The cocktail with no set recipe, a contradictory history, and a totally different flavour-profile depending on the weather.
As is so often the way when dissecting the background of any drink, the story begins with an entirely different cocktail...
The Smash is derived from the Mint Julep, which is just a double dose of Bourbon softened up with a sprinkling of sugar and a touch of mint. Obviously, the Julep predates the Smash, having gained popularity amongst late 18th century Virginian gentry. In those days it was more likely a Brandy-based beverage, with Bourbon taking up the mantle as an affordable and always-available alternative following phylloxera.
Jerry Thomas (thanks again) is the man credited with first putting the Smash into print. However, in his Bon Vivant’s Guide, he still refers to it as a Julep, and as a Brandy cocktail. His nod to the smash comes more by the fact that he acknowledges the existence of many different iterations of the Julep, and that really any fruit can be used.
Harry Johnson is the man behind the two being seen as separate cocktails. In the 1882 edition of his New and Improved Bartenders Manual, Johnson, as well as listing a recipe for a Mint Julep, makes reference to both a ‘Fancy Whiskey Smash’and an ‘Old Style Whiskey Smash’. The two differing from his version of a Mint Julep thanks to the use of whiskey rather than Brandy, and the inclusion of seasonal fruit.
Despite containing the same ingredients in the same ratios, Johnson’s Whiskey Smashes differ from each other quite a bit. The Old Style being built with the inclusion of fruit, mixed well in a ‘whiskey glass’ and served, while Johnson would get fancy by stirring the ingredients (minus the seasonal fruit), straining the chilled concoction into a sour glass, and simply garnishing with fruit.
4 decades later, in the 1934 edition of his New and Improved Bartenders Manual, Johnson settled upon just one Whiskey Smash recipe, that of his Fancy Whiskey Smash. Order a Whiskey Smash today though, and you’ll likely be served something resembling Johnson’s Old Style Whiskey Smash.
The smash as a style of drink just feels inevitable. If all of your memory was erased, and you had to learn everything you know about bartending again, it surely wouldn’t be long before you churned ice through your favourite spirit with some sugar, an aromatic herb and some seasonal fruit.
Regardless of how you come to serve your smash, always remember that there is no right or wrong. No recipe is too simplistic, no flavours too bold.