The history of cocktails is probably a little younger than the history of alcohol. As soon as humans discovered that fermented fruit juice, which seemed to make bees and butterflies act a little silly when they drank it, was also good for humans, then the bartending profession began.
A boy named Og was probably the first. The vine outside his cave seemed to bear the craziest fruits of fall. He learned to collect the liquid and exchanged a full gourd for a couple of wild boar chops or some fish. His neighbors stayed to drink and goof around, and complain about how his wife made eyes at the boys from the next tribe, and how she didn’t even keep the cave clean. Og’s became the go-to spot after the hunt. Some of the boys even liked to drum a little and sing after a few gourds of Og’s concoction.
Time passes and civilization grows. Public bars became associated with places where beer was brewed or wine was made. Most of the great houses in Europe had their own brewery or vineyard, but the common people had to get their grog from somewhere. Instead of taking it home to drink, people drank their purchase on the spot. It was more fun that way and more convenient. The bartender would be the brewer or winemaker. It was eventually noted that sales increased if instead of the brewer, one of his handsome young relatives served the pitchers, a feature designed to keep customers happy and drinking.
Many bartenders, who were usually also the bar owners, became wealthy citizens. Over time, the bar became not just a place to drink, but a place for people to come and socialize, talk about the day’s problems, perhaps eat, and escape family concerns. Most houses would have been very modest, and the bar offered luxurious amenities such as night lighting, a place to sit, and of course, food and drink.
As far as we know, there weren’t many bartenders among the Pilgrim Fathers, but as soon as America began to be seriously colonized by Europeans, bartenders were among the first to ship. They stood with the workers, farmers, prostitutes, and speculators as the great push west began. If Hollywood is to be believed, and in this case it probably is, the western town had a bar with its bartender before it had a doctor, a school, or a church.
The true mystique of modern bartending dates back to the Roaring Twenties, the era of cocktails and Prohibition, when the only place to drink was the speakeasy. The bartender wielded power, had access to forbidden fruit, and the job of bartender had an aura of danger and excitement that has perhaps never been left behind. The lure of the forbidden ensured that bars and bartenders had a permanent place in Western cultural life from then on.
In modern times, the role of the bartender has become even more sophisticated and crucial to the running of a successful first class business such as a hotel or restaurant. With its multi-faceted demands, bartending has taken its place in the ranks of the professions, and bartending has become a respected occupation that at the highest levels can command an impressive salary. A long way from Og and his fermented fruit juice, but human nature probably hasn’t changed much over the course of all those thousands of years – people still like a strong drink in comfortable surroundings, a bit of music and a kind ear in what they can for your problems.