8 Origin Stories of Classic Cocktails

If you’ve never wondered where your cocktails come from, you clearly need to drink more. Seriously though, imagine what it must have been like before you could simply pull out your phone and Google every drink ever created.

How did drinks become popularized without the help of a viral internet culture? Mostly through a tried and true form of advertising; word of mouth. One popular cocktail inventor claims he spread the word from coast to coast himself, ordering his drink in every town he passed through. Another cocktail started as a prank that became so popular, it spread like wildfire.

Regardless of how they got the word out, these eight classic cocktails are still some of the most ordered drinks at bars nationwide. So, join us in giving credit where credit is due, and toast to the original mixologists who made their drinks strong enough to stand the tests of time.

1. Screwdriver


I had a friend in high school whose ‘guest room’ was a pull-out couch next to a pool table and their parents home bar. More than once I remember waking up to my buddy’s mom, standing at the bar in her bathrobe with a bottle of vodka and a glass of orange juice.

Glancing up from her drink she’d whisper,  “Don’t mind me, just a little hair of the dog.”, tip her glass in my general direction and be on her way.

That was my introduction to the Screwdriver. Considering the circumstances, I never thought to question why a drink made of juice and vodka was named after a hand tool.

Turns out, American oil workers in the Persian Gulf originated the drink in the 1940s when they started adding vodka to their orange juice. Since they didn’t have a spoon on hand, they simply stirred it with a screwdriver. They weren’t exactly supposed to be drinking on the job, so  “Screwdriver” was a pretty discreet way to refer to the drink. The name stuck, and 70 years later, Americans are still enjoying the simple pleasure of a Screwdriver.

2. Margarita


No one seems to know for sure where the Margarita came from. There’s a lot of variations of its origin story, but in my favorite version, a bar-owner in Tijuana first crafted the cocktail in 1938.

Carlos “Danny” Herrera was one of many who claimed to have first created the Margarita. His inspiration was an impossible customer who claimed to be allergic to every alcohol but tequila, but refused to drink it straight.

According to Herrera, the customer was a dancer named Marjorie King, and he was determined to come up with a drink to please her picky palate. He found success when he mixed shave iced with three parts white tequila, two parts Cointreau and one part fresh lemon juice. It was his mixed drink version of a classic tequila shot with a lime.. He named the drink ‘Margarita’, inspired by the Spanish tequila and his pretty dancer, Marjorie.

Although we can’t say for sure that Danny Herrera was the first to create this classic cocktail, he certainly has a compelling case, and we’ll drink to that.

3. Tom Collins


I (wrongfully) assumed that a Tom Collins was named after the guy who created it. Or maybe some stuffy old golfer, a la Arnold Palmer. But, Tom Collins isn’t even a real person. Well, I’m sure it is, but he had very little to do with the creation of this classic cocktail.

The legend of Tom Collins goes as follows; it’s 19th century New York. You dismount from your horse and are approached by a friendly lad (no doubt employed by the pub) who asks, “do you know Tom Collins?”. You dust the road-dirt from your shoulders and say, “Should I?”.

Then, the conversation takes a strange turn. The precocious youngster informs you that Tom Collins has been talking some serious trash about you, and while he’s not sure of his current whereabouts, he was last seen at the local tavern.

You prepare your gloves for smackin’ and your pistol for duelin’ as you hitch up your pants and head to the local watering hole. You storm the bar, demanding to see this Tom Collins.

Straight-faced, the bartender simple nods, holds up his index finger in a “wait for it” gesture. He grabs a glass and starts mixing. You look around in disbelief as the bartender slides a drink in front of you. “That”, he says, pointing at the cocktail “is Tom Collins”. He hands you a receipt and walks away, and the bar erupts in uproarious laughter.

Obviously, entertainment options were limited in the 19th century. But this light-hearted prank turned into a classic cocktail we’re still sipping on, so it looks like the joke’s on us.

4. Martini


The Martini is another cocktail whose origin is murky at best. One widely accepted theory is that it was created when a gold-miner struck it big during the Gold Rush. He went to the local tavern in the town of Martinez and ordered champagne to celebrate. The bartender didn’t have any champagne, but he wasn’t one to disappoint. He insisted on creating a celebratory drink with what he had on hand; gin, vermouth, bitters, maraschino liqueur, and a slice of lemon. He called it the Martinez Special.

When the gold miner travelled to San Francisco, he couldn’t get the Martinez special off his mind. He requested the drink at a local bar, and from there the recipe took off and the name was shortened from the Martinez Special to simply Martini.

Another theory is that the drink was actually created in San Francisco, and then stolen in the town of Martinez after it was shared with their bartender by an excitable gold-miner. Of course, Martini & Rossi (popular vermouth distributors) claim to have created the drink as their namesake after their conception in the mid 1800s.

We might never know who made the original Martini, but alcohol enthusiasts everywhere are glad they did!

