View Full Version : Bourbon and Coke Started ... When??

08-23-2007, 13:13
I am trying to understand when, or approximately when, bourbon and coke became an accepted mixed drink and part of Southern lore.

Like a lot of things, I suspect its antiquity is not that great.

Coca-Cola was invented in the late 1800's. Its large-scale success began though in the early 1900's and I would think in particular from the 1920's. The rise of Coke was probably assisted by Prohibition and the search for an acceptable, flavourful, "stimulating" alternative to liquor. But its rapid growth surely also was aided by then emerging modern business methods including sophisticated national advertising techniques.

In all the reading I have done, in books, periodicals and online, I cannot recall ever reading that someone mixed whiskey with a soft drink before Prohibition.

E.g., one might think it was a practice in the 1910's and earlier to mix bourbon or other whiskey with sasparilla, ginger ale, root beer or Coca-Cola. But was it?

The first I have read of whiskey being mixed with a soft drink, ginger ale in this case, was in a 1930's novel by Frank O'Hara. He wrote - it was in Voyage to Samarra - about people in a country club during the later part of Prohibition who mixed whiskey from small bottles with paper stamps (i.e., the so-called medicinal whiskey which should not have been used recreationally) with ginger ale or White Rock (sparkling water).

Before 1920, almost certainly people would have mixed White Rock and similar waters (e.g., "Polly", or Appolonaris) with bourbon and rye. In the U.K. the habit was to mix whisky or brandy with such waters and a similar practice would have existed in the U.S. viz. its own spirits.

("Brandy and soda old boy", as the late Who drummer Keith Moon used to say in parodying the habits of the class he was - paradoxically - seeking also to emulate).

So when did soft drinks and liquor first meet in the U.S.? I would think this must have happened during Prohibition, when (supposedly anyway) dubious hooch was disguised with mixes of various kinds: it is not that far a stretch to think people finally added the real stuff to the same Coke and ginger ale.

But can anyone show a citation of a bourbon and cola or rye and cola drink from before the 1960's? I first recall reading that bourbon and coke was a typical southern drink in a contemporary novel in the 1970's, the comment was that it was a great drink but rather fattening (true I guess). This would suggest to me it had taken root at least by the 1960's. But again, how far back does the mixture go...?


08-24-2007, 13:53
I think you have given the answer yourself,the prohibition.They used any soda to hide the alcoholic beverages.Today i see it often by Turkish muslims,taking jenever with water or whiskey with coke to hide the alcohol for the rest of the group there with, because as devouted muslims they are not supposed to drink,so to make their crowd belief they are "dry"it is done by them,hopefully for them allah doesn`t know it either:slappin: .

08-24-2007, 17:07
Thanks, I am going to check again the whiskey mixtures in Jerry Thomas' landmark, 1800's book on cocktails. Certainly he had whiskey mixed with all kinds of things - notably in punches - but not as I recall as a single drink mixed with a soda or pop. I'll check. ("Group" drinks such as punches are different I think than single ones. There would have been no interest to dissimulate in such cases, au contraire: a punch was, and still is no doubt, a stimulating drink served to a group of people for avowed social/convivial purposes).

By the way, the true name of the author I was referring to is John (not Frank) O'Hara.

The correct name of his novel I referred to was, Appointment in Samarra (a fine book indeed).


08-24-2007, 17:15
I remember seeing a program on the History channel called Bootleggers, rum-runners and Moonshiners or maybe it was moonshiners, rum-runners and bootleggers anyhow they mentioned the rise of sticky sweet cocktails (mostly using fruit juices) as a means of covering up the taste of prohibition era liquor but I don't recall them specifically mentioning folks mixing with Coke.

I wonder if the rise of bourbon and Coke as a drink didn't simply coincide with the rise of Coke as a southern think. My wife has a cousin down in Louisiana. Everything is Coke down there! Don't ask for a Pepsi They don't know what that is.:grin: Coke... Coke... Coke. Hell, I've seen 'em put Coke in a sippy cup and give it to toddlers. It is only natural that the adults would put (hopefully their lower quality) bourbon in Coke.

