The origin of the name Martini—perhaps the most recognizable cocktail name ever—is a matter of dispute among cocktail historians (read: booze nerds). One tale suggests the drink was invented by one Martini di Arma di Taggia at the Knickerbocker hotel at the request of John D. Rockefeller. Another theorizes that it’s named for Martini & Rossi vermouth used in the recipe. But one of the most common stories suggests the Martini is variation on the older Martinez, a blend of Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth and maraschino liqueur. (The Martini’s name might also signal the evolution from one drink to another.) This explanation is our favorite, if only because it may get more Martini fans to try that forgotten cocktail.
In the early 19th century, before the dawn of modern mixed drinks, a “cocktail” referred simply to what we know today as the Old Fashioned, a drink consisting simply of any spirit, sugar, water and bitters. It was most commonly made with whiskey in the early days and when bartenders started experimenting by adding new liqueurs and mixers, drinkers wanting the whiskey-spiked original would ask for an “old fashioned cocktail.” So the Old Fashioned was named by traditionalists before there even was tradition as we know it.
This highball is no joke, but its name sure is. Pranksters back in the 19th century used to get their kicks by telling friends that a man named Tom Collins was talking trash about them at the bar. When the victim arrived, the bartender (who was already in on the joke) would send them to another watering hole in pursuit of that dastardly Tom Collins, and so on. It was a real hoot. Eventually Jerry Thomas gave up the joke and renamed the pre-existing “John Collins” cocktail, which bartenders served in lieu of the charade.
Bacardi tells us that the Cuba Libre was invented on the titular island by an American army captain celebrating victory in the Spanish-American War, who sipped rum-spiked Coca-Colas in between shouts of “Por Cuba Libre!” Whether or not the drink’s birth went down exactly like that, the cocktail certainly did emerge from the meeting of two of the greatest American and Cuban beverages.
Mix a Tequila Sunrise yourself and the name will make sense pretty quick. The layering of red grenadine beneath orange juice resembles exactly what its name implies. Do it well, and no one will need ask what you’re drinking.
The Rob Roy sounds like it could be named for some bartender’s good drinking buddy—but its story is so much more involved that that. The classic whisky cocktail is named for the fictional hero in an 1894 operetta based on Scottish folklore. Even if you’ve never even seen an operetta, you can still make a Rob Roy: It’s simply a Manhattan made with scotch. (If you feel like going even deeper down the Scottish rabbit hole, add Benedictine to make a Bobby Burns, named for the Scottish poet Robert Burns.)
This 50-50 split of amaretto and scotch is definitely named for the cinematic mafioso and is often attributed to Marlon Brando’s taste for the concoction on the set of the gangster film. The questionable Brando backstory aside, the drink would do any don proud, as would a French Connection, a cinematic variation on the Godfather named for the Gene Hackman/Roy Scheider flick that utilizes French Cognac to play up the title theme.
Some cocktails are named in honor of works of art because of some happy thematic coalescence—but other drinks exist entirely because of certain artworks. The effervescent peachy pink glow in one of Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini’s works so thrilled bartender Giuseppe Cipriani that the cocktail master worked long and hard to recreate the blush hue in the form of a cocktail. He finally succeeded by mixing puréed white peaches with Prosecco—it was just an added bonus that the combo tasted good too.
Felix Kir was a priest, a mayor, a French Resistance hero, and a local spirits promoter—the least the world could do was honor him with a drink. But the charismatic Kir didn’t wait around for that. He invented the drink himself, combining local white wine and crème de cassis in a drink he named after himself. Kir even made a variation that swapped white wine for Champagne—because he’s worth it—and added “Royale” to make it extra fancy.
In the 1940s, Gustave Tops invented the Black Russian, a mix of vodka and Kahlua, as an ode to one of the guests at the Hotel Metropole in Berlin where he tended bar. Somewhere between there and Oakland, California, 1965—when the White Russian as we know it was first referenced in the Oakland Tribune—someone added cream to the duo, making the drink milky white. You can do the math on the name switch.
Another product of the Spanish-American War and Americans on the hunt for drinks in Cuba, the Daiquiri was invented near the town of Daiquirí, not far from Santiago. Though it may not be the most creative name, it does beat Rum Sour, which is about how exciting drink naming standards of the time tended to be (see the Whiskey Sour).
There’s a lovely story that the Harvey Wallbanger was named for one of bartender Donato "Duke" Antone’s customers. The customer, who was a lovable surfer, would get so drunk he would run himself into walls. But as many endearing stories go, this one is totally made up. As former The New York Times drinks writer Robert Simonson put it, "No sane person ever believed that story.” The drink was originally called Duke's Screwdriver, but Antone rebranded it around the same time he was working as a corporate mixologist for Galliano and Smirnoff. Antone apparently heard a marketing opportunity knocking, though he convinced everyone it was the sound of a surfer running up against the wall.
Savvy, quick-thinking drinkers lead the collective drinking masses forward, and that’s never more true than when one has to get inventive in order to make or mix a drink. Sometimes you just don’t quite have the tools a pro bartender would use, as was the case when oil rig workers needed something to stir their illicit, on-the-job blend of vodka and orange juice. At least, that’s how the common tale goes. They MacGyvered a solution using their handy screwdrivers, and invented a bare-bones cocktail in the process.