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The Legacy of Heublein

Posted on  | May 31, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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As exciting as the recent bottled cocktail movement may be, we should resist calling the phenomenon “new.”

Jerry Thomas’s classic How To Mix Drinks, published in 1862, cites the utility of pre-mixed drinks for various outings, such as “fishing and other sporting parties.” His first recipe listed under the heading “Cocktail and Crusta” is Bottle Cocktail, using brandy, water, bitters, gum syrup and Curaçao. Thomas even refers to the flexibility of such portable potables, noting that whiskey or gin could be substituted for brandy.

It was another three decades before bottled cocktails took their first great leap to market, courtesy of Gilbert and Louis Heublein, who would go on to impact the wine and spirits industry in multiple ways. Their father created the Heublein Hotel in Hartford in 1859, and it became so famous that it was known affectionately as “Heubs,” and it served as a dining mecca for businessmen, visiting celebrities, actors, politicians and Trinity College intellectuals. It is almost certain that Samuel Longhorn Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, a Hartford resident from 1871-1891, held court there regularly.

The Heublein brothers, who were born in Germany but practically raised at the hotel, grew into the business in legendary fashion. With “Heubs” known for its “continental atmosphere” and selection of fine beers, wine and spirits, it was only natural that when Hartford’s prestigious First Company Governor’s Foot Guard was preparing its annual summer picnic and military display in 1892, the brothers were asked to supply gallon jugs of pre-mixed cocktails for the thirsty revelers. Gilbert and Louis chose the Martini and the Manhattan as the featured drinks.  

‘Whoops’ Becomes ‘Wow’

But…it rained. So the picnic was postponed and the cocktails were stored in the cellar of the hotel until the rescheduled date. Once again rain fell, so no picnic. After more than a month, the gallons of Manhattan and Martini cocktails were to be unceremoniously dumped out, but a curious bartender who tasted the “aged” drinks thought they were still quite good after the prolonged maceration. The Heublein brothers agreed and quickly saw the potential for commercial success with bottled cocktails.

They created their own facilities for blending, aging and bottling pre-mixed products that would be christened “Club Cocktails.” The name stems from the fact that these Heublein cocktails were served (perhaps first introduced) on the fine dining and club cars of the Pullman Palace, state-of-the-art luxury railroad cars. In a short time, the Club Cocktail business was so successful that it became the centerpiece of the Heublein wine and spirit business in those early years and for many years to come.

Comfort Cocktails

Geared toward the upscale gentleman, the innovation made serving cocktails easier than ever; Heublein did all the work, assuring a quality, carefully blended and aged drink. The era of the convenience food had arrived, and now so had convenience cocktails. The man who did not want to make a mistake when mixing a drink could just open a bottle—with confidence.

The Club Cocktail revolutionized the industry and spawned the RTD (Ready-To-Drink) category, albeit before the category was Ready-To-Be-Named. Granted, the genre has evolved in countless directions since the days of the Heublein brothers, and the Heublein brands ultimately churned through enough regime changes that the ultimate demise of Club Cocktail is hard to pinpoint. But in the product’s prime decades, the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Club Cocktails were coast-to-coast stars. Heublein’s advertisements became celebrity-driven, boosting sales to an even higher level by “democratizing” the product so that it was no longer just for men.

Which brings us to the present day. Pre-mixed cocktails have the highest percentage of female drinkers of any beverage alcohol category, at around two-thirds. A far cry from their origin as a picnic crowdpleaser, a club car dandy and home entertainer’s comfort pour, RTDs remain a perfect example of Darwinism at its best, having survived by adapting to the ever-changing tastes of the consumer. An example of the Club Cocktail ‎legacy is the Smirnoff Grand Cosmopolitan, Pomegranate Martini and Mojito, available in 1.75L plastic bottles, a very contemporary rendition of Heublein’s original creation.

The flavors and names have changed, but the allure of convenience in cocktails remains powerful. And for all of today’s modern ready-to-enjoy drinks, we can thank Gilbert and Louis Heublein, who started the RTD ball rolling.


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