Vermouth, Campari, and the Americano Way

In this month’s video we have a look at the Americano cocktail:

The word Americano in reference to the cocktail first appears in print in the 1928 book Ashenden: Or the British Agent written by Somerset Maugham: “He sat in the cool and drank an americano.” Cocktails often have a connection with secret agents (think James Bond’s vodka martini, shaken not stirred), and this novel fits into that mould. It’s the story of the adventures of a playwright-turned-spy named Ashenden set during WWI. Apparently it’s based on Maugham’s own experiences as a member of British Intelligence during the war, just as Ian Fleming drew on his WWII experiences for James Bond. Speaking of James Bond, the very first drink he orders in the very first James Bond novel, Casino Royal, is the Americano, so it certainly has its spy pedigree. In other Bond stories we find the famous super spy drinking a Negroni, so 007’s drink tastes certainly extended beyond his now-trademark martinis.

 Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham

 Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Although the caffè americano is supposedly connected with WWII, it doesn’t find its way into print in English until a 1964 issue of the Sunday Gleaner of Kingston, Jamaica: “Cafe Americano or cafe Latino? The first is what it says. Mild American-style coffee.” The Oxford English Dictionary reports the phrase café americano being used in Central American Spanish at least as early as 1955. As for the Negroni, as I mentioned in the video, it was first used in print quoting Orson Welles: “Orson Welles, working in ‘Cagliostro’ in Rome, writes that he's discovered a new drink there—Negronis. It's made of gin, Italian vermouth and Campari bitters. ‘The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.’” Shortly thereafter, Ernest Hemingway used the word Negroni to refer to something that sounds an awful lot like an Americano instead: “They were drinking negronis, a combination of two sweet vermouths and seltzer water” (Across the river and into the trees, 1950). By the way, there’s a Negroni week to celebrate the cocktail and it’s history. This year (2017) it falls on the 5th to the 11th of June, so mark you calendars and raise a glass to Count Negroni, whoever he is. Here’s a picture of bartenders dressed as “Count Negroni” mixing a giant cocktail. 

As for the invention of vermouth, the other main ingredient in the Americano, fortified wines containing wormwood seem to go back thousands of years, but the best claim for the invention of the modern vermouth as we know it goes to Antonio Benedetto Carpano, who introduced the drink in 1786 as a sweet liqueur more suitable for ladies. The Carpano distillery also invented Punt e Mes, used in the original Americano.

 Antonio Benedetto Carpano

Antonio Benedetto Carpano

Vermouth and Campari are both classified as types of amaro, “bitter” in Italian. That word amaro comes from Latin amarus, which may come from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *om- meaning “raw, sharp-tasting”. The word amaro has as cognates two other liqueurs, amaretto and maraschino.

The etymology for America given in the video is by far the most widely accepted one, but there is an alternate suggestion that the Americas were not named in honour of Amerigo Vespucci, but after a man named Richard Amerike. According to this claim, Richard Amerike, an Anglo-Welsh merchant, royal customs officer, and sheriff of Bristol, was a backer of John Cabot’s expedition to the “new world”, which was subsequently named after him in gratitude for this sponsorship. The problem is there isn’t really any evidence for any of this, and so few have taken up the theory. By the way, his last name Amerike  is an anglicised spelling of the Welsh ap Meurig meaning “son of Meurig”, which is the Welsh form of the name Maurice, which comes from the Latin name Maurus. This in turn may be related to Greek mauros “dark” and/or to Moor, in other words inhabitant of Mauritania. But lest we lose our connection to the PIE *reg- root, Amerike’s first name, Richard, is made up of the elements ric “ruler” and harthu “hard”, so literally “hard or powerful ruler”.

And speaking of that root, and the Taler or Joachimsthaler coin, the other countries that picked up the coin also added that ric element to the name, not only the Holy Roman Reichsthaler, but also the Dutch rijksdaalder, the Danish rigsdaler, and the Swedish riksdaler. All of these names mean essentially “national dollar”. As for the American dollar, it’s colloquially known as the buck which is an abbreviation of buckskin, a common unit of exchange between Native Americans and Europeans in the early frontier days of North America.

