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The Men Behind Your Favorite Liquors

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Gregor Smith, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's hard to walk down the aisle of a liquor store without running across a bottle bearing someone's name. We put them in our cocktails, but how well do we know them? Here's some biographical detail on the men behind your favorite tipples.

1. Captain Morgan

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The Captain wasn't always just the choice of sorority girls looking to blend spiced rum with Diet Coke; in the 17th century he was a feared privateer. Not only did the Welsh pirate marry his own cousin, he ran risky missions for the governor of Jamaica, including capturing some Spanish prisoners in Cuba and sacking Port-au-Prince in Haiti. He then plundered the Cuban coast before holding for ransom the entire city of Portobelo, Panama. He later looted and burned Panama City, but his pillaging career came to an end when Spain and England signed a peace treaty in 1671. Instead of getting in trouble for his high-seas antics, Morgan received knighthood and became the lieutenant governor of Jamaica.

2. Johnnie Walker

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Walker, the name behind the world's most popular brand of Scotch whisky, was born in 1805 in Ayrshire, Scotland. When his father died in 1819, Johnnie inherited a trust of a little over 400 pounds, which the trustees invested in a grocery store. Walker grew to become a very successful grocer in the town of Kilmarnock and even sold a whisky, Walker's Kilmarnock Whisky. Johnnie's son Alexander was the one who actually turned the family into famous whisky men, though. Alexander had spent time in Glasgow learning how to blend teas, but he eventually returned to Kilmarnock to take over the grocery from his father. Alexander turned his blending expertise to whisky, and came up with "Old Highland Whisky," which later became Johnnie Walker Black Label.

3. Jack Daniel

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Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel of Tennessee whiskey fame was the descendant of Welsh settlers who came to the United States in the early 19th century. He was born in 1846 or 1850 and was one of 13 children. By 1866 he was distilling whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Unfortunately for the distiller, he had a bit of a temper. One morning in 1911 Daniel showed up for work early and couldn't get his safe open. He flew off the handle and kicked the offending strongbox. The kick was so ferocious that Daniel injured his toe, which then became infected. The infection soon became the blood poisoning that killed the whiskey mogul.

Curious about why your bottle of J.D. also has Lem Motlow listed as the distillery's proprietor? Daniel's own busy life of distilling and safe-kicking kept him from ever finding a wife and siring an heir, so in 1907 he gave the distillery to his beloved nephew Lem Motlow, who had come to work for him as a bookkeeper.

4. Jose Cuervo

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In 1758, Jose Antonio de Cuervo received a land grant from the King of Spain to start an agave farm in the Jalisco region of Mexico. Jose used his agave plants to make mescal, a popular Mexican liquor. In 1795, King Carlos IV gave the land grant to Cuervo's descendant Jose Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo. Carlos IV also granted the Cuervo family the first license to commercially make tequila, so they built a larger factory on the existing land. The family started packaging their wares in individual bottles in 1880, and in 1900 the booze started going by the brand name Jose Cuervo. The brand is still under the leadership of the original Jose Cuervo's family; current boss Juan-Domingo Beckmann is the sixth generation of Cuervo ancestors to run the company.

5. Jim Beam

Jim Beam, the namesake of the world's best-selling bourbon whiskey, didn't actually start the distillery that now bears his name. His great-grandfather Jacob Beam opened the distillery in 1788 and started selling his first barrels of whiskey in 1795. In those days, the whiskey went by the less-catchy moniker of "Old Tub." Jacob Beam handed down the distillery to his son David Beam, who in turn passed it along to his son David M. Beam, who eventually handed the operation off to his son, Colonel James Beauregard Beam, in 1894. Although he was only 30 years old when he took over the family business, Jim Beam ran the distillery until Prohibition shut him down. Following repeal in 1933, Jim quickly built a distillery and began resurrecting the Old Tub brand, but he also added something new to the company's portfolio: a bourbon simply called Jim Beam.

6. Tanqueray

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When he was a young boy, Charles Tanqueray's path through life seemed pretty clear. He was the product of three straight generations of Bedfordshire clergymen, so it must have seemed natural to assume that he would take up the cloth himself. Wrong. Instead, he started distilling gin in 1830 in a little plant in London's Bloomsbury district. By 1847, he was shipping his gin to colonies around the British Empire, where many plantation owners and troops had developed a taste for Tanqueray and tonic.

