The Mai Tai and More
by Eunice Fried
What's in a name? Everythingthe meaning, the magic, the legend, the lure. A drink by any other name would be as tasty, but would it be as tempting? Would Injured Matilda evoke the dash of Bloody Mary? Would alcohol and quinine sound as chic as Gin and Tonic? The name creates the mood. It mirrors the style and the source. But while we feel the mood and recognize the style, we may not always know the source. And therein lies a tale.
The name Mai Tai, for example, evokes an exotic setting in the Polynesian islands. Actually, it was created in Oakland, California by Victor Bergeron, the man who began the Trader Vic restaurants whose foods, drinks and decor were inspired by the South Pacific. It was 1944 when Bergeron decided to mix a new drink. He began with a bottle of Jamaican rum, added fresh lime, curacao, a dash each of rock candy syrup and orgeat syrup, shook the blend with ice, poured it, added a mint sprig and served it to two friends who were visiting from Tahiti. "Ah," they said, "Mai tairoe aé." Translation: "Out of this worldthe best."
And then there is the story of the Bloody Mary. It was created in 1921 by Fernand Petiot who was the
bartender at Harry's New York in Paris and felt the world needed a better way to face the morning after. So
he mixed vodka, tomato juice, salt, cayenne pepper, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and cracked ice and
served it to those who knew hangovers best. Just what we needed, they proclaimed. In 1934, when Petiot
moved to the King Cole Bar in New York City's St. Regis Hotel, he brought the drink with him. There, his
patrons realized, they did not need a hangover to appreciate its pleasures. Throughout those years, the
drink was known by a number of names including Bucket of Blood, Snapper and Morning Glory. It was
rechristened Bloody Mary as one of many tales claims, after George Jessel, the American entertainer,
accidentally spilled the drink over a young woman named Mary. Since, Mary's fame has rarely faltered and
The Screwdriver came about, so the story goes, when a group of foreign oil rig workers in the Middle East
were given a large supply of canned orange juice as a substitute for the local water. One day, to spice up
the juice, the men added vodka. And because they were out in the field rather than at home or in a bar, they
stirred the mixture with the nearest utensilthe screwdriver that hung from their belts.
The source of Gin and Tonic was the British Army. The time: the 1800's. The place: the Far East. The
impetus: malaria in an age when the only means of fighting it was quinine, a bitter remedy indeed. But the
addition of gin, the men discovered, helped the medicine go down. Soon, carbonated water, citric fruit and
sugar were also being added to quinine and gin. Eventually, other methods were found to fight malaria.
But the original "cure" was not forgotten. Bartenders simply took out the quinine, put away the sugar,
added tonic water to gin, decorated it with a wedge of lemon or lime, and called it Gin and Tonic, the toast of
the 1920's and still one of the world's most popular cocktails.
Bourbon, America's great whiskey, began in 1789 in what was then Virginia and soon became the state of
Kentucky. The man generally credited with Bourbon's beginning is Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister who put
his corn whiskey in barrels whose staves had accidentally caught fire and were deeply charred. Three
months later, when Craig took the barrels to New Orleans to sell, the corn whiskey had become deep
colored and mellow-flavored. Bourbon was born and today, it is not considered Bourbon if it is not corn
whiskey aged in heavily charred oak barrels.
But why the French name Bourbon for this very American product? Because the county in which Elijah
Craig first filled those charred barrels was named Bourbon in honor of the French who helped the colonies
during the American Revolution.
Just as Bourbon whiskey has became an international favorite, so has one of its drinks. It began at the
Manhattan Club in New York City in 1874 when Jenny Jerome gave a party for Samuel J. Tilden, the newly
elected governor of New York State. She asked the bartender to mix a special drink for the party, Bourbon
"with a lesser portion of sweet vermouth and aromatic bitters," and she named it after the club. Ms. Jerome
went on to become Lady Randolph Churchill and mother of Sir Winston, and the Manhattan went on to
Irish whiskey is a spirit that is smooth and distinguished, a libation to ponder as one might a fine single
malt Scotch. So it is ironic that while many people in the world drink it, few experience it neat. And that is
because of an Irishman's kindness. It happened one stormy night in 1949 at Shannon Airport. The winds
howled, the rains pelted and the stranded west-bound passengers were edgy. And so, the story goes, Joe
Sheridan, who operated the airport café, offered them a drinkhalf hot coffee, half Irish whiskey. They
liked it, they loved it and they carried the idea across the Atlantic. Ever since, Irish Coffee has been
consuming great quantities of Irish whiskey, a fact the Irish find strange. Why, they muse, would anyone
want to mar wonderful whiskey with coffee?
How one of rum's best-known drinks got its name may sound like fancy but seems to be fact. The Daiquiri
was born at the Daiquiri iron mines near Santiago, Cuba late in the nineteenth century when foreign
engineers drank a mixture of light rum, lime juice and sugar to ward off tropical fevers. Evidently, it did
keep fevers downand spirits upand as variations of the theme multiplied to include banana and
strawberry and frozen daiquiris, a local preventative became a worldwide pleasure.
Other drinks too took their name from their place of origin. The gin-based Singapore Sling is named after
its 1915 birthplace in Singapore, at the Raffles Hotel. The Mint Julep is named after Mint Springs near
Vicksburg, Mississippi, the first place anyone stuck a sprig of fresh mint into Bourbon, in 1842.
Some spirits, such as rum, were not christened with their names at birth, but evolved into them. Rum, which
has a lusty history fueled by pirates and hailed by sailors, was introduced nearly 3,000 years ago and
carried via the sugar cane, its source, across the waistline of the world, from the Far East to Middle East to
Europe to the Caribbean. Its name, however, is only a few centuries old, and the story of its origins may be
fancy as much as fact. It may have come from the beginning of rumbullion (Old English for rumpus) or
from the end of saccarum (Latin for sugar). Or it may have come from sailors of the British Navy who,
being given a new spirit as a cure for scurvy, liked it so well, they called it rum, eighteenth century slang for
Along with the origins of names are traditions. Port, for example, is always passed around the table to the
left. After the host pours himself a little and if there are women present, he serves them, he passes the bottle
to the man on his left who in turn serves himself and passes it, again to the left. Why left? Some say the
tradition began in the British Navy where the word "port" means "left." Others say it follows the direction
of the sun. Still others point out that since most people are right-handed, passing to the left is only natural.
The Scandinavians have their traditions about aquavit. Before downing a drink, one looks for someone else
holding a glass. When their eyes meet, the first raises his glass and says "Skoal." The second repeats the
motion. Then both down their drinks, lower their glasses chest high and nod to each other.
We'll Skoal to that.
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