The Evolution of the Cocktail

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The Story

This chart was generated by taking a list of cocktail drinks, representing each ingredient as a different gene, and then using a computer to generate a phylogenetic tree. Over Christmas 2008 I was thinking about how a lot of drink recipes have similar ingredients, and probably developed when someone modified an existing recipe. Take, for example, a Tom Collins and a John Collins, which are identical except that the John Collins uses bourbon instead of gin. I wondered if it was possible to reconstruct the phylogeny of the drinks.

It turns out this is easier than one might think. The PHYLIP computer program can create family trees based on presence or absence of a trait (represented as 0 or 1), and it doesn't matter what you consider a "trait". I collected about 90 recipes and used PHYLIP's pars utility, with default options, to group them into families based on their 512 unique ingredients. The tree was generated with PHYLIP's drawgram utility and cleaned up in Inkscape. The tree should technically be unrooted, but I rooted it on vodka since so many of the drinks contain vodka.

The cool thing about grouping the drinks this way is that they form families with similar ingredients. So if you like martinis, you can look in the "gin family" to find other drinks that will taste similar.

One reader pointed out that this is more like a HapMap-style genetic diversity project than a phylogenetic tree, because I don't have any "ancient" or "extinct" cocktails.

Featured in:

Make magazine's blog ran a story on the poster while I was still developing it.

Science, the leading science journal, featured the poster in their column Random Samples. My boss's comment: "I wish it had been this easy to get into Science 20 years ago." sold the poster for a few months during 2010.

Some of the comments I've received:

"An impressive feat of procrastination" (I'm especially proud of this one)
"Phylogenetics + Liquor = Awesome"
"Now this is the kind of phylogenetic research I can get behind."
"I was skimming through it when I spotted the Salty Dog and wanted to try it."