Lawyers need bartenders more than bartenders need lawyers. When it comes to cocktails and the names they’re given, a recipe can’t be copyrighted and a name isn’t usually trademarked, and there’s no governing body, no law of the liquor land that stops the duplication of a recipe or a cocktail name. Which makes cocktail naming—shall we call it mixonymics?—special among naming practices in the modern world: It’s the bartender tribe, not the law, that defines prior art.
Trey Hughes, a bartender at the Blue Spoon, a restaurant in Portland, Maine, assiduously avoids repeating either a recipe or a name if he knows someone else has used it before. He looks up ingredients to make sure there’s nothing similar in terms of what’s going on in the glass, then he Googles the name. “If it’s already taken for another drink, I usually stop right there and come up with another name,” he said. “For me, I feel more comfortable knowing that there was no duplicate. I try to minimize confusion. I don’t want someone to come in from another bar and say, ‘Oh, this is a signature drink in a bar from our town, I wonder if they make it the same way.’ When it comes to names, there’s an element of self-policing and figuring it out for yourself.”
On his menu the drinks have names like “The Ghost Light,” “Ricochet,” “Stage Whisper,” and “Windfall.” He confessed to naming drinks based on what’s happening as he’s sipping it. He christened “The Wreathmaker’s Wife,” a gin, Campari, and sour orange cocktail, after an enormous wreath he could spy through the restaurant’s windows. There’s also the “Cobblestone,” which takes two New Orleans cocktails he likes, the “Vieux Carré” and the “Cocktail de la Louisiane,” strips them to their core (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, Bénédictine), rearranges the ratios, adds some other ingredients, and voila—“I was thinking of old streets, old squares, and cobblestones came to mind.”
This sort of creative referentiality runs rampant in mixonymics. Perhaps because, for many bartenders, the name comes at the end of the mixing—and the sipping, sipping, sipping. Many cocktail menus contain a fascinating, nearly Joycean sediment of in-jokes, failed poems, portmanteau words, geographical and historical reference, hat-tips, thumb-bites, and general alcoholic homage. Bartenders don’t need lawyers, they need lexicographers.
John Myers is a renowned drink-maker and cocktail historian, also in Portland, whom I went to visit one night at the Grill Room, where he tends bar. “Part of the challenge of naming a drink,” he told me, “is to give the name some hint of its DNA.” The names on his cocktail menu have as much linguistic history as his recipes have alcoholic ancestry. Apart from a couple of classic cocktails, there’s a reference to John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman in a drink that contains applejack and apple cider (the “Chapman Cooler”) and a hearty nod to an episode of Cheers in which the regulars at the bar scare off an interloping bartender by ordering an imaginary drink (the “Screaming Viking”), which in Myers’s hands becomes what he describes as a “gin Cosmopolitan with cucumber and mint.” There’s also a drink called “Our American Cousin” and a nod to Sherlock Holmes actor Basil Rathbone (the “Twenty-2 Baker Street,” which has basil and vodka), a recipe that the bartender invented, tweaked, renamed a “Rathbone Sour” for a vodka brand event, then renamed again when he started at the Grill Room.
“So it’s an homage to yourself too,” I said, referring to the Holmes drink.
“Yeah, it’s all meta and referential and everything,” Myers said. “I feel for those guys in the 19th century. They didn’t have any thing to play off of.”
These days, among the bartender tribe, ignoring the lineage of any drink is a paramount sin. It’s almost a defensive compensation for the cocktail’s lack of pedigree.
Though the word “cocktail” dates to the late 18th or early 19th century, its exact origins are lost in time. One story conflates the history of the Sazerac, a rye whiskey drink said to be the first named cocktail, with that of the cocktail. In the late 1830s, an apothecary shop owner in New Orleans, Amédée Peychaud, served his own brand of bitters—a stomach reliever—along with Sazerac brandy and a little absinthe in an eggcup, or coquetier, in French. Hence “cocktail.”
Myers pronounced this “historically inaccurate.” The first published instance of the word “cocktail,” as well as the basic recipe (liquor, bitters, and sugar water) dates to 1803, when Peychaud would have been a child.
