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The Mai Tai and More
by Eunice Fried

What's in a name? Everything—the 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 tai—roe aé." Translation: "Out of this world—the 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 never died.

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 utensil—the 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 perpetual fame.

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 drink—half 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 down—and spirits up—and 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 "terrific."

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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