A Tale of Three Cocktails: How Booze and Cities Helped Each Other Boom

You might order a Manhattan—or a Berlin, or a London Buck—at your corner dive without giving it a second thought. But what you might not realize is how closely related urbanity and cocktails really are. The modern cocktail owes a lot to cities—and, in fact, cities owe a lot to booze.

Archaeologists have long suggested that beer gave us civilization, since early humans stopped being nomadic when they started cultivated grains for, yep, beer (and food, of course). But the relationship between booze and boomtowns continued, albeit behind the scenes, over the course of thousands of years.

In that light, it's no surprise that we name our cocktails after cities—neither would be here without the other. We took at look at three moments in history when a city was defined by liquor below.

Sickly London of the 1600s

London in the late 1600s was as close to a modern city as any other place in the world at the time. After the Great Fire destroyed a huge chunk of the plague-ridden city in 1666, it was experiencing a renaissance of sorts: England was expanding its colonial reach, business was booming, and Christopher Wren was rebuilding churches left and right.

A Tale of Three Cocktails: How Booze and Cities Helped Each Other Boom

Everyone was moving to London, and as the population boomed, so did diseases that thrived off of groups of humans living in small areas, like cholera and dysentery. According to cocktail historian Jared Brown, that was why, in 1688, the new King William of Orange announced that he would reduce taxes on distilleries for "the health of the nation." Because what kills bacteria better than booze? What followed was a boom in all manner of medicinal bitters, spirits, and straight-up liquor.

"It was estimated that one out of every four habitable structures in London housed a working gin still," writes Brown. "Within four decades of William's initiative, the city was plunged into the 18th-century equivalent of a crack cocaine epidemic."

A Tale of Three Cocktails: How Booze and Cities Helped Each Other Boom

Image: Kondor83.

That epidemic would eventually lead to the Temperance movement, but at the same time, it helped to stave off the influx of disease and make London a livable city—and it would become the economic and cultural gateway to modern Europe because of it. The bitters we drink today aren't so very different than those of early London's—though they serve a far different purpose.

Dandy New York of the 1800s

The origin of the bitter might be European, but the cocktail itself is impossibly New World: After all, citrus fruits were uncommon in Europe, as were many other ingredients in cocktails of the 19th century. It would be impossible to talk about cities and booze without talking about Manhattan, for which the eponymous cocktail is, of course, named.

A Tale of Three Cocktails: How Booze and Cities Helped Each Other Boom

Lead image: Shiny Side Down/CC

200 years later after King William's proclamation was made, one of the most popular and enduring cocktails ever was being invented in New York of the 1800s. There's quite a bit of conjecture about how the Manhattan got its name: A widely believed story goes that it was designed for a party thrown by Jennie Churchill, at the Manhattan Club, in celebration of Samuel J. Tilden winning the New York Governorship.

A Tale of Three Cocktails: How Booze and Cities Helped Each Other Boom

Manhattan in 1873.

Despite the rumors surrounding it, the drink was fairly simple: American Whiskey, Italian Vermouth and Angostura bitters. Which doesn't help to explain its wild popularity. What does, however, is Manhattan itself: The city in at the end of the 19th century had come into its own, transforming from a boomtown that Europe saw as a backwater into an impossibly glamorous enclave of progress.

As St. John Frizell writes on Edible Manhattan, the cocktail's popularity in Europe was a big part of why it endured:

In 1885, the Austrian actor Adolf Sonnenthal, a sensation in Europe, was touring the United States for the first time, and newspapers across the country followed the thespian's American adventures. According to the Chicago Daily, Sonnenthal was very interested in a uniquely American invention, "the fame of which had reached him in Vienna." That invention? The Manhattan cocktail. To many foreign visitors during that era, American cocktails represented everything that fascinated them about American urban society during the Gilded Age: ingenuity, creativity, self-indulgent excess and a swaggering disregard for convention.

The Manhattan didn't become one of the most popular drinks of all time because it's delicious. It became that popular because it was born at a time when modern Manhattan was blooming—it was a boozey postcard from what seemed, to the rest of the world, like a city from the distant future.

Immigrant Chicago of the 1920s

So what about liquors not steeped in glamor? I moved to Chicago just over a month ago, and before that, I'd never heard of Malört. But here in the city, it's sort of a tradition—a tradition that's been compared to ear wax, bug spray, and even, in one inspired gag video, Hitler. I was intrigued, so I decided to find out why Chicagoans still order it.

A Tale of Three Cocktails: How Booze and Cities Helped Each Other Boom

It turns out that Malört was a staple of immigrant life in Chicago of the early 20th century. It was invented by a Swedish immigrant named Carl Jeppson, who reportedly started selling the bitter liquor—based on his own special recipe—as a medicinal cure during Prohibition. Jeppson's booze was technically a Bäsk, or wormwood schnapps, which gives it its bitter taste.

Native to Sweden, Jeppson's draught boomed in a city with a huge Scandinavian population. It wasn't without Chicago pride, though: The gold seal on its label was—and is—anchored by the city flag.

A Tale of Three Cocktails: How Booze and Cities Helped Each Other Boom

Chicago U.S.A., an illustrated map of Chicago, youthful city of the big shoulders, restless, ingenious, wilful, violent, proud to be alive! Boston: The Tudor Press, 1931.

A Tale of Three Cocktails: How Booze and Cities Helped Each Other Boom

But Malört was doomed to ride the same curve of Chicago itself: As factories and slaughterhouses closed down in the 1970s and 80s, so did the city's distilleries. Jeppson's recipe had been sold to a local lawyer, who continued making it "as a hobby." It fell out of popular memory as Chicago struggled through a recession.

So what explains its renaissance among young Chicagoans? Well, just look at the city itself: As young people have moved into neighborhoods that struggled through the 1980s, they've also resurrected almost-forgotten local traditions: Like Malört.

Since then, the liquor has been on a comeback. At any given cocktail bar, you're likely to find a drink with Malört in it—now, though Jeppson's is made in Florida, local distilleries are making their own recipes. It's been the subject of countless parody videos and even more blog posts about its origins.

I asked to Paul Karner, a bartender at the Logan Square bar Cole's, about its resurgence. "As a shot it's probably the most common one I pour. Maybe a really close second to whiskey," he told me. "In 2008, it was still only ordered as a joke or to get a reaction. Really in the last two years it's become just a regular thing." According to him, the best way to mix it is with citrus juice, like mixing it with a glass of Stiegl Radlr and grapefruit juice. Or even lemonade—a MaLemonade, Paul told me, is a cocktail of Malört, chambord, and lemonade.

A Tale of Three Cocktails: How Booze and Cities Helped Each Other Boom

I tried it out at home, and it was just as bitter as everyone says. But it was cool to be drinking something I knew traced back almost 100 years of history in the city I had just immigrated to—not exactly like Jeppson himself, but still.

So as you're standing in the aisle at your local liquor store tonight, remember—that (probably plastic) bottle of booze isn't just a nice thing to bring to a party. It's also a lynchpin that grew up alongside the cities we live in.

Lead image: Owen Weber; Malort ad: Red Eye.