Tiki: cultural reflection and fusion

Once again the Endless Knot bar is open, and this time we're serving Mai Tais: 

When thinking about the Tiki craze of the 1940s and 1950s, the elephant in the room is, of course, the cultural appropriation. Tiki culture borrows from Polynesian sources, but it's more about mid-century America than anything else. Rather than just gloss over this, I decided that it was an opportunity to discuss the tension between cultural appropriation and intercultural communication, a story which is also reflected in the history of the World's Fairs, which has several connections to the tiki craze story, so it made a good fit. Also, this was nicely in keeping with my previous cocktail videos. "Cocktail" parts 1 and 2 explore the British / American interrelation and America's colonial period and growing sense of a distinct national identity, and also touch on other international relations, such as the British / French rivalry, US / Mexico connections, the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, and so forth. And "Gimlet" focussed on colonialism and imperialism, with the East India Companies and other efforts to explore and commercialize overseas territories, often with terrible human consequences, scientific advancement notwithstanding.

There were of course many details I had to leave out of the video. The Maori story of Tiki has parallels in many cultures around the world as a creation story, and the motif of the reflection in the pool is an interesting parallel to the Greek myth of  Narcissus (from which we get the word narcissist). Tiki is furthermore important in Maori mythology as the giver of customs and laws, so we can also think of him as a culture hero. As for the "carved human figure" sense of the word, the Maori also have hei-tiki, small pendants carved out of greenstone, which may be connected with the Tiki myth, or to ancestor worship, or to fertility as  representations of either Hineteiwaiwa, the goddess of childbirth, or a human fetus.

And of course comparison (and sometimes confusion) is often made between the Maori tiki and the Easter Island moai -- the Rapa Nui culture and language are indeed closely related to the other Polynesian traditions, and the moai may also be connected to ancestor worship. So perhaps the creation of the Pacifica statue by artist Ralph Stackpole for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition is an appropriate symbol. The tiki mugs, which were often given away as souvenirs to tiki restaurant goers, are, of course, the American commercial adaptation of the tradition.

Polynesian culture first came to widespread attention in the western imagination in the 19th century, with artistic reflections such as Herman Melville's book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and artist Paul Gauguin's trip to and art inspired by Tahiti. These sorts of reflections did much to inspire this notion of a south seas paradise. (Lots more about Gauguin here).

As for the Polynesian languges, I relied mostly on the Polynesian Lexicon Project Online, as well as Edward Tregear's The Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (1891). The Polynesian Lexicon Project is  great way of checking out cognates in the related languages, and is a lot of fun to play around with, so check it out if you're into comparative linguistics. Even from just the two etymologies in the video, tiki (Maori tiki, Hawaiian ki'i, Tahitian ti'i, and other cognates here) and mai tai (Tahitian maita'i, Hawaiian maika'i, Maori maitai, and other cognates here), some clear phonological correspondences are clear: /k/ and the glottal stop, /t/ and /k/. Also, it's an interesting semantic trajectory to go from the name of the first human, to the carving of a human figure, to an umbrella term for an entire aesthetic in another culture and language.

Of course there is much more that could be said about the history of the tiki craze, and Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic in particular -- there are many who have written much more authoritatively on the subject than I could, so do check out the links on the sources page for some detailed accounts. In particular, have a look at this interview with researcher and writer Sven Kirsten on the history of tiki culture, which goes into much more detail than I could in the video. Don and Vic seem to owe much of their success to their flamboyance and showmanship. Don would spray a water hose onto the roof of his restaurant to simulate a tropic rainstorm (or to convince patrons to stay a little longer rather than leave during a downpour). And while Don was inspired by his actual South Seas travels, Vic mostly invented his adventurer persona, pretending for instance that he lost his leg not in a childhood illness, but in a shark attack. But tiki culture is about creating the appearance and fantasy of something, just like the story of Tiki and the reflection in the pool. And just like that reflection, something new can, as a result, take on a life of its own, as was the case with the tiki craze. Fusion is something American culture excels at, often producing something quite new by combining disparate sources.

