Vintage cocktails like the Sazerac, Bee's Knees, or an Old Fashioned are all timeless, traditional beverages that we love to enjoy decades (and even centuries) after they were first mixed.
Despite the rise of mixology and the coordinated efforts of cocktail makers across the world to innovate and revolutionize the drink scene, for some reason, we just keep going back to these vintage classics!
In this article, we look at the origins of the cocktail and explore the best old-school drinks that are still favorites today. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about vintage cocktails!
What's the oldest cocktail in the world?
There's always going to be debate amongst drink-historians as to which cocktail can be called the oldest cocktail in the world!
A cocktail is defined as a beverage consisting of alcoholic spirits (such as vodka, gin, or whiskey) and some form of a mixer (be it club soda, or tonic, or orange juice). Of course, cocktails can be simple, or they can be complex, but it's safe to say that using this definition, it's difficult to pin down who the first person to mix a spirit and a mixer actually was!
Humans have been mixing drinks for as long as we've had drinks, but the modern concept of the cocktail that we imagine today is often said to date back to the 1800s when the Sazerac was widely popularized.
The Sazerac was invented in New Orleans, possibly by a local apothecary named Antoine Amedie Peychaud, who is said to have served his patients a mixture of bitters andSazerac, a type of cognac brandy. The drink became popular in New Orleans in the 1850s when local bars began selling the cocktail.
Whether or not this is the oldest cocktail in the world, we'll never know, but what we do know is that it's one of the best retro cocktails to mix up at home!
Here's how you can prepare a Sazerac. You'll need the following ingredients:
- 2 measures of whiskey
- 2 dashes of orange bitters
- 2 dashes of aromatic bitters
- A dash of absinthe
- Sugar cubes
- Ice cubes
- Lemon zest to garnish
The ingredients list sounds like a recipe for medicine, and that's because, originally, it was. Although traditional recipes call for Sazerac, a type of cognac brandy, this then changed in later years to whiskey (due to a shortage of cognac brandy!).
We recommend using an ice ball maker to prepare clear ice cubes for this masterpiece of a cocktail. That way, the ice lasts longer, and your vintage cocktail stays undiluted while you enjoy its bitter tastes and citrusy aromas!
Old Fashioned Cocktails
Another contender for the old drinks title of oldest cocktail is the Old Fashioned. Like the Sazerac, old-fashioned drinks are still very much in fashion today. The first Old Fashioned is claimed to have been mixed in the 1880s at the Pendennis Club in Kentucky.
This was when the Old Fashioned was named and popularized, but the reality is that this cocktail - or some variant of it - existed for many decades before. It could even be older than the Sazerac.
The Old Fashioned is a mixture of whiskey, bitters, and sugars. You can garnish with citrus fruits or a cherry. It's remarkably similar to the apothecary-style Sazerac, too, and would originally have been drunk as a medicine!
To make it yourself, you’ll need:
- 2 measures of Scotch or Bourbon
- Sugar syrup
- A few dashes of Angostura bitters
- Splash of water
- Orange zest and cherry to garnish
Other vintage cocktails
Vintage cocktails aren't limited to old-time drinks like the Sazerac and the Old Fashioned; there are many more timeless beverages that are still incredibly popular today and many more that deserve a comeback!
After the 'bitters' and whiskeys of the 1800s, cocktails took on a unique turn during the Prohibition-era. Rather than cocktails dying out when alcohol was banned, they simply moved underground. Cocktails were still served in the speakeasies, but rather than whiskey or brandy, gin became the spirit of choice.
Things got much more colorful post-WWII when cocktail mixing became more elaborate. Many of the 'classics' that we have on menus today originated in the 1950s. These popular 50s cocktails include the likes of the Tom Collins or the Mint Julep.
From then on, cocktails, as we know them, have continually diversified. There's everything from the Tequila Sunrise to the Woo Woo, or the Strawberry Daiquiri to the Margarita, and the Martini to the Negroni.
Vintage cocktails and vintage alcohol remain a great source of inspiration, even for the most adept of mixologists, so let's take a look at a few of these retro drinks in more detail.
Here are a few of our favorite vintage cocktails:
Gin and Tonic
- The Gin and Tonic is technically a Highball (a spirit and a single mixer), but we'd say that it still counts as a cocktail.
- The G&T can claim to be one of the oldest alcoholic drinks in the world. Like our Old Fashioned, it also originated in the 1800s and was originally consumed for medicinal purposes.
- Tonic, the mixer, contains quinine, which was used to fight malaria in tropical countries. It became a favorite of British officers posted around the British Empire when gin was mixed with the tonic to take away the bitter taste!
- The Pisco Sour is the national drink of both Chile and Peru, and in recent years its virtues have seen it spread to the USA too. But while it's a recent trend here, its origins are as old as the Gin and Tonic - and perhaps even older!
- A traditional Pisco Sour uses Pisco, a type of brandy liquor (but you can use any strong liquor). This is mixed with lemon juice, syrup, bitters, and egg white. The cocktail in this form dates back to 1920s Lima, but Pisco has been drunk for centuries by the Inca people.
- Legend has it that a British ship arrived off the coast of South America in the 1800s and began mixing the local Pisco with bitters and lemon, thereby making the first Pisco-based cocktail!
The Bee's Knees
- The Bee's Knees is a sweet, gin-based classic, but did you know that it was popularised because of Prohibition?
- The Bee's Knees is mixed with gin, lemon juice, and honey syrup. It's super-sweet and wonderful on a hot summer's day, which is perhaps why it became so popular in underground speakeasies - the drinkers were looking to be reminded of better days and outdoor drinking!
- With whiskey and brandy hard to come by during the Prohibition-era, gin took on a life of its own. It was easy to mass produce in a short space of time (distilling gin takes only a few hours) in tough conditions!
It's time for a few vintage cocktails!
After delving deep into the history and heritage of cocktails, we think it's time to mix up a vintage cocktail ourselves!
While we will never know the true origins of many of the most famous cocktails, we do know that they paved the way for the fantastic cocktail-drinking culture we have today. Ultimately, we don't really mind if the Sazerac wants to call itself the oldest cocktail in the world, even if it's outdated by a Pisco Sour - we just want to enjoy them!
Why not bookmark our guide to vintage cocktails, so you can mix the perfect Old Fashioned at home?