Jen Akin, general manager at Seattle’s Rumba and Rumtender, created quite a stir last year when her cocktail, The Turnbuckle, made its Instagram debut. Popular accounts such as @subtletiki (7,000 followers) and @theweekendmixologist (58,700 followers) posted shots of it in their feeds, and shared the recipe originally published in Punch magazine.
“After the article was posted [on Punch], it got a little bit of traction, but not a ton, until several large Instagram accounts found it,” says Akin. “I know I have many guests that walk through my door because they saw us mentioned on social media, in an article, or they found one of our cocktails online.”
But cocktail culture has been influenced long before Instagram.
Before the internet and social media, authors and their books often drove consumers to belly up to the bar to recapture a feeling from a beloved story or the mystique of a writer.
“Reading Hemingway, I wanted to know more about the Jack Rose, to drink a martini and feel those same feelings, to read the evening papers with my apéritif, experience the ritual of absinthe…putting myself in those scenes, if only for a moment,” wrote Philip Greene in his book, To Have and Have Another.
A descendent of the famed Peychaud bitters family, Greene is one of the founders of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans.
Hemingway isn’t the only author who brought signature cocktails to readers’ lips. There was also Hunter S. Thompson and his love for Singapore Slings, seen in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Raymond Chandler’s obsession with the gimlet appears in The Long Goodbye, and writer Dorothy Parker’s love for Scotch makes its way into Just a Little One, which appeared in a 1928 edition of The New Yorker.
Despite her love of whiskey, Parker is famous for the quote, “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three, I’m under the table. After four, I’m under my host.”
“We’re not sure if she really said it,” writes Green. “It’s witty and it’s something she would have said.”
Whether she said it or not, Parker’s influence on martinis was undeniable.
According to Greene, pre-Prohibition martinis were served sweeter and often made with Italian sweet vermouth. But “luminaries such as Dorothy Parker…began popularizing the idea that the drier the martini, the better. Indeed, we’re told that Parker merely whispered the word ‘vermouth’ over the glass,” says Greene.
Parker’s mystique as part of the Algonquin Round Table, a legendary lunchtime grouping of creative thinkers during the “Roaring ’20s,” as well as her writing and iconic wit, inspired fans to adopt her dry martini trend. And from the mid-1930s, a shift began where martinis began to be made with “…London style gin and French (dry) vermouth…” rather than the original Old Tom Gin and Italian (sweet) vermouth.
According to Greene, “In the 1940s cocktail impresario David Embury espoused a seven-to-one ration of gin to vermouth…” which created an even drier version, a trend extended into the current century.
Then there’s Ian Fleming’s “shaken, not stirred” martinis from the James Bond classic Diamonds are Forever. This book, according to cocktail historian, David Wondrich, initiated the love affair of martinis ordered in this manner.
Modern drinkers still want to be transported by the stories behind their cocktails, though they tend to prefer the truth (or its veneer) to fiction. Some bartenders research origins of liquors and the history behind craft cocktails.
“[Patrons] expect more information,” says Wondrich. “I was born in 1961. We didn’t expect that the world had much information on cocktails. In the information age, people expect things. They expect not just a story, but the story with facts, with the original ingredients, and how it has changed over time.”
Today’s consumers educate themselves, believes Wondrich, and they expect the person behind the bar has as well.
“The idea of bartending as a craft is that you’ve got to know the history of bartending, you’ve got to know your ingredients—you’re an educated bartender,” he says. “You know the backstory of all the recipes.”
His book, Imbibe, was published 13 years ago, but its influence is felt in cocktail bars today.
“My book is quite geeky,” says Wondrich. “It’s the original recipes printed verbatim, and then you have instructions on how to adapt them. There are no photos. But, people are reading it. Some of the top selling ones are also quite geeky, like Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence. It’s all about the science of the cocktail, and there’s The Cocktail Codex, which is sort of a theoretical mixology.
“These are books that demand a certain amount of engagement,” he says. “You have to work with them. But there’s a curiosity among this generation.”
Other drinks professionals have noticed this shift in consumer behavior.
“People are curious about the process and ingredients that go into craft cocktails,” says Mara Frasca, bartender at 202 Social House in Roanoke, Virginia. “They especially love a good story behind the liquor or inspiration for the drink.
“Over the past three years, people seem to be more interested in the story, rather than just the taste or how expensive [the drink] is. This trend has been great for the smaller, family-owned distilleries, for sure. It helps bartenders get them on the shelf.”
She enjoys the stories behind drinks when she’s on the other side of the bar, too.
“I like a bartender that can chat about all the aspects of the visit, from the history of the town [or] bar, to the liquors they use,” says Frasca.
A bartender that can tell the story behind the drinks, to “find the truth about something and make it as compelling as the folklore, makes everything taste better,” says Greene.