And it's appropriate that Monte Proser, the British-born nightclub owner who stole the Zombie recipe, was a press agent for Walt Disney. One of Disney's themepark attractions is the Enchanted Tiki Room (opened in 1963), a Disneyfied reflection of tiki culture, a fantasy of a fantasy. So art imitating art imitating life, I suppose.

The Hawaiian or more properly Aloha shirt is itself an example of cultural blending too. The shirts, originally made from kimono fabrics, seem to have been the invention of Koichiro Miyamoto, the son of a Japanese immigant to Hawaii, and first appeared in the family shop in Honolulu. The style of shirt was then taken up in the 1930s by Chinese merchant Ellery Chun in his Waikiki shop, and soon became very popular with both local residents and tourists.

When discussing the Exotica music genre that went along with the tiki craze, I perhaps should also have mentioned vibraphone player Arthur Lyman. Born in Hawaii, and of Hawaiian, French, Belgian, and Chinese descent,  Lyman was part of Martin Denny's band for his first exotica album, and did much to help define the vibraphone-heavy sound of the new genre. After that first album, Lyman went his separate way and recorded many exotica albums of his own. The genre itself, as well as i's practitioners, is a good example of fusion and cultural blending. As are American musical genres such as jazz, blues, rock, and so forth, which are all predicated on musical fusion.

As an interesting sidenote to the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, the fairgrounds also included a Japanese Tea Garden, which still exists today. It was here that the fortune cookie seems to have been introduced to America, being served in the Tea Garden. So though we now most associate the fortune cookie with Chinese-American food, it actually had its origins in Japan in the 19th century, and made its way to the US through this World's Fair (or shortly thereafter). So another gift to popular American culture.

As for the drink recipes, much research has been done to uncover the more authentic 1930s and 1940s recipes and syrups, perhaps most importantly by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, who has written several books on the subject. For a detailed discussion of the Mai Tai recipe, see here, and if you want to make an authentic Zombie, have a look here. So mix yourself up your favorite tiki cocktail, and thanks for watching the video! Mahalo!

Gimlet: A boring tool but not a boring Story

This week we re-open the Endless Knot cocktail bar with the origin of the cocktail Gimlet:

If you haven't seem my previous cocktail videos, by the way, have a look at the cocktail playlist which starts off with the etymology of the word "cocktail" itself. Actually, as far as cocktails go, this one's a twofer, with the classic Gin & Tonic thrown in as well, and even a threefer if you include the Grog. If you want to hear a fuller account of the etymology of the word Grog, have a listen to this episode of the podcast Lexicon Valley, in which the excellent Ben Zimmer explains.

I should also point out, by the way, that though the word gimlet, referring to the small drill, comes into English at least as far back as the 15th century, and the figurative gimlet-eyed goes back to 18th century, the OED doesn't have a citation for the gimlet as a drink any earlier than 1928, though perhaps some clever person will manage to backdate that at some point. References to mixtures of gin, lime, and sugar do seem to date back to the 19th century, so even without the name the drink seems to be at least that old. In any case, the most likely etymology of the drink name, I suspect, is the figurative sense of a penetrating drink. Sorry, Dr. Gimlette.

One interesting side detail is the pronunciation of the word quinine. My first instinct was to pronounce it as if to rhyme with "tin" and "mine" (in IPA /ˈkwɪn aɪn/), but I talked myself out of that pronunciation as just mixing up the British and American pronunciations and settled on the British. But after watching a video of quinine fluorescing under UV light that contained a similar uncertainty about the pronunciation, I started to think that my first instinct might represent a particularly Canadian pronunciation. So I polled people I knew on Twitter and Facebook, and here's the result:

Admittedly I don't have a lot of data to go on here, so I'd love to hear from anyone else as to how they pronounce the word, but it does seem clear that the British and American pronunciations are quite consistent (and different from each other), but the Canadian pronunciation is evenly distributed. The American outliers, by the way, are ex-pats living in Europe and Australia, so there may be some influence there. So what do you think?

