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The most important thing to remember when making (and understanding) a cocktail is the combination of three things: the base spirit, which gives the cocktail its main flavor; the modifier/mixer, which melds exceptionally well with the base spirit but doesn’t overpower; and the flavoring, which brings it all together.

It’s that simple; but it’s the cocktail’s lineage that’s a bit of a mystery. How can one person, one country or one moment in history peg-down the moment an ingenious person first mixed together three things and created the first cocktail? Cocktails are simply the products of experimentation and curiosity, curiosity that has led many a cocktail in and out of fashion for centuries.


Cocktails reflect the mood of the society, the trends of the time. From the 1920s to the disco era cocktails have been markers for what society was doing and feeling at the time. Similar to the way fashions ebbs and flows with the times so did the precious cocktail. From sweet to dry and back again, cocktails have seen their fair share of change and modification.


Regardless of its first appearance in an American dictionary in 1806, the word’s history is continually debated. Various theories abound, from a horse-breeding term to the tall tale of an Aztec princess called Xochitl. The most plausible explanation (if one exists) remains the French term coquetel, meaning a mixed drink; and many cocktail tales out of New Orleans add to the French explanation.


What is certain is that after its conception abroad, the cocktail made its home in North America where a constant stream of new cocktails were being mixed and poured at a great pace. According to The Complete Encyclopedia of Wine, Beer and Spirits, Professor Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book The BarTender’s Guide and Bon Vivant’s Companion contains some of the first cocktail recipes to hit the New World.


Back in the day the main base spirit was gin with the most popular of gin’s being the sweet Old Tom, not the drier gins we’re used to today. Add some bitters and a variety of other sweet liqueurs available at the time and you begin to realize that sweet was in. When Thomas invented the Martinez (the grandfather of the Martini) it wasn’t dry but a sweet mixture of Old Tom, sweet vermouth, maraschino cherries and bitters.


Once the fad took root nothing seemed able to stop it. In 1882 Harry Johnson published New And Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual, Or How to Mix Drinks of the Present Style, with hundreds of recipes. Although many recipes like Goat’s Delight and Hoptoad have long since been retired, it was evident cocktails were here to stay. Bartenders simply started modify existing recipes, adding their own personal feel to the drinks. Who else could gauge society’s changes more than those who served society its drinks?