Stories Behind Famous Cocktails

The naming of drinks can be one of the easiest or hardest things about making cocktails. The name can be an inside joke, or based on the spirit or other ingredients, or the color, etc. Sometimes it seems even effortless. And other times, it takes a group effort brainstorming, word association games and several Google searches before a name is settled on. There has to be a certain… oomph. Something easy to say (you don’t want to mispronounce your order while you’ve already had a few in you), memorable in some way, and adds to the overall drink “package.”

The origins of how classic cocktails came about are shrouded in myth and mystery. There were no records kept in those days. Most origin stories were spread by word of mouth, and – as the game “Pass the Message” proves – the original story changes with each retelling. The stories that were retold the most are the ones that we know now. Conflicting stories and urban legends have emerged over the years to explain where cocktails come from and how they got their names.  I’ve done a bit of research behind some of the names of classic cocktails out there. Here are a few with some interesting back stories.


SCREWDRIVER – Screw you, Feds!

This very straightforward combination of vodka and orange juice has two very different but equally interesting back stories. One story is that oil riggers in the Persian Gulf in the 1950s would mix the two ingredients to take the edge off a long day at work. And that the name of the drink came from what they used to stir it with: the screwdriver!

Another story goes that during the Prohibition, because alcohol was made underground and unregulated, it resulted in very poor quality booze. And to mask the awful taste, bartenders added fruit juices and other flavors and were able to offer a range of mixed drinks. Since alcohol was banned, people used “screwdriver” as a code word to mislead federal agents when they ordered drinks (since it just looked like juice). The vodka and orange juice combo quickly became the go-to “screwdriver” and the name stuck.


LONG ISLAND ICED TEA – Looks and sounds innocent, but very lethal.

There are a few theories about how this drink came about. The interesting, less popular theory is that Long Island housewives created an innocent-looking beverage that they could drink in front of their friends and families without being judged. And it wasn’t noticeable that they were drinking a lot because they were just pilfering a single shot from each liquor bottle. Sneaky, yet very effective at giving you a great big buzz. 


HARVEY WALLBANGER – Watch your head

The name itself sounds dangerous. Not so much violent as it is a little reckless. Like this is what you drink when you are having one of those nights when you just want to have a bender and just say, “f#ck it.” Basically a Screwdriver with Galliano (anise) liqueur, this drink packs quite a punch. The story goes that sometime in the 1960s, there was a surfer named Harvey who wiped out pretty badly in a competition. He then proceeded to get his drink on (allegedly at Pancho’s Bar in Manhattan Beach), ordering a vodka and orange juice with Galliano. It could be because of the alcohol or frustration of losing, but it is said that he banged his head against the wall and the bartender then named the drink the Harvey Wallbanger. If you’re not careful, you might just bang your head against a wall.


TOM COLLINS – The refreshing hoax

Next up on the people-named cocktails is the Tom Collins. You’d think this citrusy drink is named after some dude who made a fool of himself or a historical figure but the story is much more interesting than that. It owes its name to a 19th century hoax. In 1874, hundreds of New Yorkers were duped by bartenders into believing that there was a certain Tom Collins who was going around town saying bad things about the citizens of the Big Apple. Naturally, they were quite upset about the whole thing and sought to find the guy ruining their reputations. They were told that this slanderer could be found in another bar. The thing is, there wasn’t really a Tom Collins. The bartenders, with their wicked sense of humor, ran with the joke and made this drink so that when the people looking for Tom Collins asked for him, they would instead find a refreshing drink.


ZOMBIE – Supposed hangover cure. Not. 

Invented by Donn Beach, this mixture of three kinds of rum, liqueurs and fruit juices was made to help a customer get over his hangover. Hair of the dog at its best. But the customer came back after a few days saying that the drink made him feel like a zombie all day. Donn then decided to put the drink on his menu, and we can blame him for making us feel braindead and zombiefied when we drink this.


SEX ON THE BEACH – Two favorite things in one

Admit it! The first time you (probably you were at least 18-y-o!) ordered a Sex on the Beach cocktail, you were shy and blushing a bit. Maybe it was the first time you said something so naughty in public and to a stranger. The name of this cocktail with vodka, peach schnapps, lime juice and grenadine concoction is said to have started out as a joke made by a bartender in Florida during summer break (circa 1987) for a bartending competition. When asked what the drink was called, he combined the two reasons why people go to Florida during summer and came up with Sex on the Beach. 


MOSCOW MULE – Marketing gimmick done right

Two struggling products come together to unload their slow-moving merchandise and create a cocktail that even Oprah loves. Smirnoff’s John G. Martin and Jack Morgan of Cock ‘n’ Bull Products (ginger beer) combined the vodka and ginger beer for the first time in the early 1940s and it was a stroke of “inventive genius.” Morgan’s girlfriend owned a company that made copper mugs and suggested they use that to make the drink stand out. Booze + shiny mug = awesome cocktail combo. Martin went on the road armed with one of the first Polaroid cameras and took photos of bartenders posing with the copper mug and a bottle of Smirnoff. The photos got around and soon, everyone was raring to make the Mule so as not to be left behind in the trend. Sales of Smirnoff had more than tripled by 1950.


There you have it, dear imbibers. Some stories behind our favorite cocktails.


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