Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Shaken Not Stirred



QUESTION: A couple of years ago, I happened to be browsing in my local Goodwill Store and noticed an elegant cocktail shaker. Its chrome exterior glistened in the light of the florescent bulbs overhead. The price tag said $3. How could I resist? I couldn’t and didn’t. Now I have a small collection of this elegant barware. Since I’m not really a drinker, I don’t know much as mixed drinks, especially martinis. I’d like to know who made the first martini and how the cocktail shaker came into being. What can you tell me about these elegant items?

ANSWER: Cocktail shakers weren’t always this elegant. The first shakers were hollowed out gourds. Back in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia they served to mix liquids together and as such were a practical accessory for books back then. But they lacked the style of 20th-century shakers.

Collectible cocktail shakers arrived just after the invention of the martini. However, there seems to be some controversy as to just when that happened.

It isn’t known for certain who first mixed and served the first martini. The best guess places this great event in late 19th-century America. There are several theories as to its origin. One  credits a bartender named Jerry Thomas at San Francisco's Occidental Hotel in the 1860s with mixing a special drink for a traveler bound for the nearby town of Martinez. But for some reason, Thomas didn’t include the recipe for a martini in America's first cocktail book, How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant's Companion, that he first published in 1862, until the 1887 edition.

There are those, however, who insist that the martini, consisting of equal parts of gin and dry vermouth, was a New York invention, probably first mixed at the Knickerbocker Hotel by bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia. But if both sweet and dry vermouth were used, then the honor could belong to William F. Mulhall, who served drinks of this sort at Hoffman House, also  in New York City, in the 1880s.

Ever since those first concoctions, martinis have been a stylish drink, appreciated not only for the kick they deliver, but also for the accessories used in their preparation and enjoyment. The first recipe calling for an accompanying olive can be traced to 1888, with the v-shaped martini cocktail glass appearing early in the 20th century. Bartenders who made early martinis  either stirred the liquors together or poured them from one glass to another to mingle them together.

By the time that Prohibition came to an end in 1933, people throughout the nation enjoyed drinking martinis. Often viewed as the drink of trendsetters and glamour seekers, martinis became associated with movie stars, including William Powell and Myrna Loy. People at the time saw martinis as very American, urbane, high-status, masculine, optimistic, and adult— a drink for the wealthy and the powerful, or those aiming for that status. 

Wealthy bon vivants of the 1920s shook theirs up in silver, while their less affluent counterparts turned to glass or nickel-plated models. By the following decade, mass- production made shakers a reality for those with fewer means, manufacturing the shakers in chrome-plated stainless steel.

Every maker of decorative home furnishings made cocktail shakers in the 1920s and 1930s, from Tiffany to aluminum manufacturers. While the Chase Chrome Company, Revere Brass and Copper, and Farber Brothers were leaders in the production of metal shakers, Hazel Atlas, Imperial, Duncan Miller, and Cambridge Glass made them of glass.

As the demand for barware grew in the 1930s, the designs became more varied. Makers produced sleek shakers from silver and silver-plate. Some even sported Bakelite handles and trim. The shakers themselves featured Art Deco designs, from airplanes to dirigibles, dumbbells to golf bags. Some even took on the shapes of modern buildings.

The golden age of cocktail shaker design came to an abrupt end with the beginning of World War II. Metals were earmarked for the production of armaments, and cocktail shakers no longer seemed a priority to a country at war.

While cocktail shakers can be found at garage sales, flea markets, and thrift shops for under $10, the better designed ones can sell for four or five figures.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 17,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.