5. Negroni

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The Negroni was first crafted at Cafe Casoni in Florence, Italy in 1919, when Count Camillo Negroni sauntered in and requested a stronger version of his signature cocktail. The bartender, Forsco Scarselli, replaced the soda water in the Count’s usual Americano with gin, and substituted an orange garnish for the usual lemon. They called the drink a Negroni, and it was an instant hit.

The drink became so popular that the Count was inspired to start his own distillery, where he produced premade Negronis. Fun fact, although it’s no longer owned by the Negroni family, the distillery is still open today.

6. Old Fashioned


The Old Fashioned Cocktail existed long before it was considered old fashioned, by name or nature. When cocktails first came into creation, they were simply liquor, water, and sugar. Thankfully, we’ve done a great deal to mix it up since then. But, as with any new trend, an older generation became uncomfortable with all of the changes. They longed for the “Old Fashioned” and simplistic drinks they enjoyed in their youth.

With their complaints began the revolution of the OG cocktail, with the rebranding of an “Old Fashioned” as we know it today.

7. Cosmopolitan

Cocktails collection - Cosmopolitan

In the early 2000s, the Cosmo was sweeping the nation on the back of pop culture icon Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) from Sex in the City. Once it was revealed as her signature drink, there was no containing the popularity of the the flirty pink cocktail.

But in a weird twist, the cocktail was actually created under surprisingly ominous circumstances in small-town Minnesota.

It’s 1975, in a small suburb outside of Minneapolis, and a nervous college student named Neal Murray is waiting for his bartending interview at a bar called Cork and Cleaver. He sails through the interview with both the assistant and general manager with ease. He leaves expecting good news, but is disappointed to hear he didn’t get the job from his friend who had referred him in the first place. Brow furrowed, Neal inquired as to why he didn’t get the gig. His friend’s response? “Because you’re black.”

Word of the management’s overt racism got around, and when they left for a weekend event, the staff snuck Murray onto the payroll. They trained him over three days, and by the time the managers returned, they had no choice but to accept their talented new bartender.

One night, not long after his tumultuous start in the industry, he was mixing up different variations of another popular cocktail at the time, called a Kamikaze. He discovered that adding a splash of cranberry juice to the drink gave it a delightful pink color, and a delicious fruity punch. When someone asked him what it was, he said he didn’t know, he just felt like it needed a little color (in reference to the bar needing more ‘color’ and hiring him). The customer responded by calling it “very Cosmopolitan”, which is how it got the name.

After that, Murray recommended the drink to anyone who would listen. Later, when he got a job that afforded him the opportunity to travel from coast to coast, he ordered a Cosmo in every town he passed through. According to Murray, he would order the drink like the bartender should know what it was. Not wanting to be embarrassed, they would act as if they had known and simply forgot after Murray explained it was a Kamikaze with cranberry juice. He knew when he left they would continue to make the drink for other customers.

He eventually settled in San Francisco, where he became well known for his Barbados Cosmo, which is a Cosmo made with Mount Gay Rum. He didn’t share his story of the origination of the Cosmopolitan until 2010. He said he hadn’t wanted to tell the tale in the past because of the potential problems it might cause the business (due to all that discrimination), but in a tell-all blog he said “The irony of the story is that the managers of the Cork and Cleaver have to live with the knowledge that the bartender that they didn’t want to hire created one of the most popular drinks of the last quarter century… Even though I have not sought fame, I think that it is important to publish the story as a historical milestone.”

Tonight we toast to Neal Murray. He went high when they went low, and the result was an amazing cocktail we’ll be sipping for centuries to come.

8. Long Island Iced Tea


When I was in college, the local bar/pizza place/karaoke joint had three different varieties of 32oz Long Island Iced Tea. A traditional, of course, and then two fruity offshoots, one red and one blue. One night a week, those massive mugs of alcohol infused ‘iced tea’ were only $5 a piece. And that was how I spent every penny I earned selling back used textbooks each semester. Upon reflection, money well spent, I’d say.

In what seems to be a consistent theme with classic cocktails, the Long Island Iced Tea also has multiple origin stories. Some claim the drink originated during the prohibition, when an older gentleman with an entrepreneurial spirit created a cocktail to look like iced tea as a way to drink by disguise. Besides giving the iced tea aesthetic, having five different alcohols definitely added to the appeal. If buying a drink can get your thrown in jail, it better be a damn strong drink.

Another story is that a bartender named Robert ‘Rosebud’ Butt created the drink during a contest sponsored by Triple Sec in the 1970s. The only rules were that the drink had to include Triple Sec as an ingredient.

Butt went to work on his concoction at his home bar in Long Island. When he realized the final product looked a lot like iced tea, the Long Island Iced Tea was born. It quickly became the signature drink of the area, later sweeping the country and infiltrating Applebee’s everywhere.

Although I’m still not sure who to thank, I’m going to go ahead and toast to the Long Island Iced Tea tonight. I kind of owe it that much, after all the times it had my back in college.

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