The stories behind the world’s most famous cocktails

Nothing says summer quite like sipping on chilled cocktails late into the light evenings. Bitter, sweet, shaken, stirred, we’ve all got our go-to drink when happy hour comes around. But where do these time-tested concoctions come from? Whilst some can be pin-pointed to a specific place, person and time, others appear created from tall tales and passed-down stories. As you travel the globe, you could find yourself in the bar that birthed the Singapore Sling, the hotel-home of the Black Russian or strolling the streets behind The Manhattan. Read on to find out where your favourite tipple was first poured.

Lower Manhattan, New York City. Image: iStock/Ultima_Gaina

The Manhattan

The origin of this classic concoction isn’t as straightforward as its name suggests, however if the rumours are true, it did originate in the Manhattan borough of New York. Whilst one legend whispers that the cocktail was born at a party that Winston Churchill’s mother threw in 1874, further evidence suggests a more humble origin. A story written by William F. Mulhall, who was a bartender for over 30 years in the 1880s, gave the credit for “probably the most popular drink in the world in its time” to a chap named Black, who “kept a place… on Houston Street on Broadway in the [eighteen-] sixties”. Whether the result of a lavish party or a kooky creation that took off, the Manhattan’s one to relax with over a summer’s evening in New York City.

Ingredients: 50ml bourbon, 25ml vermouth, 1 dash of bitters, 1 maraschino cherry, 1 twist of orange peel
Method: Combine the bourbon, vermouth and bitters with three ice cubes in a mixing glass and stir gently. Place a cherry in a chilled cocktail glass and strain the mixture over it. Rub the cut edge of the orange peel over the rim of the glass and twist it over the drink, releasing the oils (dropping it in is optional).
Serve in: Martini glass
Drink it in: New York City

Tom Collins cocktail. Image: iStock/bhofack2

The Tom Collins

The Tom Collins is said to have started life as an eponymous gin punch at the hands of John Collins, who was headwaiter of London’s Limmer’s Hotel in the early 1800s. When Americans started drinking this delectable fusion they fancied it a little sweeter, and called for English tom gin, instead of London dry gin, updating the name to ‘Tom Collins’ in the process. In 1874, Tom Collins was the talk of the town as ‘The Great Tom Collins Hoax’ unfolded. This practical joke required the joker to tell the victim that Tom Collins has been spreading scandals about them all over town, riling them up into such a frenzy that they immediately headed off in search of him at his supposed favourite saloon. Bartenders soon adopted the drink as standard, ensuring them the last laugh.

Ingredients: 50ml old tom gin, 25ml fresh lemon juice, 10ml sugar syrup, soda water and a wedge of lemon to garnish
Method: Put the gin, fresh lime and sugar syrup in a tall glass full of ice. Stir then top off with chilled soda water. Garnish with a wedge of lemon.
Serve in: Highball glass
Drink it in: London

Hotel Metropole, Brussels. Image: Hotel Metropole

The Black Russian

This thundery drink is a spy-story-lover’s delight, with roots firmly gripped in the late 1940s, as the Cold War was just beginning. Perle Mesta, the American ambassador to Luxembourg, was a frequent guest of the bar at Hotel Metropole, Brussels. So frequent, in fact, that bartender Gustave Tops decided to make her a signature drink, and the Black Russian was born. Its ingredients combined created a cocktail that was as deep and mysterious as its surrounding political climate. The drink was updated in the Sixties with milk (or cream) to make the White Russian, which needs no introduction to The Big Lebowski fans. Whether black or white, this is a concoction that’s best enjoyed watching ‘The Dude’ solve his own on-screen mystery, preferably in an outdoor cinema on a summer’s night.

Ingredients: 50ml vodka, 25ml kahlúa
Method: Combine both ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir and strain into a glass filled with fresh ice. (Add 25ml fresh milk or cream to create a White Russian)
Serve in: Old-fashioned glass
Drink it in: Brussels

Mojito cocktail with Havana’s Capitolio. Image: iStock/vgabusi

The Mojito

They say ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and the Mojito pays testament to this well-respected fact. The drink originates from Cuba, at a time when most rums were far from palatable. To solve this issue, farmers added home-grown ingredients to sweeten the taste – lime, sugar and mint. The trend soon moved to the island’s beaches before spreading through the entire country, over which time carbonated water and plenty of crushed ice were added, sprucing it up to the Mojito we know and love today. The cocktail’s current enjoyment is a far cry from mint’s early introduction to rum, which is said to go as far back as 1586, when Sir Francis Drake tested the duo as a potential cure for dysentery and scurvy across his sickly armada.

