Throughout its two-century-plus history, the cocktail has influenced art, film, music, politics, and theater around the world. The Museum of the American Cocktail (MOTAC), a division of the nonprofit National Food & Beverage Foundation, celebrates that singular cultural icon and develops its craft, field, and market through exhibits, programming, and a range of media. 

Founded by craft cocktail pioneer Dale DeGroff and a group of eminent cocktail authorities, MOTAC preserves and develops a rich facet of American—and global—culture, advances the profession of bartending, and expands consumer knowledge of mixology. MOTAC maintains permanent collections in Los Angeles and New Orleans and provides educational resources to professionals and enthusiasts in the fine art of crafting the cocktail through a series of seminars and other programs conducted by the world's foremost experts in locations across the country and globe, among them Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and Washington, DC.

A Spirited History of Cocktails

Spirit Stories

The Whiskey Cocktail and the old Fashioned

The whiskey cocktail was often made with rye, sugar, water, and bitters. As time passed, it became a more common drink. It was widely sold, made with various spirits, in New York in the 1830s. As the nineteenth century progressed, the drink changed, and its ingredients were varied. Indeed, it changed so much that the simple, original drink became known as the old-fashioned.

New Orleanians may not have been early rye enthusiasts, but the liquor did eventually catch on. In 1884 and 1885, many tourists travelled to the city for the World Cotton Exposition. Journalists and New Orleans observer Lafcadio Hearn published a cookbook for those visitors called La Cuisine Creole, which contained some of the special foods that have made New Orleans famous, such as gumbo and jambalaya. It also included recipes for drinks then being enjoyed in New Orleans, suggesting that drinking cocktails was an essential part of the city's culture. 

Here is the recipe for the whiskey, brandy, or gin cocktail from La Cuisine Creole:

Two dashes of Boker’s, Angostura, or Peychaud’s bitters—either will make a fine cocktail. One lump of sugar, one-piece of lemon peel, one tablespoon of water, one wineglassful of liquor, etc., with plenty of ice. Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass. 

The old-fashioned, when made with rye, is not as sweet as the drink made with bourbon. This is also true about the Sazerac. Most Sazerac recipes today call for rye. 

Chris [McMillian] explains that despite the claim of Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, to have invented the old-fashioned, it more likely originated from the frequent requests of customers that a cocktail be made in the old-fashioned way, without new ingredients.

The old-fashioned is a built cocktail glass. It is built in the glass, not shaken and then poured into the glass.  

Chris McMillian’s Old-Fashioned

—Makes 1 drink—

One sugar cube

5 drops of Angostura bitters

1 tablespoon water

1 piece fresh orange peel


2 ounces spirits

Cherry, orange slice, cocktail pick, and a swizzle stick for garnish

Today, there are variations of the old-fashioned using many different spirits, from tequila to rum. But the principles are the same: spirits, water, sugar, and bitters. The cocktail.

Sinister Spirits: Absinthe

One indication of a continued connection between New Orleans and Paris was the popularity of absinthe in both cities. With its high alcohol content, its ritual, and its mysterious ability to louche or become cloudy and greenish in color, absinthe was the drink of choice of the demimonde. Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were among those on the Continent who were companions of la fée verte. Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe were known to consort with the Green Fairy, as absinthe was called. They and other bohemians enjoyed its so-called dangerous nature, feeling the frisson of naughtiness for drinking the stuff and experiencing its effects, basking in the disapproval of conventional society. 

Absinthe gets its name from Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, a silver-leaved, bitter, anise-flavored herb that had been used since the Egyptians as a vermicide. The spirit’s green cast comes from a high amount of chlorophyll. Traditionally, it was drunk with a lump of sugar and water and with great ceremony. The paraphernalia and preparation rite no doubt added to absinthe’s mystique and appeal. 

A fountain with spigots was used to pour cold water in a controlled stream or to skip it slowly over a sugar cube. A decoratively pierced spoon held the lump of sugar over the drink glass, allowing the water to filter the absinthe below. If there was no fountain, water could be slowly poured from a pitcher or carafe. French cartoons make fun of the heights from which the water was poured to ensure a proper louche. The oils from the herbs that are macerated in the spirits (and that give the absinthe its flavor) dissolve in the alcohol. Where there is sufficient water in the glass, the oils become cloudy and change color.

