The Biggest Cocktail Hoax of All Time
Legendary journalist H.L. Mencken tricked the world with his fake cocktail history columns.
When you make it into the big time, suddenly people start wondering about where you came from; what your story is. When you’re small-time, or merely an in-group favorite, nobody really cares. Small-time is small-time, and in-groups have their own criteria for acceptance: be cool, walk the walk, and nobody’s going to ask such impolite questions as where you came from.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the cocktail went from small-time—a local drink of the Hudson Valley—to in-group favorite. For 60 years, it was the preferred eye-opener of the so-called “sporting fraternity”; the loose society of bare-knuckle boxing fans, racetrack-frequenters, actors, newspapermen, lawyers, politicians and other people whose livelihood depended on a quick read of the odds or a gaudy line of patter. These were the men (and sometimes women, depending on where you were) who gathered in America’s fine, mahogany-and-brass saloons, drinking their breakfast; who came back at midday for a pint of Champagne or a Brandy Julep or three and returned for a before-dinner stomach-toner, after dinner “goes” of brandy, and whatever else goes well with a long evening of dice and cards and games of skill and fortune.
Sometime in the 1870s, however, the cocktail went legit. It was acceptable for normal people, respectable people, people with homes and families and regular pews at church, to hoist a foot onto the brass rail, slide fifteen cents across the bar and drink a cocktail. (Okay, the women had to sit at tables in the back room, and even then they’d get slantendicular glances, but that too was soon changing.)
Now, for the first time, questions were asked. Where precisely does this Cocktail thing come from? How old is it? Who are its people? What’s with the name?
Answers were not immediately forthcoming. In an age before microfilm, let alone the internet, the old newspapers, diaries, letters and such, the places where the rough drafts of history are preserved, were not easily available, at least to simple newspapermen (scholars then did not concern themselves with the trivia of popular culture).
A situation such as this, where there is a desire to know something and no easy way of satisfying it, is the most fertile ground there is for the ancient art of forgery. Forgery adores a vacuum—where something should be, but unaccountably isn’t.
The first crack at the history of the cocktail was half serious at best, a learned 1874 discourse from the pages of the New York Times, who should have known better, claiming (on no evidence) that the word “cocktail” is derived from the ancient Mexican word xoctle, “meaning . . . the Celtic pulque, an ancient term for liquor and drink.” (“Pulque” is Celtic in the same way that “McGillicuddy” is Irish for “Garcia”). Other, more playful, journalists took this claim and elaborated it into a whole mythology about a Mexican king Axolotl VIII and his lovely daughter Xoctl, who graciously gave her name to the drink. Yeah.
A little more art was displayed in 1891 by the anonymous author of an article in the house journal of the Liberal Brotherhood, a fraternal organization of New York City bartenders. According to this mischievous individual, the cocktail was invented in Culpeper Courthouse, Virginia, at the Cock and Bottle tavern, when one Colonel Carter, disgusted with the “cocktail”—the “last and muddy portion” from the tap, or “‘cock,’ in the old vernacular” (as our author helpfully explains)—with which he was served, dashed it on the floor, exclaiming “hereafter I will drink cocktails of my own brewing.” Then and there, the episode concludes, “was the original cocktail concocted.”
This explanation soon got picked up by the Philadelphia Inquirer and then the Philadelphia Times and then by papers all over the country. It sounded good, even if there was no date attached to it and no explanation as to how a mixed drink—the Times even embellished the original account with a recipe—was the fitting replacement for a glass of muddy old ale. In any case, no corroborating evidence has ever been found for the story, beyond the existence of Culpeper Court House and the fact that several Virginians named Carter bore the (usually honorary) rank, Colonel.
It wasn’t until 1908 that a true master stooped to address the matter. His tale came from the pages of the Baltimore Sun, and it was a doozy. “The Secret History of the Cocktail,” as it is titled, is eight columns wide, with woodcut illustrations and an impressive level of detail.
First off, the article adds a level of plausible deniability: the author, you see, is merely reporting what “an intellectual Baltimore street bartender” told him. Now, Baltimore street was the commercial heart of the city, where all the fanciest saloons were, so this guy might have known something—then as now, fine saloons favored knowledgeable bartenders. Claiming—correctly, as it turns out—that the name “originated in England,” our bartender goes on to add, “the true cocktail, as every patriotic American knows it today, was invented in the State of Maryland on April 17, 1846.” Having made this bold claim, the bartender admits that some might challenge it. So he cites his sources, as follows:
Die Alkoholismus, by Dr. Ferdinand Braun of Halle, Germany.
The History of Drinking in Great Britain, by one Maloney, an Irishman.
“A somewhat elaborate report on early drinking customs in the United States,”
prepared by the Smithsonian Institute
The diary of Herman Smith, “superintendant of the wine cellars at Delmonico’s,” the famous New York restaurant, from 1832 to 1838, published by the Falstaff Society in 1884.
A “treatise upon the cocktail” by Sir Edward McCubbin, the Scottish distiller, “privately printed in a limited de luxe edition” of which our bartender has the only copy in America.
Armed with this archive, he can say not only when the cocktail was invented, but precisely where (“the old Palo Alto hotel, at Bladensburg”), by whom (“John Welby Henderson, a native of North Carolina”), for whom (“John A. Hopkins, of Fairfax, Virginia”) and who else was present (Co. Denmead Maglone, U.S.A.,” and three other individuals, including a Georgia congressman). The only thing he can’t answer is why the cocktail was so named.
Then he launches into the whole circumstances of the drink’s creation: an early morning duel, a victor—Hopkins—made queasy by the gushing blood of his opponent, a bartender—Henderson—who saw that “something unusually tempting and powerful was needed.”
Of course, none of the people mentioned in it ever existed, nor were the books cited ever written. In 1846, the cocktail was already at least 50 years old, and it came not from Maryland but from the Hudson Valley. But the appearance of the thing was just too much for the average newspaperman: how could it be anything but true? The article was widely reprinted, quoted from, cited as authoritative.
Meanwhile, its author was snickering behind his hand, a hand which no doubt held a big seidel of Wurzburger beer or a church-windows glass of Maryland rye whiskey.
The article, I should add, is unsigned. But there is only one man who could have written it: Henry Louis Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore.” Mencken had his faults, Lord knows, but his way with words was the snappiest there was, and his opinion of the American people the most jaundiced. In the 1900s and 1910s, he liked to use the first of those things to confirm the second by writing the occasional “hoax,” as he called them, for the Baltimore Sun, where he worked, and sometimes for other papers as well. His most famous one, “A Neglected Anniversary,” was printed by the New York Evening Mail in 1917 and got the whole country believing that the Americans did not use bathtubs until Millard Fillmore installed one in the White House in 1850. On that one, at least, he eventually came clean.
Up to now, “The Secret History of the Cocktail” has not been added to the census of his hoaxes (as long as we’re adding it, we must throw a 1909 Sun article where the “intellectual Baltimore Street bartender” came back for a disquisition on the drinks of the world, and probably a 1905 article from the Chicago Tribune on the same topic that cites the authority of a massive—and non-existent—book on the topic by one “Emile Necaire,” an equally nonexistent New Orleans bartender).
Mencken wrote these things for fun and to show how much smarter he was than everybody else, but he also wrote them to prove a point. When somebody’s spoon-feeding you all the answers, you ought to look at the hand holding the spoon. History is rarely cut and dried, and things like cocktails and bathtubs and, well, anything really, rarely have stories that you can tie a nice, neat bow around. We will never know precisely who mixed the first cocktail or where (let alone what day it was mixed on), and the more certainty with which someone tells you different the more skeptical you ought to be.