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Drinking in History 

From communal punch bowls to vinegar cocktails, the potables of the past get a new look

click to enlarge At Loa, Alan Walter mixes punches in various sizes for revelers to share. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

The rise of the craft cocktail is sometimes lauded as a return to artisanal practices, as bartenders working this niche embrace small batch spirits, fresh ingredients, home-made mixers and hands-on techniques that were the rule before modern brands and premade mixes. But just how far back does this return stretch?

  Some posit the start of the age of the cocktail around 1862, the year American bartender Jerry Thomas published his Bar-Tenders Guide, the first book to codify cocktail recipes. Increasingly, however, craft cocktail enthusiasts are reaching back even farther into cocktail history.

  "I'd bought into that notion that you can't talk about a cocktail culture before the Civil War," says Wayne Curtis, a New Orleans-based drinks writer and contributing editor for The Atlantic. "But really there was a whole world of mixed drinks people were making before that time."

  Curtis got on this early American drinks trail while researching his 2007 book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. References to creative, cocktail-esque concoctions from Colonial-era America cropped up throughout his source materials. He also gives credit to David Wondrich, author of the drinks books Imbibe! and Punch, with pulling some of these archaic recipes and their lore out of the archives. Curtis discusses such early cocktails and prepares a few at seminar called "Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks" at Tales of the Cocktail.

  These drinks, usually based on rum, represent a rich, if sometimes obscure, realm of tastes. There's syllabub, made with warm milk, rum and spices. Spruce beer and rum was a sailor's specialty called a calibogus. Add egg and sugar to that and you had an egg calli, or you could heat the mixture for a king's calli.

  "These are bigger, rougher, rounder tastes they were dealing with back then," Curtis says. "I've come to think of it as the proto-locavore movement because people were using what they found in their backyards and whatever was at hand and doing something very creative with them for their drinks."

  In 1749, the Swedish clergyman Israel Acrelius took note of some 45 different such drinks being quaffed at taverns during his tour of the American colonies. Curtis says that while some taverns may have served such beverages as large communal punches, the widely-recognized forerunner to the modern cocktail, at other establishments patrons could order up a single serving, not unlike today's conventional bar service. Local authorities set standard prices that tavern keepers could charge for drinks, Curtis says, so one way they found to compete for a clientele was to get more inventive with their drink offerings.

  "Many taverns catered to travelers coming in individually or in pairs. They could order these drinks, and the tavern keeper would make them up," he says.

  "At the higher end places they'd serve them in a glass, a step down it might be a pewter mug and at the rougher, bottom rung places it was typically a basic earthenware cup."

  Another example from this ilk is a drink called the stone fence, made by mixing dark rum, hard cider, allspice and nutmeg, plus a dose of white vinegar. While this last ingredient might sound pucker-inducing to today's tipplers, Curtis says vinegar was commonly used as a souring agent.

  "It basically served the same role as lemon and lime when those weren't available because of the seasons or transportation," he says. "Vinegar never goes off and has much the same effect as citric acid in a cocktail."

  Curtis concedes the public appetite for vinegar drinks may be limited to what he calls "cocktail re-enactors," or those hobbyists bent on replicating drinks of the past down to the last authentic detail. But the resurgence of interest in rum punches shows how some very old drinking conventions can make a comeback. Mixed with juices and served in large, communal bowls, they were the centerpieces for drink-ups in colonial taverns, fine homes and sailing ships wherever rum was found. Today, modern renditions are increasingly turning up at bars in sync with the craft cocktail sensibility.

  There's always a punch available at Cure (4905 Freret St., 302-2357; www.curenola.com), which owner Neal Bodenheimer says his bartenders devise each day from whatever particular combinations strike their fancy. At Loa (221 Camp St., 553-9550), the bar inside the International House Hotel, bartender Alan Walter serves a punch built for two he calls the Grand Isle. It's served in a larger pitcher with a matching pair of cups, and Walter says the very medium helps cultivate a happy mood around the room.

  "When people share a drink like this, as a bartender you just can't set them up any better for the spirit of partaking," he says.

  Curtis agrees, and he says that's part of the value of mining the past for ideas for today's bars, even if some recipes require a few updates for the modern palate.

  "A lot of these old recipes and traditions came out of necessity. People at the time used what they could get. Now, since we have so many options, it's about that hunt for something different," he says. "The thing with punch is that it's convivial. You sit around a punch bowl and drink it together. It does facilitate the social process and that's probably why it was so popular through two centuries. There's something essential to these things that endures. I think people are starting to discover that again, and I think that's great."

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