In a magazine profile, food and drink writer Wayne Curtis called Myers “a sort of mustachioed search engine of cocktail history and lore”; Curtis added to me in an email that Myers is “a real pioneer in Maine drink mixing.” So his origin tale of the word “cocktail” carries weight. “My own sense, which is based on faith, is that it originated among the sporting set,” Myers said. Gamblers, in other words. In those days, horses with an unknown lineage had their tails docked, which appeared like a rooster’s tail; these were called “cock-tailed horses.” “The cocktail,” Myers said, “came to mean a bad mix, or unknown origins. When you add liquor and bitters together—which was bizarre—the name would have been perfectly descriptive of something with no lineage.”
Which seems fitting, because these days, among the bartender tribe, ignoring the lineage of any drink is a paramount sin. It’s almost a defensive compensation for the cocktail’s lack of pedigree. Bartender culture holds that you should, when you can, note the name of the recipe’s creator, ideally too the bar. (If you can’t, you should at least know the story.) You should also give a tweaked recipe a name related to the name of its original recipe. It’s just good form.
Bartender culture also holds that trademarking cocktail names limits creativity. When distilleries try to enforce a trademark, they may win the legal battle, but it sours their reputation. And while perhaps good form was defined and policed in certain cities and regions, the same sorts of good form now hold all over. Social media makes bartenders local to each other, where they can share recipes, resources, and news, which has accelerated the “craft cocktail” movement. Without the internet, Myers said, we wouldn’t have heard so swiftly that legendary Seattle bartender Murray Stenson had rediscovered a Prohibition-era gin drink called the “Last Word.” Neither would variations like “The Final Ward,” developed by Phil Ward, “Elysian Fields,” by Chris Hannah at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar in New Orleans, and Myers’s own “Our American Cousin” have spread so quickly. (Myers’s drink name refers to the title of the last play Abraham Lincoln saw.)
This digital connectedness also reinforces the shared perspective against formal intellectual property arrangements and strengthens the collective muscle against renegades. “There’s a geeky sort of quality control now,” Myers said. “If you’re going to make a drink and call it a Chartreuse Swizzle, you better make it really well because we all know the guy who invented it. And if you’re going to steal someone’s drink, you should at least respect it—don’t make it with subpar ingredients.”
To the degree that craft cocktailery is about providing singular drinking experiences, it’s also bolloxed by names. A 2012 Seattle Weekly profile of Seattle bartender Stenson illustrates this:
When people order a drink from Stenson, they hardly ever request something standard, if they request anything at all. Rather, Stenson’s customers typically specify a type of liquor (or not) and expect that he make them the best drink they’ve ever had in their lives. At Canon, such ambiguity is encouraged on the house cocktail menu, with a $10 “Shrouded Roulette” option beckoning customers to “tell us your base spirit and we’ll create a mystery.”
This is a high-end genre of drinking. While I was talking to Myers, three tanned, meaty guys in striped shirts and blue blazers came up to the bar. Maybe they were some of the lawyers who need bartenders. One of them asked for Myers’s best absinthe cocktail. A drink with no name. Then he turned to his pals to tell them about an amazing drink he had called “Death Warmed Over.” Namelessness clearly has some limits.
“It also called for caraway liqueur, but I only had aquavit, and it’s Norwegian. So it’s like a rich kid version of the original. Also, I made it with whiskey, which is a bit more bro-y.”
A week earlier I saw this in action at the Boston craft cocktail mecca Drink, which is built around the handcrafted-drink-just-for-you-in-this-moment thing. I asked one bartender for something with mezcal, which she soon delivered, reporting a list of ingredients (but no name) though the other bartender, when I asked what he could do with rye whiskey, asked if I’d ever had a “Prosecutor.” That’s what I ordered, and that it had a proper name and wasn’t concocted just for me made it seem an iota less singular than the mezcal cocktail. Discussing this with Myers, he noted that omitting names is akin to a magician’s misdirection—to secure the illusion of one thing, you have to emphasize the reality of another.
I’d been reminded of Drink by another local cocktail wizard, Nathaniel Meiklejohn, a private bartender who’s about to open up a bar in Portland (he wouldn’t tell me where). Until recently, he held a weekly private party at his apartment where he serves no more than four cocktails, some original to him, some not, their names all typed on a single sheet of paper with a manual typewriter. When we met at a bar, he pulled a sheaf of menus out of a backpack, a year or more of drink-making and drink-naming. The first drink, “The Pepe,”—named after his grandfather—was made of ingredients full of grandfatherly evocations: a leather-evoking bitters that Meiklejohn makes, smoky scotch, applejack, some other ingredients. The second, the “Maintenance Cocktail,” is a play on the “Martinez,” a classic gin cocktail that was a precursor to the Martini. The third, “The End of the Road,” is yet another play on “The Last Word.” (Another variation is the “La Palabra Ultima,” which Meiklejohn made with tequila, something that “I’m sure dozens of people have already done.”) Last on the menu: “The Trustafarian.” What’s the joke there? The original cocktail was called “The Kingston,” Meiklejohn explained, because it used Jamaican ingredients. “It also called for caraway liqueur, but I only had aquavit, and it’s Norwegian. So it’s like a rich kid version of the original. Also, I made it with whiskey, which is a bit more bro-y.”