The botanical name cinchona, by the way, though superficially sounding a bit similar, is not related to quinine and its Quechua root kina, but was instead assigned to the species by Carl Linnaeus, who kind of got the form of the word wrong, in honour of the Spanish Countess of Chinchon who was cured by the bark in 1638 while in Peru in the role of vice-queen, and later brought it back to Spain, after which it became known throughout Europe. This slightly garbled form of the name has nevertheless stuck.

Of course one of the main themes I was trying to draw out here was imperialism and capitalism, with the rise and influence of the East India Companies, in particular with the ongoing rivalry between the British (EIC) and the Dutch (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC). I cheated slightly, in that the word gimlet comes into English from Dutch through Anglo-Normal French, but the number of English borrowings from Dutch later on is significant and historically interesting. The -et on the end of the word is a diminutive suffix in French, so the diminutive form of the word in Dutch would be wimmelkijn. That Dutch suffix comes into English as -kin, as in the word napkin. The point of all this is that though these early commercial efforts led to important innovations like cures for scurvy and malaria (as well as less important innovations like cocktails), they also had the potential for great harm due to European attitudes to colonialism, and at their worst led to devastating atrocities. Our modern world might not be what it is today without this history, but it came with quite a price. For more background on the East India Companies and the rise of the corporation, have a look at this recent article on the British EIC or this Crash Course video on the VOC:

For those tracking previously mentioned links, this time we have the British East India Company, William of Orange, and the Gin Craze, previously mentioned in my first cocktail video. And polymath Erasmus Darwin got a look in in my Coach video. One additional set of links I didn't use in the video has to do with an early advertisement for Rose's Lime Cordial drawn by illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne -- I was unfortunately not able to find an image of this ad online but if you know of one please point it out to me. Sambourne was most famous for being one of the main illustrators for Punch magazine (previously mentioned in "A Detective Story" here) in which he drew a caricature of the first war correspondent William Howard Russell (also previously mentioned in "A Detective Story" here). Sambourne also drew a very famous caricature of Cecil Rhodes, after whom is named Rhodesia and the Rhodes Scholarship which he founded. The deeply racist Rhodes was big into colonialism and was a founder of the massively monopolistic and exploitative De Beers diamond mining company, another fine example of the combination of capitalism and colonialism gone horribly wrong. Sambourne's illustration of him has become iconic of 19th century colonialism.

In the final part of the video, I bring the story of European imperialism around to American imperialism with the story of Smedley Darlington Butler (whom I first heard of, I think, in the excellent Hardcore History podcast). Of course Butler's nickname of Old Gimlet Eye is useful in demonstrating the figurative use of the word gimlet which may also lie behind the name of the cocktail, and makes a nice coincidental parallel with the British naval admiral Old Grogram who invented grog. By the way grog is an example of an eponym, a word which is derived from the name of a person, in this case Old Grogram, and if you believe the Dr. Thomas D. Gimlette etymology for the drink name, that would make it also an eponym. (I discussed the similar concept of the toponym, a word that comes from a place name, in a previous blog post on for the video "Coach".) But Butler's story is also useful in demonstrating the dangers of corporate interests driving colonialist policies in ways not that far removed from the excesses of the British and Dutch East India companies of earlier times. So I'll leave you with Butler's own words, first in an excerpt from an article he wrote in the magazine Common Sense, and then in a video clip of his Business Plot accusation:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.


It's Cocktail Hour!

This week's video is part 2 of my look at the word "cocktail":

If you haven't seen part 1 yet, you can watch that here.

In this new video I look at what I think is the most likely etymology for cocktail. The OED puts the the drink sense and the horse sense of the word cocktail together, and I'm inclined to agree. On the surface the horse connection seems one of the less likely, but linguistically it seems to be on the most solid ground, since there's clear early evidence of various colloquial uses of the word "cocktail". Also widely reported is the eggcup story connected with the invention of the Sazerac, and while a New Orleans origin is tempting, the dates don't work out--the apothecary Peychaud's invention seems to date to the 1830s (see the website of the Sazerac company, which now distributes the bitters), which is over thirty years after the earliest instances of the word being used, as we saw in the last video. However, it does gesture towards the important contribution of 19th century America in the development and popularization of the cocktail. Though I'm inclined to accept the British birth of both the drink and the word, the cocktail as we know it now "grew up" in the US, as I've touched on with references to early cocktail recipe books and Prohibition, along with other more tangential examples of Americana such as Nast and Hemingway.

