You stroll to the bar, you order a Mai Tai and when it arrives it has a small gaudy paper umbrella in it. Why on earth is that?
There are, of course, conflicting theories about the origins of the cocktail umbrella. Prohibition in the US ended in 1933 and the following year two classic cocktail lounges opened: Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California (originally named Hinky Dink’s) and Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood. These were both South Sea Island-themed bars and restaurants and served mainly rum-based cocktails. Some claim that Donn Beach, proprietor of Don the Beachcomber, who had travelled extensively in the Pacific invented the cocktail umbrella but it seems that the first person actually to put one into a drink was a bartender named Harry Yee, working at the Waikiki Hilton in Hawaii in 1952.
During the 1950s, cocktail bars were a man’s preserve. The only women you would expect to meet in a cocktail bar would be working there, either behind the bar or in front of it. Bar owners surmised that tropical fruit drinks with a colourful umbrella would attract women as customers. And they were right. The tropical-themed Tiki bar became an overnight hit not only with men but also with women.
Umbrellas weren’t the only items inserted into cocktails. In 1934, sitting at the bar in the Ritz Carlton in Boston, Jay Sindler was confronted with an almost insuperable problem: how to remove the olive from his martini without putting his fingers in the glass? On his napkin, he doodled a sketch of a wooden spear with a paddle-shaped handle — and the swizzle stick was born. One year later he patented his invention and made a fortune.
The true swizzle stick had actually been around for years. It was originally just a twig from the branches of a Caribbean tree called Quararibea turbinata and was used to stir rum drinks. However, the name of the tree was far too difficult to pronounce (especially after a few rum punches) and the natives called it the Swizzle Stick Tree. Nevertheless, it was Jay Sindler who first realized the commercial possibilities and his company is still in existence today.
Swizzle sticks are, of course, useful for spearing your olive, cherry, or, in a Gibson, your pickled onion, but the umbrella is of no practical use whatsoever. So, we put it to our favourite mixologist, Dave Kumar, to find out his opinion on what should, or shouldn’t, be placed in cocktails. His reply, naturally, was a model of diplomacy as befits his occupation.
‘I think that umbrellas and swords definitely have their place in the cocktail. We still use them in the bar world and they are very, very popular,’ he said.
While I might accept that, there is one other implement which might find its way into your glass, but which definitely shouldn’t be there — and that is the humble straw. To my mind, a cocktail should never be drunk through a straw.
There is yet one other addition without which the cocktail would surely never have been as popular as it is today. And that is ice. That’s right; ice. Just imagine your scotch without the rocks or margarita not served over crushed ice. And ice too has its own niche in the story of the cocktail.
In the long hot summers of the American midwest and south, ice was unknown. However, in the northern winters, most of the lakes and some of the rivers would freeze and it didn’t take long for canny businessmen to seize on the idea of shipping ice down to the south. It was a young entrepreneur, Frederic Tudor, who hit upon the idea of turning this into a huge and profitable business. After a trip to the Caribbean, having noticed that it was rather hot there, he borrowed money in 1803 and purchased a ship. This he loaded up with ice in Boston harbour and set sail for Martinique. The Boston Gazette reported: ‘No joke. A vessel has cleared at the Custom House for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not be a slippery speculation.’ The Gazette was rather prescient. On the way south, most of the ice melted and Tudor lost $4500 on the deal.
Three other disastrous voyages to Havana suffered the same fate and Tudor spent time in a debtor’s prison. He was, however, determined that the business would work. He tried the insulating properties of sawdust and hay and built a huge insulated warehouse in Havana. He then loaded up a further cargo and, ‘pursued by creditors to the very wharf’ he set sail. This time it worked. Tudor became known as The Ice King of Boston and, with warehouses as far afield as Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and Hong Kong, went on to make his fortune. The advent of commercial ice-making in the 1850s put an end to his business but by then he had other things to worry about, having married a woman 30 years his junior and produced six children.
But enough of this history lesson and on with the further adventures of Dave, our favourite flair bartender. In the last episode, having won the global flair-bartending competition in Torino he was on the look-out for a new opportunity. So, off he went to the Institute of Bar Operations and Management in New Delhi, followed by a spell at the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel. Then onto Colombo and Mumbai and Dave began to acquire a taste not just for making and serving cocktails but also for inventing them. So in 2017, he competed, under his full name, Devender Kumar in the Herno Gin Cocktail Competition in Australia. How did he get on? See below.
Happy Ali met up with Dave in Hong Kong where he plies his trade at famed Italian bar and restaurant Otto e Mezzo, the only Italian restaurant outside Italy to have been awarded three stars in the Michelin guide.
Next, I’ll be exploring the origins of famous cocktails and Dave will prepare something rather special for us. Stay tuned!