There’s an old lounge in the neighborhood that still has its old neon “Cocktails” sign glowing over the front door. The image triggered my imagination about what went on inside the establishment. Were there tables where laughing couples sipped fruity drinks garnished with little paper umbrellas? Was a Frank Sinatra song playing on the house sound system? Maybe it was a dreary place with a few old men sitting at the bar, nursing beers and highballs, sad that smoking is no longer allowed, by law.
Last November I decided to investigate the place. I don’t ever drink and drive, so I walked the several blocks from home to the cocktail lounge. The decor looked like something out of the 1970s. The newest accessories were a “Budweiser” sign above the bar and a faux-neon “Miller” sign on another wall. The full length mirror behind the bar satisfied my need to stereotype the place. Most noteworthy were the gleaming shelves filled with fancy bottles of hard liquors.
I found an empty bar stool next to a smiling, large bald man and sat down. I made a quick scan of my fellow patrons and noticed that nearly all of us were middle age or older caucasian males. There were a few younger heterosexual couples seated at smaller tables near the postage stamp size “dance floor”. I introduced myself to the big guy and found out his name was Larry.
A couple of minutes later, a 50ish looking female bartender arrived to take my order. I asked her to bring another beer for Larry and a dry martini for myself. I rarely drink, but when I do, I want to sip a traditional, quality martini, not one of those faddish, sweet so-called “martini” concoctions.
I started a conversation with Larry to find out more about him. He said he had just finished his shift at the “Goodyear” plant and wanted to have a couple of beers before going home to the wife and daughter. The conversation was typical, everyday small-talk.
Our drinks arrived and I took a sip of the martini. There was that friendly aroma of evergreen and the gentle tang of expensive gin. Larry continued his short autobiography and mentioned that he worked as a bartender to earn his way through college. I mentioned that bartenders probably have millions of stories to tell. Larry nodded in agreement, and said that he did, as well.
He pointed at my martini and remarked that he was always happy to use his bartending skills to serve cocktails instead of just dragging out beers for customers. I took another sip, then said this one was one of the better martinis I’ve ever had.
Larry mentioned that sometimes he was asked where the name “cocktail” came from because it’s such a weird word. The name comes off as not quite wholesome. I said that I’d heard a few stories that purported to reveal the origins of the word. What was his?
A widow of one of the Revolutionary War heroes, a Mrs. Flanagan opened a travellers’ inn in a small town in New York near the end of the war. One night, a drunken patron pointed to a bunch of rooster feathers pinned to the wall as decorations. The drunkard asked for a glassful of those cock tails. Mrs. Flanagan refilled his last drink and garnished it with one of the rooster feathers. That was the very first cocktail ever served.
I laughed and said it sounded like as good of a story as any. I wondered aloud how clean the feather might have been. We continued visiting for about half-an-hour, then we parted company and headed for home.
My curiosity about the lounge was satisfied, but I wondered about the truthfulness of the cocktail naming story. At home, I used my favorite search engine and found a few stories about early cocktails, including a few more about Mrs. Flanagan.
The widow’s name was Betsy Flanagan and her inn was near an Englishman’s chicken farm outside of Yorktown, New York. Her clientel were mostly American patriots and French volunteers. Sometimes, Mrs. Flanagan would brag that someday she might serve them a feast of roasted chicken. Her customers good-naturedly teased that she could never actually follow through with it.
Finally, one night, Betsy invited the patriotic and French officers into her sitting room where they were, indeed, served a lavish feast prepared from the chickens of her recently defeated English neighbor. Afterwards, the diners returned to the bar where she served rounds of “Bracer” the popular mixed “house” drink of the time. Each Bracer was decorated with a tail feather from the aforementioned chickens. As a toast to Mrs. Flanagan and the defeat of the Englishman, one of the French officers is said to have proclaimed, “Vive le cocktail.”
The other stories probably have some truth to them, as well, but this one has the earliest date and is certainly the most colorful tall-tale. This is the one that I like best.