 Another early cocktail recipe book, this one by William "Cocktail" Boothby.

Another early cocktail recipe book, this one by William "Cocktail" Boothby.

One of the interesting American connections that was split up over the two episodes, is that both the Democratic and Republican parties are name-dropped in the videos, but here's a close up image of those two references, just because it amuses me:

cocktail closeup 6.png

In my discussion of the other sense of the word cocktail, "a person assuming the position of a gentleman, but deficient in thorough gentlemanly breeding", I use an illustration from Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey. The character John Thorpe in it is a rather nice example of this. He constantly pretends to be rather more than he is, driving a tricked out but actually inferior carriage, much like a young man today might have a car which is made out to look fancier than it actually is.


On the subject of pictures, I couldn't find a picture of Alec Waugh, so I had to go with a picture of his more famous brother Evelyn Waugh--hope that wasn't too confusing. I also couldn't find a picture that I was sure I could use of a cocktail shaker in the shape of a teapot, but there are many such pictures on the internet. Here's one:

You can read more about the development of the cocktail shaker here. And this is the George Bishop book I mentioned at the beginning of the video. I can strongly recommend having a look at Jerry Thomas's How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant's Companion, which you can download in a variety of formats. There are some really interesting early cocktails in there, if you want to explore mixing up some unusual drinks.

I've already settled on the next cocktail name to feature in a video--keep your eye on the cocktail word playlist for future videos. So get mixing, and if you have any questions or suggestions for other cocktail names to look into, send them my way. Cheers!


This week's video marks the beginning of a new semi-regular series of videos on the etymology of cocktail names. This first episode is part one of a look at the word "cocktail" itself, as well as at the history of the development of the cocktail:

In two weeks I'll post part two, which will cover some more proposed etymologies for the word, and will also look a bit at the cocktail as a social institution. Later on I'll continue to post from time to time videos that will look at the etymology of specific cocktail names. I've already picked the next one, but I'm happy to take suggestions.

There's no more consensus on the origin of the word "cocktail" than there is on the origin of the drink itself, and much has been written on both scores. Beyond the usual linguistic sources, I've looked at a number of sources, many of which you can see listed here. Many of the proposed origins of the word that I discuss in this video (and in part 2) are, of course, are false etymologies, or are based on proposed folk etymologies, but I've tried to gather together as many as I could find, no matter how likely they are, because they are both fun and instructive in how they build up an interesting historical web of connections. Cocktail part 1 is in many ways a lesson in European foreign policy, exploration, and colonization, with the British East India Company, the Napoleonic Wars, Colonial America, and the Conquistadors in the historical backgrounds here. The etymology is the jumping off point that can open up into many interesting historical byways. The varied histories of the drink and the word, interesting in and of themselves, are also emblematic of the complex interplay of history, and this historical relationship with something entertaining like cocktails will make those histories all the more memorable. Think about that next time you raise a glass!

A few additional things to call attention to: Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, who I mentioned backdated the earliest reference of the word "cocktail" can be found on the web here, and Jared has an excellent article about the history of the drink here. You can have a look at James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy here. I briefly mention La Malinche, aka Dona Marina, Cortez's translator and mistress. Apparently she was quite a polygot, able to guide the Conquistador through many varied languages of Mexico, such as Nahuatl, Chontal Mayan language, and various other dialects--an interesting figure in her own right who only gets a passing mention here.

 William "Cocktail" Boothby, important early bartender and cocktail book writer

William "Cocktail" Boothby, important early bartender and cocktail book writer

So tune in again in two weeks for the exciting conclusion to "Cocktail", and leave any suggestions for any cocktail names you'd like me to cover in the comments. Cheers!