Although absinthe was available in many coffeehouses and saloons in New Orleans, Old Absinthe House, at the corner of Bienville and Bourbon Streets, was graced with legendary fountains. Built in 1806, the building was used as a food wholesaler, an épicurie, and even a bookshop before it became home to Aleix’s Coffee House in 1846, run by Jacinto Aleix and his family. Like other coffeehouses in the city, it served alcohol. Later, bartender Cayetano Ferrér began serving the popular Absinthe Frappé. In 1874 Ferrér, who had leased the place, renamed it the Absinthe Room. Later it was names the Old Absinthe House. 

The building was nailed shut during Prohibition, and it remained dark. But the marble bar, the cash register, the familiar paintings, and the fountains were removed from the building by Piece Cassebonne. who bought them to created the Old Absinthe House Bar on Bourbon Street. In 2004, the furnishings were returned to their original home, where they can be seen today. The most important features are the green marble fountains, each topped with a bronze figure and equipped with spigots for dripping. Notable features of these fountains are their extremely pitted limestone bases. Some explain the pitting as the result of gallons and gallons of water dripping drop by drop onion the limestone, eroding depressions into the surface. Others believed the pitting is too extensive to have been caused by the simple dripping of water. It is also speculated that the fountains may have been used as a seltzer fountain. The acidic nature of seltzer would have gradually eaten into the limestone, causing the pitted surface. 

Because of health concerns associated with the compound thujone found in absinthe, the spirit was banned in the United States in 1912, and was not legal again until 2007. Ted Breaux, and environmental chemist originally from New Orleans, reverse-engineered pre-ban absinthe. Breaux determined that absinthe made with wormwood contains only minute quantities of thujone. Thujone was considered toxic and was incorrectly thought to be responsible from the erratic behavior of some absinthe drinkers. Breaux determined that the government ban on absinthe was based on pseudoscience; he used real science, in the form of a mass spectrometer, to prove that thujone was not present in sufficient quantity in absinthe to have any deleterious effects. Breaux now produces his own absinthe at a distillery in Saumur, France. 

Two New Orleans brothers, Ray and B. J. Bordelon, recently became fascinated with absinthe, as well as its paraphernalia. They love the taste of absinthe, and they have become historians of the drink and collectors of the special artifacts surrounding its ritual. In 2003, they created the Absinthe Museum in a shop on Royal Street. The shop closed in 2010, and the brothers reopened La Galerie d’Absinthe inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. The exhibit is one of the largest collections of absinthe artifacts on display in the United States. The exhibit also educated museum visitors on the history of absinthe in New Orleans, including the famous people who imbibed the drink in the city, such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Lafcadio Hearn.

A Brief History of Vodka

Vodka predates every other spirit, although Russia and Poland still argue about where it originated. Probably first appearing in the 700-800’s, vodka actually predates distillation, although those early versions were nothing like what we drink today. The first known distillery was located in Khylnovsk, Russia in 1174, and it seems like the spirit was mostly used for medical purposes (just about any medical problem could be solved with vodka!) until the 1700’s when early Poulgar was really developed using potstills. We sampled the modern day version of poulgar and found it very flavorful, with a grassy, bready, rye-ey profile. Apparently, Russians would tinker with the flavors of poulgar, experimenting with different grains and hosting 8-course dinners with a different paired poulgar for each dish.

The next big step for vodka was the invention of continuous distillation by Aeneas Coffey in 1830, and that’s when we started to see a more modern form of the spirit. For the next hundred years, Russia and Poland were the main powerhouses of vodka production and drinking, although New Orleans can lay claim to what appears to be the first recorded vodka cocktail recipe in the US. In 1911 “the Russian Cocktail” made at the St. Charles Hotel was “a straightforward mix of vodka and an imported rowanberry cordial, this “Russian Cocktail” was tasty, but perhaps a trifle obscure to become popular,” David Wondrich reports.

