Guest Review: Gilded Age Cocktails: History, Lore and Recipes from America’s Golden Age by Cecelia Tichi

Gilded Age Cocktails: History, Lore and Recipes from America’s Golden Age by Cecelia Tichi
Released by NYU Press on May 4, 2021

Gilded Age Cocktails book coverA delightful romp through America’s Golden Age of Cocktails

The decades following the American Civil War burst with invention―they saw the dawn of the telephone, the motor car, electric lights, the airplane―but no innovation was more welcome than the beverage heralded as the “cocktail.”

The Gilded Age, as it came to be known, was the Golden Age of Cocktails, giving birth to the classic Manhattan and martini that can be ordered at any bar to this day. Scores of whiskey drinks, cooled with ice chips or cubes that chimed against the glass, proved doubly pleasing when mixed, shaken, or stirred with special flavorings, juices, and fruits. The dazzling new drinks flourished coast to coast at sporting events, luncheons, and balls, on ocean liners and yachts, in barrooms, summer resorts, hotels, railroad train club cars, and private homes.

From New York to San Francisco, celebrity bartenders rose to fame, inventing drinks for exclusive universities and exotic locales. Bartenders poured their liquid secrets for dancing girls and such industry tycoons as the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and the railroad king “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Cecelia Tichi offers a tour of the cocktail hours of the Gilded Age, in which industry, innovation, and progress all take a break to enjoy the signature beverage of the age. Gilded Age Cocktails reveals the fascinating history behind each drink as well as bartenders’ formerly secret recipes. Though the Gilded Age cocktail went “underground” during the Prohibition era, it launched the first of many generations whose palates thrilled to a panoply of artistically mixed drinks.

Lime asked me to review this book because vintage cocktails have been my pandemic quarantine project. I have amassed a collection of books on the subject, and I am happy to add this one to my bar shelf.

The subtitle of this book says a lot. It contains more history and lore than recipes, and I found it fascinating. As Tichi writes in the introduction, “the Gilded Age might also be known as the Golden Age of Cocktails” (p. 3), especially in the pre-Prohibition USA. She explores some of the reasons for that early in the book, and then she goes on to take a closer look at individual people, groups and places that were particularly significant and influential in cocktail culture from 1870-1910.

I own copies a couple of the books that Tichi used for research and reference, so some of the recipes and a few of the related anecdotes were familiar to me. But she writes about them with wonderful energy, fluency and vivid use of language, so even the familiar was fun to revisit. If you don’t know much about this period or this subject, you can learn a lot from this book. If you already have an appreciation for cocktails or for turn-of -that-century social history, you will recognize the familiar and, if you’re like me, appreciate them all the more.
On a practical note, the recipes in this book may not add a lot to your repertory as a mixologist. For instance, in chapter two, “Olympians of the Bar,” she writes about the colorful and influential bartender Jerry Thomas, including this recipe for a drink that was his specialty:

Blue Blazer
2 hot silver mugs (with insulated handles)
1 or 2 ounces scotch whisky
4 ounces boiling water
2 lumps sugar
Lemon peel
1. Pour scotch into first mug.
2. Pour water and sugar into second mug.
3. Set scotch alight and allow to burn for about 2 minutes while pouring it into second mug.
4. Quickly pour lighted mixture back and forth from mug to mug.
5. When fire is extinguished, serve in one of the mugs with lemon peel. (Additional whisky can be added.) (p. 13)

It’s a great cocktail to read about, and to imagine, but I don’t see many of us trying to make one, let alone making it a home bar staple.

One thing to remember about early cocktails is that they were mostly spirit(s). The idea was to add different flavors to whisky or gin, but not to dilute their strength. So you’ll find added ingredients like fruit juice, other alcohol (such as vermouth, curaçao, sherry or wine) and sugar, but the resulting drinks are still both short and strong. You will find a few drinks that are longer, using soda water or ginger beer, and you’ll find that most drinks call for ice – Tichi notes that the increasing availability of ice was a driving factor in the increasing popularity of the cocktail.

Mostly, the book is worth reading for a deeper, different look at the movers and shakers, and the social forces, of this period of history. The country was putting the Civil War behind it, both the upper and middle classes were growing, and most of us are susceptible to an interest in how the upper class lives, whether we look on in envy, amusement, shock or horror. It reminded me of our visits to Hearst Castle, or “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill), in San Simeon, California – it’s from a later period (1919-1947), but the excess of the lifestyle has the same sort of fascination.

I enjoyed reading this book, and I can see myself going back to it to reference and for entertainment. Here’s a recipe that I found interesting and tasty; I’ve added it to my standard set of offerings to guests. It’s from the chapter “Oh, the Places They Toast,” which goes outside of the hubs of society to look at the cocktail culture in popular travel destinations. Two of the cocktails included are the Hawaii Cocktail and the Klondike Cocktail, since both of these territories were open to travelers with the money to get there. It was quite a twist for me to discover that the two recipes were identical! (And yes, learning to take the whole peel off of an orange in a single spiral is one of the skills I learned thanks to the COVID-19 lockdown.)

1½ ounces whiskey
Juice of 1 orange
Peel of entire orange
Ginger ale
1. In Collins glass with ice, add orange peel.
2. Add whiskey.
3. Add juice.
4. Stir moderately.
5. Fill to top with ginger ale and serve. (pp. 97 and 100)

You can buy a copy here. (If you’re interested, the Amazon book page also lists 5 cocktails – one of them being the Hawaii Cocktail.)

2 thoughts on “Guest Review: Gilded Age Cocktails: History, Lore and Recipes from America’s Golden Age by Cecelia Tichi

  1. Pingback: FYI May 04, 2021 – Instagatrix

  2. dholcomb1

    This sounds interesting. I don’t have a lot of experience with cocktails, but I find it fascinating with the blending of history.



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