08-24-2007, 17:32
As a side note to the whole bourbon and Coke as a southern thing I find it interesting that when traveling down south everyone drinks "sweet tea". up here in northern IL. many people like sweetened Ice tea but restaurants, as a mater of course, serve it unsweetened and allow the patrons to add sugar or artificial sweetener. lots of us drink it unsweetened. I do.

Perhaps bourbon and Coke satisfies the southern sweet tooth.

08-24-2007, 17:33
Could be, Brad, thanks.

Here's a thought: ordinary bourbon tastes better in Coke than the good stuff.


08-24-2007, 18:19
I'd like to know the answer to this but all I can offer is speculation, modified only somewhat by the fact that, being old, I lived through some of what other people call history.

In northern Ohio, where I grew up, adults of my parent's generation drank bourbon or beer, or both. They didn't drink Coke or other soft drinks, not just not with alcohol but hardly ever under any circumstances. If adults drank soft drinks they drank ginger ale or root beer. Coke and Pepsi were too sweet. Kids drank Coke and I suspect it was those rule-breaking, we-won't-grow-up baby boomers, especially my first wave cohort, who kept drinking Coke and just added bourbon to it as they got older.

It may have been different in the South, in that it may have started earlier because Coke-drinking was more widespread.

In the history of cocktails, it might be useful to make a distinction between cocktails and mixed drinks. Cocktails usually have multiple ingredients and their purpose was better taste while preserving the alcoholic impact. That was a Prohibition thing. Mixed drinks, simply pairing a spirit and a mixer, were a sixties thing. Made with vodka, they were supposed to have about the same alcoholic kick as beer with little or no alcoholic taste. When those caught on, makers of other spirits, including bourbon, tried to capture the same gestalt with mixed drink combinations of their own.

It's always been true that the best way to sneak alcohol into places where alcohol is prohibited is by mixing it with a beverage that is permitted. In the 60s, I remember people using syringes to fill oranges with vodka. When the two-liter soft drink bottles, with screw caps, were introduced it was easy to pour off some of the soda and fill the bottle up with bourbon. Bourbon was better than vodka because the color stayed the same.

One can also speculate that after someone had decided to mix rum and Coke, it was a small step to substitute bourbon for the rum. Although accounts of the invention of the Cuba Libre vary, and all seem fanciful, they typically involve American soldiers coming to Cuba around the time of the Spanish-American War and references to it being served in Cuba during the 20s and beyond abound.

The people to ask about this would be people who have tended bar or taken drink orders for 30 or 40 years.

08-24-2007, 18:37
Excellent points, thanks. I never thought about the Cuba Libre, but the origins of boubon and Coke may well lie in that drink.


Aged In Oak
08-24-2007, 19:47
This is a very interesting topic, and I've been fascinated with the responses. One wonders how something that is so common now ever got started... or how being so common its origins could be so obscure.

Another thought: perhaps the ancestral roots of liquor and cola drinks lie in much older drinking practices. I remember reading, I think in Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage", that it was common for American plantation owners (and I'm sure others) to drink rum mixed with sugar as a morning beverage. My guess is that this was to provide what they considered a "healthy" drink (as liquor was considered by many to be at that time) with a limited alcohol bite. Even as attitudes about drinking changed over the 19th century, I'm sure that there were still many who chose to sweeten their spirits for palatability, much as people will still add milk/sugar to coffee to improve the taste. Since soda is basically sugar water with added flavoring, perhaps people moved to that method because it mixed more easily (i.e. no need to dissolve sugar into the mix).

Just a random thought. As I said, a fascinating topic!

08-24-2007, 22:50
Thanks, and again excellent points. It is true many cocktails (and also "cups" and punches) involved combining spirits and sugar. Mint juleps were consumed in the morning in old Virginia, for example. A "bittered sling" was sugar, spirits and bitters and often water or ice would have been added. A soft drink is simply this kind of drink, sans the liquor, as the name implies.

