather judgmental attitude that the local press took toward cocktails, establishments in the city were offering up the tasty libations to their customers, who were presumably sipping up the options. A Hotel Bates menu from Feb. 3, 1876, found in the Indiana Historical Society collection, lists a full page of wine and liquors, including 14 varieties of champagne, and a “Gin cocktail: Charles’ London Cordial.” Blame it on the Brits.

The Indianapolis News of Dec. 21, 1876, reported that the “bulldoze cocktail has just made its appearance at the fashionable bars.” The newspaper helpfully, though perhaps with tongue in cheek, offered the recipe: “Tilt a teaspoonful of water into glass and immediately intimidate it with as much whisky as the glass will hold … then throw the water out.”

In these years, local beer, wine and liquor stores advertised in newspapers their “gin cocktails” for sale, presumably bottled. Perhaps, Pimms.

By 1881, the haughty attitude toward the humble cocktail seemed to have changed, at least in local newsrooms. The Indianapolis News reported in June 1881 that a man had stopped in the newspaper office after having a cocktail at Harrey Walker’s Saloon. He “drank the cocktail and brought the water to The News office” to complain. The “water was full of something that looked like fungus,” the article reported. Presumably the cocktail had been A-Ok, but that information was unverified.

The Indianapolis Journal got in the mix of cocktail news on Jan. 12, 1896, with the headline “Popularity of Vermouth; Increase in Importation Due to Taste in Cocktails.” The article pounded home the rising interest in cocktail consumption, reporting that 84,000 gallons of vermouth were imported in 1891 and expected to reach 200,000 gallons in 1896. “Of late” the Journal reported, “vermouth has come to be a necessary ingredient in nearly every cocktail compounded at an American bar. The vermouth cocktail is, of course, well known, but no less so, perhaps, is the Martini, which is also a vermouth cocktail.”

With the turn of the new century a cocktail caution made its way back into the newspaper when the Indianapolis Journal reported on March 1, 1904, that Dr. J. N. Hurty, secretary of the State Board of Health, had cautioned that “cocktails are conducive to pneumonia … so beware of the drink with a cherry in it.”

That caution was probably not heeded by many and in fact, some claimed that cocktails were medicinal. In 1906, Haag Drugs advertised in The News that it sold “Manhattan Club Cocktails, Martini Club Cocktails, Casino Club Martini Cocktails and Casino Club Manhattan Cocktails,” for those in need of such treatment.

For the cocktail conscious, H. C. Knode & Co. advised in The Indianapolis Star in March 1910 about how to stock an “at-home wine cellar,” which included bottles of Martini Club and Manhattan Club Cocktails, as well as gin, vermouth “and a bottle of cherries.”

Two years later, The Star published an article lamenting the “lost art” of cocktail concocting. In “times past a ‘cocktail was three-fourths inspiration and the rest mathematics and elbow grease,’ said one of the paleological epicures” consulted. By 1918, L. S. Ayres was trying to help customers up their cocktail game with items such as a “Sheffield Silver shaker for $3.75 to $4.25; Cocktail glasses, $1 ea.; Cocktail Tray, $4; Glass cocktail shaker, $1.00.”

Of course, the Roaring 20s saw cocktail drinking reach new heights, or sink to new depths, depending on whether one was a partaker or a prohibitionist. Prohibition sent cocktail drinkers underground for a time. After what must have seemed like a century instead of a decade, the 19th Amendment in 1933 finally saved cocktail hour.

If you’d like to party like it’s 1862, here’s a recipe for gin cocktail from Jerry Thomas’s “How to Mix Drinks or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion”: 2-3 dashes of gum syrup / 1-2 dashes of Orinoco syrup / 2 dashes of absinthe / Wine glass full of gin. Add ice and squeeze a lemon peel into the mixture before placing it on top.

Bottom’s up.