As you know we are celebrating our 250th anniversary with a drinks reception at Kenwood House. While deciding what to wear I wondered if a cocktail dress would be the thing – and if the 1st Lord Mansfield held similar parties there and, if he did, did he have sartorial problems? Little musings can lead to some interesting facts. The answer to my own question is no, no-one in the 18th century would even have dreamed of such a thing – cocktail parties hadn’t been invented.
So, who did invent the cocktail party – a time in the early evening, before dinner when people get together in party clothes to drink together? Some are convinced that it is one of the joys America brought to the world in the 20th century? Really? – I beg to differ.
Who invented the cocktail!
It has been generally accepted until recently that the the earliest-known use of the word “cocktail” in print that referenced drink was from 1806 in an upstate New York newspaper. So, it’s an American thing, right? Well, in fact, as far as we know, the word was first used in the March 20, 1798, edition of The Morning Post and Gazetteer, a long-defunct London newspaper. They were telling the story of a pub landlord who rashly forgave all his customers their tab. The paper published an exact list of who owed for what and noted that William Pitt the Younger owed for “L’huile de Venus”, “perfait [sic] amour”, and a less French drink: “‘cock-tail’ (commonly called ginger).”
The most common use of the term “cocktail” at the time was in reference to a horse with its tail cut short to indicate it was of mixed breed – hence the link with a mixed drink – plus, gingering was a technique employed by horse traders to fetch higher prices for their cocktails. A horse with a spring in its step, wide-open eyes and, most importantly, tail held high would sell for more. A well-placed thumb of peeled ginger produced the desired effect, at least until the horse was sold.
That seems like pretty good evidence to me but there’s also the fact that mixing various ingredients to create punches was also a long held tradition – Jane Austin’s heroine’s were always off to a local dance to drink a cup of punch.
And here’s Mr Micawber form Dickens’ 1850 novel making himself a hot punch.
In 1869, the first British book containing cocktail recipes was published: William Terrington’s Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks. Reaching back to that first use of the word cocktail, his first recipe was for a Gin Cocktail made with brandy or gin, ginger syrup, aromatic bitters, and a splash of water.
Who invented the cocktail party!
There’s a difference of opinion on this which splits the cocktail drinking world. Some say it was Mrs Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St Louis, Missouri in 1917. Mrs. Walsh invited 50 guests to her house on a Sunday at high noon for a one-hour affair. “The party scored an instant hit,” the local newspaper declared, and stated that within weeks cocktail parties had become “a St. Louis institution”.
Others say it was writer and socialite Alec Waugh, – brother of Evelyn – who noted that the first cocktail party in England was hosted in 1924 by war artist Christopher Nevinson and his wife. He set the scene in his article for Esquire Magazine: ‘There was nothing to do on winter evenings between half-past five and half-past seven.’ Granted, if you think long and hard enough, you’ll remember stuff like ‘taking care of a child or pet, gardening, reading a book … What one needs…is some kind of party that starts at half-past five, that last ninety minutes, at which alcohol is served but not much food.’ Alec mentioned the idea to the Nevinsons, who were known as great party throwers, and the rest is history.