I looked through Jerry Thomas' classic later 1800's book on cocktails (available online at at least one cocktails site). He has almost innumerable variations on the idea to combine sugar, spirits, fruits and other flavourings, but never (that I saw) advises to mix liqour with, say, "ginger ale" (which is mentioned in other connections in his book), or ginger pop, or sasparilla, which were well known in his time. Maybe the reason is, being a cocktails expert, he took pride in confecting drinks from scratch. Since a soft drink is a pre-made, "soft" kind of julep or cup, he probably would not have thought it worthy to use this kind of short cut. Also, the commercial distribution of cola was just beginning, there probably wasn't enough of it for people to recognise that it could be used as a substitute for the older, purpose-made mixes so carefully detailed in his book. As soft drinks became a big commercial business (from the end of the 1800's regionally and then nationally), probably more and more people would have started to add whiskey to them.

There are various cocktails manuals available from the early 1900's, one could consult those to see if mixed drinks got in them by then, although as Chuck said, a mixed drink generally is simpler than a cocktail, so might have been omitted for that reason.

The Bacardi or Cuba Libre, which had quite a fashion in the 1930's and for the next 30 years (although it started earlier and was known by rich Americans who travelled in Cuba during Prohibition) might well have been a spur to the creation of bourbon and Coke. I am trying to remember though if the Bacardi was classically made with white or dark rum. Even if it was made originally with white rum, one could see though how the idea might have transplanted to cola and whiskey.

Still, I have a feeling bourbon and coke really got going only in the 1960's and 70's. It was only then that Coke and Pepsi really became a national habit. As Chuck said it was one initially associated (nationally) with younger people, so they may have created or popularized the drink in that era and maybe often to disguise the fact that they were drinking liquor.

It is noteworthy I think that the drink seems very connected to Coca-Cola. Just as Coke retains its strong attachment to large parts of the South and Southwest, so does bourbon (or it did until recently). The region that originated the two drinks might have been responsible for their combination. I don't think I ever heard someone call for a bourbon and Pepsi. Ever. Although no doubt despite what people order, they may in fact often get Pepsi and coke.

To me the two drinks (Coke and Pepsi) are the same for practical purposes; when asked the formulaic (but still appreciated) question, "we don't serve Coke, is Pepsi okay?" I always say yes especially when the question is asked by a charming young server. But I digress. :)


08-24-2007, 23:10
A further thought is that in the early days both bourbon and soft drinks were expensive. Only the well-off could have afforded either with any regularity. And being well-off, the people who knew these drinks would have had people with Jerry Thomas' skills to make cocktails (i.e., purpose-made) for them.

It was, arguably, only when both bourbon and Coke became relatively cheap that people, and perhaps younger people (at least nationally), thought to combine them.

But again I return to the question, which can be a subsidiary theme of this thread: does anyone drink, or has anyone heard a call for, bourbon and Pepsi?


08-25-2007, 04:12
But again I return to the question, which can be a subsidiary theme of this thread: does anyone drink, or has anyone heard a call for, bourbon and Pepsi?


Before being diagnosed with type II diabetes, I drank Evan Williams Black Label and Pepsi all the time, much preferring it to Coke. Now, it's an occasional bourbon and diet Pepsi.
Joe :usflag:

08-25-2007, 04:28
Thanks and clearly some people do enjoy the drink with Pepsi. I'll have to try it soon. By the way Canadian rye whisky is often consumed with Coke (or Pepsi I am sure for some): "rye and Coke" is a common call here.


08-25-2007, 07:07
....In northern Ohio, where I grew up, adults of my parent's generation drank bourbon or beer, or both. They didn't drink Coke or other soft drinks, not just not with alcohol but hardly ever under any circumstances. If adults drank soft drinks they drank ginger ale or root beer. Coke and Pepsi were too sweet. Kids drank Coke and I suspect it was those rule-breaking, we-won't-grow-up baby boomers, especially my first wave cohort, who kept drinking Coke and just added bourbon to it as they got older...

I recall a story my parents related to me. Dad was born in '43 so this would have been around 1960/1962. Viola was and still is is a dry town but if you ordered a "special Coke" at Pinky's restaurant, a popular hangout for kids, both those just above and just below the legal limit, and they knew you, what you got was more than Coca-Cola. Whether this meant rum and Coke or whiskey and Coke or either one depending on your known preference is something I will have to ask mom and dad. My uncle, who is nine years older than dad, would probably remember the same thing, that is if the practice went back that far, and I would immagine it did. I might e mail him and ask.