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Mixopedia: Fancy Drinks

Those who research the history of 19th-century strong drink often enjoy calm seas, sunny skies and fair tailwinds as they sail through cocktail guides and newspaper accounts. But eventually, all run hard aground on the shoals of the “fancy drink.”

References to fancy drinks litter the spirituous corpus. Indeed, the original edition of Jerry Thomas’ 1862 cocktail guide—the first ever published—was entitled “The Bar-Tender’s Guide: A Complete Cyclopædia of Plain and Fancy Drinks.” His guide to making cocktails, fizzes and punches included an entire section devoted to “Fancy Drinks.”

Imitators soon abounded. In 1869, publishers Jesse Haney & Co. came out with their Steward and Barkeeper’s Manual: A Complete and Practical Guide for Preparing All Kinds of Plain and Fancy Mixed Drinks and Popular Beverages. The publisher of Harry Johnson’s 1882 Bartenders’ Manual promised coverage of “popular mixed concoctions, fancy beverages, cocktails, punches, juleps, etc.”

Which leads one to wonder: What precisely are “fancy drinks”? And how are they different from, say, plain drinks? This question is one of the Zen koans of the cocktail world, producing vexation and scant enlightenment. In fact, lore has it that cocktail historian David Wondrich’s famously attenuated beard got that way from his constantly tugging upon it while contemplating the meaning of “fancy drinks.” As he notes in Imbibe!, his pioneering history of early drink, some of the so-called fancy drinks of yore “are no fancier in their ingredients or execution than others not so privileged.”

An analysis of recipes for so-called fancy drinks reveals a few tea leaves aligning in distinct patterns. The Venn diagram with both “mixed drinks” and “fancy drinks” often proves to have considerable overlap, and in some instances it appears that anything involving two or more ingredients was considered “fancy.” Haney’s Steward & Barkeeper’s Manual refers to “mixed or fancy drinks, as they are sometimes called,” suggesting it was merely a way to upsell a mixed drink. This would make sense in bars where drams and shots were the standard, and where having to reach for a second or third bottle was thought to be a little special.

What precisely are “fancy drinks”? And how are they different from, say, plain drinks?

For the most part, though, fancy drinks seemed to skew toward the blingy, although the degree of blingedness could vary widely. (As Wondrich notes, it could be as subtle as “a thin cordon of hammer marks around the rim of a silver cup.”) Jerry Thomas’ guide features plain and fancy versions of both the brandy and gin cocktail. In each case, the fancy drink differs little from the plain, except that the former gets a modest makeover: The fancy cocktail is identical, Thomas writes, “except that it is strained in a fancy wine-glass and a piece of lemon peel thrown on top, and the edge of the glass moistened with lemon.”


It’s good to recall some context here. “Fancy” was likely a descriptor designed to appeal to a new class of drinker. The industrialization of America went from canter to full gallop starting in the 1870s and continuing through the end of the century. This led to rising incomes overall and an emergent middle class of managers and suppliers—a group that seems to have been preternaturally status conscious and would never be content with a mere “plain drink.” The fancier, the better.

At the same time, architecture was becoming increasingly rococo and elaborate, and Queen Anne and Second Empire styles were ascendant—both embraced the idea that more is never quite enough, and were layered with columns and mansards and volutes, all slapped on higgledy-piggledy. Fashion followed with cravats and crinoline and lace.

And the cocktail went chasing after these trends—cobblers and juleps were adorned with all manner of orange slices and pineapple wedges, along with forests of mint and other such adornments. Garnish-wise, some could have put to shame the modern brunch Bloody Mary.

In 1889, a bartender in Indianapolis was interviewed about drink trends. He confirmed that, like architecture and fashion, what’s trendy for one generation is often dated for the next. “Yes, the styles have changed,” he said. “Especially in the change seen in regard to mixed and fancy drinks. A few years ago there was a sort of craze for fancy cocktails and similar mixtures, and they grew into popularity with remarkable suddenness.”

But that ended just as suddenly. By his reckoning, “almost all the wine and whiskey that is drunk in this city now is taken without being made into a fancy mixture, and that could not be said five years ago, or three, for that matter.”

Yet the fancy drink persisted in a feral fashion, and enjoyed a modest revival in the 20th century. In Havana, the famed bar Sloppy Joe’s published a cocktail guide in 1936, which, too, had a separate section featuring three “fancy drinks.” All of these involved elegant cocktail glasses with hollow stems. The stem would be filled with a liqueur—crème de menthe or parfait amour—and the opening corked with a cherry or olive. The cocktail would be concocted and decanted on top, and as one drained the drink and tilted one’s head back, the plug would dislodge, and the glass would serve a second dessert drink to cap off your evening.

Now that’s a fancy drink.

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