During Prohibition in the US, many bartenders from the States found their way to Europe, where vodka was making inroads and cocktails with vodka were quite popular. When they returned post-repeal, they brought the drinks with them, and it was a cool, in-the-know spirit for drink lovers, like today’s Fernet-Branca or Underberg. Then came the three-martini lunches and Moscow Mules, Bloody Marys and Cosmos, and James Bond’s shaken-not-stirred cocktails. Vodka companies sprang up to fill the demand, and an arms race of distilling, flavoring, and marketing combined to make vodka one of the most popular spirits in the world.

In between sips of vodka, we also enjoyed a few classic cocktails, starting with an updated vodka-soda, then a delicious Gypsy Queen from the Russian Tea Room in NYC, finishing up with a classic dry martini.

Many thanks to Grey Goose for their excellent discussion and delicious cocktails, as well as to Katie’s Restaurant for their fortifying pasta and bread pudding! Vive La Vodka!

Who Invented the Margarita?

These are the possible claimants!

Santos Cruz, head bartender at the historic Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas, created the Margarita for singer Peggy (Margaret) Lee in 1948 with equal portions of blanco tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lime juice. He modeled it after the popular Sidecar for Miss Lee, who liked tequila. Peggy Lee, who performed at the Balinese Room, never disputed this story.

Enrique Bastate Gutierrez created the Margarita in the early 1940s as an homage to actress Rita Hayworth, whose birth name was Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino, born in Tijuana, Mexico.

Carlos “Danny” Herrera, bartender at the Rancho La Gloria bar, on the old road between Tijuana and Rosarito Beach, in 1947-1948, came up with the Margarita for an actress and showgirl Marjorie King, whose stage name Rita De La Rosa, which she adopted for her piano gigs around San Diego at the Hotel Del Coronado and the Del Mar, among others. She was allergic to hard liquor, except for tequila, but didn’t enjoy drinking it straight, even with salt and a lemon slice. Herrera mixed 3 parts black tequila, 2 parts Cointreau, and 1 part fresh lemon juice; added shaved ice; and blended the mixture together with a hand shaker.

Francisco “Pancho” Morales invented the Margarita on July 4, 1942, at a bar in Juárez, Mexico, named Tommy’s Place. A female customer requested a Magnolia – brandy, Cointreau, and an egg yolk, topped with Champagne. Morales only remembered the Cointreau from the recipe, so he improvised. His new creation was a hit, and, as Pancho also taught at the Juárez bartenders’ school, the drink’s recipe spread.

Danny Negrete presented the margarita as a wedding present to Margarita, his future sister-in-law, at the Hotel Garci Crispo in Puebla, Mexico, the day before his brother David's marriage in 1936. His proportions – one-third Cointreau, one-third tequila, and one-third squeezed Mexican lime juice – were served over hand-crushed ice in a rocks glass.

Margaret (Margarita) Sames created the drink at her Acapulco home in 1948 during a Christmas party. A socialite, Mrs. Sames served the prototype to Nick Hilton, founder of the Hilton Hotel chain; Joseph Drown, who owned the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles; Shelton McHenry, who owned the popular Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in the Los Angeles; as well as actors Fred MacMurry, Lana Turner, and John Wayne. Popularity spread through the stars and famous hotel-restaurant people. Sames used 1 part Cointreau, 2 parts tequila, and 1 part lime juice for her margarita. Knowing that many people drank tequila preceded by a lick of salt, she garnished her cocktail with a rim of course salt.

These and other hopeful origin stories aside, there are enough people who recall drinking Margaritas in the 1930’s that it is unlikely the Margarita was invented after the end of the decade. Lacking only the name and the salt, a cocktail composed of 2 parts tequila, 1 part Cointreau, and 1 part lime juice shaken and strained into a cocktail glass appeared in the “Cafe Royal Cocktail Book” published in London in 1937 under the name “Picador.”

While glass styles, mixing instructions, tequila brands, and proportions shift depending on the origin story at hand, it is notable that the one utter constant is the use of the orange liquor Cointreau in all of these recipes.