Tales of the Cocktail: Around the World by (Brass) Rail

[This is cross posted from the original post at Talesblog.com.]

I wish my high school history classes had been a tenth as fun as this one.

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Historian-of-booze David Wondrich and guru of all thinks tropical and drinkable Jeff “Beachbum” Berry led us on a survey of the global reach of America’s greatest ambassador to the world at large — the cocktail (and the julep, cobbler, smash, daisy, etc.). It was one of those classes where there’s so much information coming forth that after a few minutes not only can you not even begin to write it all down, it’s a struggle to remember everything. You just have to sit back, let it wash over you, enjoy and laugh and let whatever bits of it stick with you as you practically marinate in history. 

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There’s a popular myth that’s been promulgated for years that the spread of the American cocktail and the American bar was due to Prohibition. “Horse puckey,” Dave said, only he didn’t, he said something pithier. It had already been a global phenomenon for generations. In fact, American cocktail making and culture began to spread almost immediately after it began to coalesce at home in the mid-1800s, and within fifty years had spread to nearly every corner of the globe. Almost any country that wasn’t too far off the beaten path had an “American Bar,” and sometimes the beaten path extended very far indeed. In the 1890s there was an American bar in Punta Arenas, Patagonia. “That’s practically the end of the earth, and you could get a Manhattan cocktail there.  There are parts of Kansas now where I can’t get that,” said Wondrich.

People came to the States from myriad places where their drinking choices were limited by tradition, lack of ingredients, what have you. The light came on in their eyes, though, when a simple glass of sherry (perfectly nice on its own) was transformed by the addition of sugar, citrus, shaved ice and fruit decorations into a luscious sherry cobbler. Writers and poets extolled our drinks’ virtues and sang their praises, and before long everyone wanted bars like this where they lived.

By this point you could get an American-style cocktail almost anywhere in the world, and chances are it’d be pretty damn good. American bartenders hadn’t quite made it around the world in force just yet, though — that’s where Prohibition came in — so you’d often get local variations which weren’t always necessariliy a good thing. Bringing in local traditions and ingredients is fine, but Wondrich said some of these bars were like an insect that had been eaten by a spider, “which sucked all the insides out and left only the shell.”

One difference that snuck into American-style bars which continues here in America is a point that makes Dave bristle.  ”Look at any old pictures of pre-Prohibition American bars, especially those in the late 1800s. What don’t you see? … Barstools! There were no barstools in proper American bars!” Barstools were an import from Germany, apparently, and Dave finds them the ruination of the spirit of the American bar.  ”Think about it,” he said. “When you’re standing at the bar, unless you happen to be chatting with the bartender, you’re leaning on it, facing the side or the rear, interacting with the people around you. Nowadays in bars you see only the backs of people on barstools, a phalanx of backs that’s a barrier between you and the bar, and lots of them sit there all night — screw you buddy, I’ve got mine, get yours!” Although I’m as lazy as the next guy, if not more so, and enjoy warming my barstool, I do see his point.  And how that I think of it, two of my very favorite bars — The Varnish in Los Angeles and Bar 1886 in Pasadena — have no barstools. But I digress.

After describing the lengths to which our drinks found the corners of the globe (including two fairly notorious bars opened at opposite ends of the Panama Canal by Mayme Kelley and Max Bilgray, who once named a horrid-looking cocktail after famed evangelist Aimee Semple Macpherson after he spotted her in his joint), Jeff Berry took over and we spent a considerable amount of time looking at one particular drinking destination where the American Bar single-handedly sparked a national tourist industry — Havana, Cuba. It was a fairly sleepy town where not a lot of Americans visited, and then the Volstead Act passed, bringing the Noble Experiment of Prohibition to the entire country.  And look … there, a mere 90 miles from our shores, was a potential haven of drinking. Plentiful drinking, stacks of liquor and some pretty damn good bartenders, too.

“Have one in Havana!” became the rallying cry for tourists, and one enterprising Spaniard by the name of Jose Abial y Ortega opened what became the number one tourist destination for Americans in Cuba — Sloppy Joe’s Bar.

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Many American tourists came to Havana, went straight to Sloppy Joe’s, much to the annoyance of some people who thought the reason to visit a country is to see a country.  See Cuba, see more of Havana … for God’s sake, see what else is on the street besides this bar! “Sloppy Joe’s is not Cuba,” snarled one contemporary travel writer. Charles H. Baker Jr, writer for Town & Country, Gourmet and other food and travel magazines as well as the book The Gentleman’s Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask had a different view of drink-oriented tourists who frequented the place: “Sneer all they please as Sloppy Joe’s, the fact still remains that there are as good, and better, and more varied cocktails suitable to our somewhat exacting taste than at any spot in Cuba.” So there.

Jeff even brought along a bottle of Sloppy Joe’s own house label rum (empty, sadly) — they stocked amazing 30-year-old rums which were apparently extraordinary. 

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There was also a signature cocktail at the bar, the first one of which was served free to every guest:

SLOPPY JOE SPECIAL

2 ounces pineapple juice
1 ounce Cognac
1 ounce ruby Port
Dash of orange curaçao
Dash of grenadine

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail coupe.

It’s quite a lovely drink, actually.

In the 1930s Ernest Hemingway, who drank copiously in Cuba, first at Sloppy Joe’s and later at what became his preferred spot, El Floridita, advised his friend Joe Russell, a speakeasy owner, on a new name for his joint, once named the Blind Pig and then the Silver Slipper.  ”What about Sloppy Joe’s?” he suggested (perhaps as a raised finger to his former regular watering hole, as one speculation went). It was his name, after all. Joe thought it was a good idea, and it stuck — much to the chagrin of the owners of the real Sloppy Joe’s in Havana, who found their fame overtaken by the Key West impostor.

Alas, the original Sloppy Joe’s is no longer with us, although the Cuban government, in the interests of encouraging tourism, is busily restoring the bar to its former glory, or at least a semblance of such. Work is proceeding slowly, and will be finished … one day.  The Key West Sloppy Joe’s is still there, though. “If you’re ever in Key West,” went the advice, “do not go to this bar. Worst frakking Daiquiri I’ve ever had.” Only he didn’t say frakking.

Long live the American Bar.