7. Campari

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Gaspare Campari found his calling quickly. By the time he was 14, he had risen to become a master drink mixer in Turin, and in this capacity he started dabbling with a recipe for an aperitif. When he eventually settled on the perfect mixture, his concoction had over 60 ingredients. In 1860, he founded Gruppo Campari to make his trademark bitters in Milan. Like Colonel Sanders' spice blend, the recipe for Campari is a closely guarded secret supposedly known by only the acting Gruppo Campari chairman, who works with a tiny group of employees to make the concentrate with which alcohol and water are infused to get Campari. The drink is still made from Gaspare Campari's recipe, though, which includes quinine, orange peel, rhubarb, and countless other flavorings.

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Where Did The Easter Bunny Come From?
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The Easter Bunny is an anthropomorphic, egg-laying rabbit who sneaks into homes the night before Easter to deliver baskets full of colored eggs, toys and chocolate. A wise man once told me that all religions are beautiful and all religions are wacko, but even if you allow for miracles, angels, and pancake Jesus, the Easter Bunny really comes out of left field.

If you go way back, though, the Easter Bunny starts to make a little sense. Spring is the season of rebirth and renewal. Plants return to life after winter dormancy and many animals mate and procreate. Many pagan cultures held spring festivals to celebrate this renewal of life and promote fertility. One of these festivals was in honor of Eostre or Eastre, the goddess of dawn, spring and fertility near and dear to the hearts of the pagans in Northern Europe. Eostre was closely linked to the hare and the egg, both symbols of fertility.

As Christianity spread, it was common for missionaries to practice some good salesmanship by placing pagan ideas and rituals within the context of the Christian faith and turning pagan festivals into Christian holidays (e.g. Christmas). The Eostre festival occurred around the same time as the Christians' celebration of Christ's resurrection, so the two celebrations became one, and with the kind of blending that was going on among the cultures, it would seem only natural that the pagans would bring the hare and egg images with them into their new faith (the hare later became the more common rabbit).

The pagans hung on to the rabbit and eventually it became a part of Christian celebration. We don't know exactly when, but it's first mentioned in German writings from the 1600s. The Germans converted the pagan rabbit image into Oschter Haws, a rabbit that was believed to lay a nest of colored eggs as gifts for good children. (A poll of my Twitter followers reveals that 81% of the people who replied believe the Easter Bunny to be male, based mostly on depictions where it's wearing a bowtie. The male pregnancy and egg-laying mammal aspects are either side effects of trying to lump the rabbit and egg symbols together, or rabbits were just more awesome back then.)

Oschter Haws came to America with Pennsylvania Dutch settlers in the 1700s, and evolved into the Easter Bunny as it became entrenched in American culture. Over time the bunny started bringing chocolate and toys in addition to eggs (the chocolate rabbit began with the Germans, too, when they started making Oschter Haws pastries in the 1800s).

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The Easter Bunny also went with European settlers to Australia—as did actual bunnies. These rabbits, fertile as they are, got a little out of control, so the Aussies regard them as serious pests. The destruction they've caused to habitats is responsible for the major decline of some native animals and causes millions of dollars worth of damage to crops. It is, perhaps, not a great idea to use an invasive species as a symbol for a religious holiday, so Australia has been pushing the Easter Bilby (above, on the right), an endangered marsupial that kind of looks like a bunny if you squint. According to some of our Australian readers, the Easter Bunny is not in danger of going extinct.

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The Stories Behind 11 Famous Cocktails
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When you belly up to the bar, how well do you know the cocktail you're ordering? The ingredients of these famous tipples may be familiar to bar patrons the world over, but some of their origins are as debatable as those of the Flaming Moe. Here's a quick rundown of where some of your favorite drinks entered a glass for the first time.

1. The Martini

Aficionados disagree, sometimes violently, on the correct ratio of gin to dry vermouth that makes a transcendent martini, and the debate over the true origin of the martini can be just as contentious. Some claim that it's simply a dryer version of an older cocktail called the Martinez; Martinez, California, the birthplace of this cocktail, thus stakes its claim to the title of birthplace of the martini. Others postulate that the drink's name simply comes from Martini & Rossi, an Italian company that's been exporting its vermouths to the U.S. since the 19th century. Still others claim that the drink was created by and named for Martini di Arma di Taggia, the bartender at New York's Knickerbocker Hotel, although there's evidence that the cocktail may have been invented well before he started mixing drinks.

