Devender Kumar, or Dave as he prefers to be known is passionate about cocktails. But not about drinking them, more about creating them.
Dave was just 16 years old when he discovered cocktails – far too young even to taste them in his native India and as he watched flair bartenders juggling drinks and bottles behind the bar he had no idea that in few short years he would be following in a long and not always honourable tradition.
The first reference to a cocktail occurred in the Morning Post and Gazetteer in London in 1798. However, the first definite reference to a cocktail as an alcoholic drink surfaced in The Balance and Columbian Repository in New York in 1806 where it’s stimulating properties were described thus:
‘It is vulgarly called ‘a bittered sling’ and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold at the same time as it fuddles the head. It is said to be of great use to the democratic candidate because a person having swallowed a glass of it is ready to swallow anything….’
Not perhaps the most resounding of recommendations.
There are various opinions as to the origin of the name but it seems to come from the practice of docking the tails of horses which were not thoroughbreds, somehow implying that those who drank cocktails were not quite gentlemen.
In 1862 ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas published the first book of cocktail recipes entitled How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. Jerry Thomas’ signature drink was the Blue Blazer, which he would set fire to and pour between two glasses creating a blazing arc. Tom Cruise would perform this feat well over a hundred years later in the movie Cocktail. The main difference was that Jerry Thomas used to do it with a white rat perched on each shoulder.
Cocktails were distinguished from other mixed drinks by being given a name: the Highball, The Old Fashioned and so on. The famous Manhattan was said to have ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas mixes a Blue been invented at the Manhattan Club in New York for a huge party thrown by socialite, Jeanette Jerome. Her son was one of the world’s most famous imbibers of alcoholic drinks, though his favourites were brandy and champagne rather than cocktails. Jeanette Jerome married Lord Randolf Spencer Churchill and was the mother of Winston Churchill. (A lovely story but probably apocryphal as at the relevant time she was in France and pregnant).
In 1917 Mrs Julius Walsh of St Louis, Missouri achieved lasting fame by throwing the world’s very first cocktail party, lasting from noon till 1.00. The guests reportedly enjoyed their lunch though none could remember it.
But it was the introduction of prohibition in the USA in 1920 which really brought the cocktail into social prominence when various mixers, notably bitters were added to the bootleg spirits available to disguise the taste. The easiest bootleg liquor to distil was gin and it was in this era that the world’s most famous cocktail, the martini made its appearance, giving rise to the ‘four martini lunch’ and of course the saving of the world several times by James Bond.
The cocktail lost much of its appeal in the ’60s and ’70s but regained much of its popularity in the 1980s. It was at this time that Jerry Thomas’ old practice of juggling drinks and bottles behind the bar made its comeback. It was called ‘flair bartending’ and was responsible for Tom Cruise’s character in Cocktail.
And it was this that entranced a 16-year-old Indian boy in a small village north of Delhi. Dave was working as a motor mechanic when he happened to see on TV an AXN network show called 30 Seconds to Fame. It showcased three men showing off their flair bartending skills and Dave was immediately hooked. He began practising in a yard but after a while was the object of puzzled eyes as he threw bottles and glasses around in the local park. “The ground was softer, especially in the rainy season, so the bottles didn’t break as often,” explains.
He practised his skills at a local Italian restaurant before taking part in the Indian national finals. Which he won. This gave him an entry to the global finals in Torino, in Italy. Which he also won.
So in our next instalment, we’ll take a look at all the strange things associated with cocktails: yes, those little umbrellas and cocktail shakers and so on. And we’ll follow Dave who no longer fixing motorcycles in Delhi is looking for a wider stage upon which to showcase his skills.