Ingredients: 7 mint leaves, 50ml fresh lime juice, 50ml white rum, soda water, 2 tsps sugar
Method: Muddle the mint leaves with the sugar and the lime juice, add the rum and fill up with ice, then top up with soda water.
Serve in: Highball glass
Drink it in: Havana

Paris. Image: iStock/MasterLu

The Sidecar

This tempting tipple is said to have originated in Paris, either during or just after World War II. A 1948 report gives some of the credit to an American Army captain, who travelled to and from his favourite little bistro, Harry’s Bar, in the sidecar of a motorcycle, hence the drink’s name. One evening, the captain asked the bartender to make him a pre-dinner beverage that would help ward off a chill. The bartender, knowing brandy would do the trick but unwilling to serve this after-dinner delight prematurely, mixed the brandy with orange flavoured Cointreau and fresh lemon; the Sidecar was born.

Ingredients: 30ml Grand Marnier®, 30ml cognac (or brandy), 30ml lemon juice
Method: Fill a shaker with ice, add all the ingredients and shake until cold. Strain into a martini glass.
Serve in: Martini glass
Drink it in: Paris

Singapore Sling cocktail. Image: iStock/bhofack2

The Singapore Sling

It may come as no surprise that this colourful concoction was born in Singapore. It was created sometime between 1910 and 1915 by Mr Ngiam Tong Boon, bartender at Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar. The recipe was modified in the mid-20th century by his nephew, which created the base for the Singapore Sling that’s served today. You’ll find the safe where Mr Ngiam stashed all his cocktail recipes in Raffles Hotel Museum, along with a recipe for the drink, which a guest scribbled down in 1936 as it was relayed to him by the bartender. The cocktail is of course still served at Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar, but also on all Singapore Airlines flights, so you can get into the (ahem) sling of things whilst en route.

Ingredients: 25ml London dry gin, 25ml cherry brandy, 5ml benedictine, 25ml lemon juice, 10ml grenadine
Method: Put all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until the mixture feels cold. Strain into a glass over fresh ice cubes.
Serve in: Highball glass
Drink it in: Singapore

Ocean Drive in Miami, Florida. Image: iStock/poladamonte

The Cosmopolitan

As the youngest cocktail in the mix, the Cosmopolitan is comparatively easy to trace back to its creator. In 1985, Miami-based bartender Cheryl Cook spruced up a Kamikaze with Absolut Citron and a splash of cranberry juice, creating this pleasingly pink potion. The drink was then recreated, albeit with slight variations of lime flavour, and served in the VIP clubs of New York City. Here, it garnered itself a celebrity following, which soon saw it trickle down into the mainstream. In the late 90s it found a welcome resurgence, as Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw and her fashionable friends adopted it as their drink of choice.

Ingredients: 35ml vodka, 10ml Grand Marnier®, 45ml cranberry juice, 10ml lime juice, 1 twist of lime
Method: Fill a shaker with ice, add the liquids and shake until cold. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a twist of lime peel.
Serve in: Martini glass
Drink it in: Miami

Bloody Mary cocktail. Image: iStock/bhofack2

The Bloody Mary

The most solid story for this drink’s origin owes its creation to Fernand Petoit, who tended King Cole Bar in The St Regis New York in the 1930s. Updating a tomato juice-based recipe he’d been working with before the Prohibition period, Petoit introduced the seasonings that still adorn this drink today – a classic was born. Over the years, the name has seemed too brutal for some, and the cocktail sometimes goes under the guise of ‘Red Snapper’ to adhere to softer sensibilities. The name’s origin is as cloudy as the drink itself, with Queen Mary I of England, Hollywood star Mary Pickford and even Vladimir Smirnoff (of the Smirnoff vodka family) in the mix for acknowledgement. This is a drink that’s purported to straighten you out after a heavy night, making an excellent accompaniment to a leisurely brunch on a sunny Sunday.

Ingredients: 50ml vodka, 100ml tomato juice, juice of 1 lemon, 4 dashes Worcestershire sauce, 4 dashes Tabasco sauce, 2 grinds of pepper, 1 celery stalk, 2 lemon wedges
Method: Fill a large glass with ice, pour in the vodka and tomato juice, and add a squeeze of lemon, the Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco cause and pepper. Stir well and garnish with celery and lemon wedges.
Serve in: Highball glass
Drink it in: New York

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  1. Pingback: The stories behind the world’s most famous cocktails - 3Buzz Now

  2. *Carrie Bradshaw* sorry to be picky – can’t see Princess Leia with a Cosmopolitan! xx

    • Eleanor Cording-Booth says:

      Oh no! How embarrassing coming from a team of SATC fans! The writer of this particular blog had just met Mark Hamill the same week and I think she had Star Wars on the brain! Now fixed! Thank you for spotting that! 🙂

  3. Thank you for help us know more about the world’s most famous cocktails.

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