Bar Room Brawl

Cocktail Bars vs. Dive Bars

A plea to end this spirited feud among modern drinkers.

Alamy

One of the ironies of modern American tippling is that, 15 years into the cocktail revolution, you still find he-man, regular-guy drinkers beating up on cocktail bars as being inauthentic, fake places, while holding up the beer-slinging dive as the one, true American bar.

Superficially, that makes some kind of sense. After all, dives are the bars where you see the most American flags on display; the bars where Americanness is worn most openly: there’s Country & Western (or the music-like polymer that passes for it these days) on the jukebox, sports on the flat-screens and the drinks have good, old American names like Miller and Coors.

Of course, those names were originally Müller and Kohrs. In fact, the modern American dive, with its beer and its whiskey and its indifference, or even hostility, to “fancy” (i.e., skillfully mixed) drinks, is an unholy fusion between the German bierstube and the Irish shebeen, two low-to-the-ground ideas of working-man’s bars that came to this country along with a great many of their patrons in the mid-19th century.

The shebeen contributed the straight whiskey, the bierstube the quaffable lager. In fact, the now ubiquitous American “adjunct” style of lager, with rice and/or corn replacing much of the malt, seems actually to have been a German innovation of the late 19th century; danke zehr.

Please don’t get me wrong. I like a shebeen and I like a bierstube and I absolutely love a good American dive, without reservation. I just don’t like it when people hold up the dives as benchmarks of American authenticity against which the cocktail bars are found wanting.

Our bars were built on mixing drinks with spirits. Punch, the original spirits-based mixed drink, wasn’t invented here, but it sure found fertile soil in our bars: By 1700, it was everywhere in the colonies and indeed so prevalent that the price of a bowl of it—usually made with a quart of rum or brandy, sugar, lemon juice, and water—was in most counties regulated by law. But we didn’t stop at Punch. From it, we developed the Sling (Punch without the lemon), the Cocktail (Sling with bitters), and the Mint Julep (Rum Sling with mint). The list didn’t stop there: There was also the Flip, Eggnog, Apple Toddy, Stone Fence, Black Strap, so on and so forth.

Some bars stuck to the basics; others were more creative. In 1721, for instance, we hear of a Boston bar that specialized in mixing “a Dram of Rum and Mint-Water” (the “mint-water” here was a sweetened alcoholic extraction of the herb). Nowadays, we would call this early ancestor of the Julep (first recorded in Virginia in 1770) a “Rum Stinger.” There were geeks then, too: One New York bar of the early 19th century even went so far as to import water from the River Thames in London with which to make its Punch. That, too, was very American—it’s part of our character to always be seeking perfection; to push the limits of common sense or even erase them entirely in its quest.

Where the beer-and-a-shot bar is all about keeping things the same as they ever were (OK, give or take a Big Buck Hunter game and a few bottles of flavored whiskey), the Cocktail bar—the “American bar,” as the rest of the world called it when it escaped our borders in the middle of the 19th century and found fertile soil from Singapore to Stockholm, Paris to Patagonia—is about trying new things; about taking foreign ingredients and making them fit in, often finding the best in them in the process.

That is true American authenticity.