Stirring research: the cultural history of cocktails

Just in time for holiday tippling, York University researcher and Humanities lecturer Christine Sismondo (right) has published a book with a unique twist on North American social history.

Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History (2005) explores this history through a consideration of drinks as diverse as the Manhattan, the mint julep, the Bloody Mary and the Sazerac – and the personalities associated with them.

“The social history of the United States is inextricably linked with alcohol – the drinking of it, the regulation of it, prohibition and repeal, and the changing tastes of the American public through the decades,” says Sismondo.

The book also celebrates the ceremony and occasion of cocktail culture through the years. “It isn’t a recipe book, though you will learn how to make the perfect martini,” she says. “Cocktails deserve to be taken seriously and my interest is in the importance of the cocktail as an institution.”

Sismondo’s undergraduate and graduate studies in American literature and history piqued her interest in the subject. So many literary, political and society figures that she encountered had well-documented connections with alcohol– Ernest Hemingway and his Daiquiri, Truman Capote and the mint julep, even Abraham Lincoln and the bourbon distiller – that she felt compelled to write about the phenomenon.

However, her interest in cocktails extends well beyond the academic. Along with teaching at York, she has tended bar for 15 years.

Sismondo credits the explosive growth of North American and New World wine production; a relatively new obsession with single malt scotches, pot-distilled whiskies and craft-brewed beers; and even fruity coolers and alco-pops as being responsible for the demise of the traditional liquor cabinet.

Consequently, she notes, sales of the time-honoured staples of the well-stocked bar – rye, scotch, gin and brandy – plummeted as consumers focused their palates and attentions elsewhere. But Sismondo has recently noticed a resurgent interest in the classic North American cocktail. Even as consumers have been inundated with brand after brand of pre-mixed “coolers” and scores of so-called martinis (which bear little resemblance to the gin-and-vermouth original), a fresh attraction to “gourmand culture” has brought renewed curiosity about the cocktail.

The word “cocktail” is said to derive from the French coquetier or egg cup – the vessel in which early New Orleans brandy cocktails were served. Sismondo hopes that Mondo Cocktail will answer some questions and increase appreciation for these historical and delectable libations.