DALLAS — Warning: side effects of this exhibition may include a desire to run to a bar and grab a drink after. No, it doesn’t induce stress, but it does tell a delightful history of the cocktail through glistening vessels and barware that all tantalize as if accessories for the most sumptuous of libations.
Shaken, Stirred, Styled: The Art of the Cocktail, currently on view in a small gallery at the Dallas Museum of Art, is a fittingly intoxicating show not to be missed. Curated by Samantha Robinson, it presents a chronological survey of nearly 60 cocktail-related objects from the late 19th century to the present day, showing how Americans’s drinking habits and tastes evolved along with major social changes.
The cocktail was first defined in 1806, when the term cropped up in a Hudson periodical as “a stimulating liquor.” But it wasn’t until decades later that adults really got into sipping these mixed beverages. A silvergilt punchbowl designed in 1881 by Tiffany (who else?) that introduces the show is an extravagant example of drinking, before cocktail fever hit, as very much a communal and ceremonial activity — but one where you had to have what they’re having. But with an industrializing society came a desire to enjoy more dynamic boozy options, and certainly for drinks that would pack more of a punch than, well, punch.
As wall text at the show’s entrance explains: “The cocktail met this demand and satisfied shifting tastes due to advancements in the production, transportation, and insulation of ice and the distillation of spirits — or liquors — previously unpalatable without dilution and the addition of sugar, citrus, and spice.”
Near the Tiffany bowl, you can flip through a digital version of Jerry Thomas’s 1862 How to Mix Drinks: Or, The Bon-vivant’s Companion — the first recipe book that made cocktails accessible to the masses. As people increasingly got their drink on, manufacturers stepped in, seeing an opportunity to turn cocktail hour into something truly lavish. Never mind that 1919 brought on Prohibition, under which people were still able to get merrily sloshed in the comforts of their own homes: advertisers simply changed the words used to market their shakers, decanters, and glasses so their wares were at least packaged as more friendly for the whole family.
Many shakers of the 1920s and ’30s reflect some serious creativity. The handful on view at the DMA are quite zany, from one shaped like a lighthouse — complete with protruding railing — to a sleek one that resembles a skyscraper, guaranteed to make you feel cosmopolitan and chic. It would have been especially fun to sip a sidecar poured from the beak of a silver chicken, which was the form of one shaker first sold in 1928 by the Wallace Brothers Silver Company. Seemingly a play on the word “cocktail,” the cock was available with four little cups like chicks, and was essentially the manufacturer’s way to mock the 18th Amendment’s regulations and loopholes.
Then crashed the stock market, and with it came the Great Depression, forcibly quelling people’s thirsts for cocktails. Businesses suffered, and manufacturers began using less expensive materials such as silverplate, chrome, and glass — although some still produced unusual objects that would have been unaffordable to many Americans at the time. Among the show’s most memorable pieces is one shaker shaped like a penguin that has golden flippers and feet, as well as another fittingly shaped like a watering can.
Businesses no longer had to be sly in their sales after 1933, however, when Roosevelt repealed the Prohibition laws. The ability to more freely indulge in libations, in fact, ushered in a new era of bar products. People could go out and buy strainers, stirring spoons, and ice tongs — and many did, especially after WWII, when couples were reunited and began entertaining at home once more. As the years marched on, we see a refinement of style — objects showcase less playful figuration and focus more on modernist forms. The exhibition features myriad examples from the ’50s to the 21st century that suggest that cocktail accoutrements, for the most part, took on increasingly subtle physical appearances. Bare-boned plates, tumblers, wine glasses with an assortment of stems, and an elegant crystal cordial glass — these are all elegant (as opposed to the ungainly form of the lighthouse shaker) but they do make you miss some of the humor present in the earlier years of the cocktail.
Nowadays, with the coming of refreshments like frosé and, yes, even the sipadvisor, it seems like we’re more interested in innovating our adult beverages rather than the vessels that hold them or are used to prepare them. (The mason jar, which was simply repurposed, is thriving precisely because of its simplicity). Maybe a drink won’t taste better because of its container, but Shaken, Stirred, Styled presents a delicious opportunity to soak up the many pleasures to be found in good, old fashioned barware.
Shaken, Stirred, Styled: The Art of the Cocktail continues at the Dallas Museum of Art (1717 North Harwood Street, Dallas, Texas)through November 12.