He waxed for a while about his mixonymic philosophy. “I don’t want a name to be cheesy or too much of a pun. It’s good to be not too goofy. If someone can’t pronounce it or they feel like they’re being self-conscious about mispronouncing it, that’s a bad name. I want the name to be fun to say. It should also reflect the liquor in it.” For instance, gin drinks get herbal, botanical names, like “The Pasture,” which he created for a private party.
In some genres of drinking, the drink names remind you why you may be there: see “Sex on the Beach” or “Slippery Nipple.” Meiklejohn doesn’t give those sorts of names—if a name isn’t classy, it’s only going to exist on non-classy menus. “There’s a whole class of drinks where the name embodies how it’s going to fuck you up,” he added. “There’s one, the ‘Lawn Dart,’ which sounds like it’s going to be grassy, but it’s also going to hit you like a lawn dart.”
Part of his philosophy involves not looking things up online—if a recipe or a name comes to him organically, he goes with it. “I’m personalizing the whole experience,” he said. “I’m putting a drink on the menu under the name that I came up with, because it came to me.” Everyone has their own reasons behind drink names, which are ultimately unknowable—it’s the reasons for the name that make it unique, not the precise string of words.
Once in a while, a bartender gets exhausted by naming—there are just more recipes than names. Last September, John Myers said he stopped giving names to his drinks. “I was fed up with naming,” he said. “I thought, from now on I’m just going to give them numbers. Like experimental aircraft.” He’d make a one-off drink for someone, who’d ask, “What do you call it?”
“XL-49,” Myers would reply.
Another drink on his menu was the “East India Company”—Bombay Sapphire East, yellow Chartreuse, whole clovers, orange bitters, simple syrup—but he tired of explaining colonial Asian history, so he put it on the menu as “EICO.” Which prompted people to ask, “How do I pronounce that?”
“However you want,” he’d reply.
Sometimes a cocktail gets invented during an interview; sometimes it doesn’t. The Blue Spoon’s Trey Hughes was telling me about the “Ponte Vecchio,” a cocktail served in a place in Somerville, Mass., one of whose ingredients is the Italian herbal bitter Fernet Branca. “I love that drink,” he said, but because one of the other ingredients, Cynar, is illegal to sell in the state of Maine, he created a variant that he named the “Arno,” named for the river that flows beneath the famous bridge in Florence. We started talking about herbal liqueurs like Fernet and Chartreuse, and then Hughes told me about “The End of the Road,” made of Laphroaig scotch, Campari, and green Chartreuse, and we discussed whether or not Fernet would work with rye and Campari. Hughes thought it might.
Later that night, he wrote me to say he was sipping the drink hatched during the phone call. “It's definitely a Boulevardier at heart,” he said, “but the Fernet brings its unique flavor and adds considerable depth.” He had added Punt e Mes or Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, in the following amounts:
1 1/2 oz. Buffalo Trace Bourbon
1 oz. Campari
1/2 oz. Fernet Branca
1/2 oz. Punt e Mes (or substitute Cocchi Vermouth di Torino)
Garnish with an orange twist
Let’s call it a “Calling Card,” he said, since it came about during our phone conversation.
Two days later, bad news came in another email came from Hughes. Looking in a book on the “Negroni,” he noticed a drink, the “South Paw,” which has the same ingredients and mostly the same ratios. “There are other minor differences,” he said, “but the core of the drink is pretty close.”
Turning to Google, he looked up the “South Paw” and found there are several by that name, each with wildly different recipes using several different base spirits. The “South Paw” is a riff on the “Left Hand,” a drink by bartender Sam Ross at Milk & Honey in New York City. “There’s no need to have two versions of such similar cocktails floating around,” Hughes wrote me, “though I may continue to make my modified South Paw, since it is delicious.”