2. The Manhattan

The venerable Manhattan, a blend of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters, is another cocktail that scores of people claimed to have invented. It likely dates back to the New York bar scene of the 1860s, but there are also some more intriguing (though almost certainly too good to be true) tales about its origins. According to one of these legends, Jennie Churchill threw a party at the Manhattan Club in 1874 to celebrate Samuel J. Tilden's victory in New York's gubernatorial election. An enterprising bartender created a new cocktail for the event, which he dubbed the Manhattan in the club's honor. Both of these characters would go on to bigger things. Churchill soon gave birth to a son, Winston, and Tilden made a presidential run in 1876. (Although Tilden won the popular vote, he lost out to his Republican opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes. At least the cocktail saved Tilden from obscurity.)

3. The Bellini

This delightful wine cocktail, a blend of white peach puree and Prosecco, has a well-established origin. Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Venice's beloved Harry's Bar, started mixing up the fruity tipples sometime between 1934 and 1948. The pink drink reminded him of the color of a saint's toga in a painting by Italian Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini, so Cipriani named his concoction in honor of the painter.

4. The Kir

This popular French aperitif of crème de cassis and white wine has long been a favorite in France, but it didn't get its name until after World War II. Felix Kir, the mayor of Dijon from 1945 to 1968, was a huge fan of the cocktail, and whenever he entertained visiting dignitaries, he'd invariably serve them the drink. Kir did such a good job pushing the mixture onto his visitors that it eventually became inextricably linked with his personality, and that's why the cocktail bears his name today.

5. The Daiquiri

If you're an American mine employee stuck working in Cuba, what do you do? In the case of intrepid engineer Jennings Cox, you start creatively mixing drinks. The mixture of rum, lime, and sugar supposedly sprang to life in 1905 when Cox and some of his fellow Americans were hanging out in a bar in Santiago, Cuba. By mixing together these handy ingredients, the Americans found a tasty tipple, and it eventually worked its way back to the states.

6. The Tom Collins

This refreshing summer drink owes its name to a 19th century hoax. In 1874, hundreds of New Yorkers heard some bad news while they were out on the town: a certain Tom Collins had been besmirching their good names. Although these people didn't know Mr. Collins, they were outraged that he would slander them, and they often set out to find the rascal. Of course, the root of the hoax was that there wasn't really a Tom Collins, but that didn't keep aggrieved parties from searching him out. To deepen the joke, bartenders started making the citrus cocktail that now bears the name, so when searchers asked for Tom Collins, they could instead find a thirst-quenching long drink.

7. The Cosmopolitan

Long before Sex and the City helped bolster the popularity of the cosmo, various bartenders were staking their claims as the cocktail's "true" creator. According to various stories, the drink originated in Minneapolis, South Beach, San Francisco, Manhattan and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Since the drink is basically just a kamikaze with a simple addition of cranberry juice, it's possible that bartenders in all these locations came up with the drink independently, so we may never know exactly who was responsible for putting a glass in Carrie Bradshaw's hand.

8. The Sazerac

Although it's not the most widely known drink, the Sazerac is both delicious and one of America's oldest cocktails. The blend of rye whiskey, bitters, sugar, and absinthe or pastis dates all the way back to the 1830s when Creole pharmacist Antoine Peychaud came up with the recipe and began serving it. The Sazerac became so popular that Peychaud's apothecary business quickly became better known as a place to get a revitalizing potion. The Sazerac is currently in the middle of something of a resurgence. Kentucky distillery Buffalo Trace has marketed two very good straight rye whiskeys under the Sazerac name, and last year the Louisiana House of Representatives proclaimed that the drink is the official cocktail of New Orleans.

9. The Negroni

Count Camillo Negroni gets credits for creating this aperitif around 1919. As the story goes, Negroni really loved to throw back an Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, and club soda), but he wanted a little extra zing in his glass. He asked a bartender to replace the club soda with gin to give the mixture some added kick, and the Negroni was born.

10. The Black Russian

Surprisingly, containing vodka is the only thing this cocktail has to do with Russia. Bartender Gustave Tops created the drink in 1949 or 1950 while working at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels. Tops supposedly first mixed the combination of Kahlua and vodka for American socialite Perle Mesta, who was serving as the ambassador to Luxembourg at the time.

11. Long Island Iced Tea

It might not actually contain tea, but at least the Long Island part of the name is accurate. This spring break favorite is fairly young as cocktails go; it's only been around for about 32 years. Rosebud Butt, a bartender at the Oak Beach Inn in Hampton Bays, invented the drink in 1976, so if you ever need to find a patron saint of terrible hangovers and nights spent falling off of barstools, Rosebud may be your man.

All images courtesy of iStock

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