The Greatest Cocktail Stories Ever Told

Need a few more good stories to tell your buddies at your next cocktail party? Well, we're here to help. This is the first in a new series we'll be doing on the Greatest Cocktail Stories Ever Told. They'll include intriguing accounts from history—and the intriguing people who made history—where cocktails have played a central role. 

Our first installment takes us back to around 29 B.C.E., to the reign of Egypt's Queen Cleopatra. For centuries, the story of Cleopatra's "pearl cocktail" has captivated history buffs and has fueled arguments between those who believe it actually happened and those who don't.

As the story goes, Cleopatra made a bet with her lover, Marc Antony, that she could spend 10 million sesterces (roughly equivalent to about $5 million today) on a single meal. For the second course of that repast, servants placed before her a single goblet that contained only vinegar. Marc Antony was intrigued. And Cleopatra was eager to show off her impressive knowledge of chemistry.  As her lover looked on, Cleopatra proceeded to take off one of her earrings, placing the pearl from it in the cup of vinegar. This was no ordinary pearl, by the way. According to a later account from renowned Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder, this was the "largest pearl in history," and worth—probably—at least 10 million sesterces. Once the pearl was in the vinegar, Cleopatra waited (likely) for about ten minutes or so before drinking down the contents of the goblet. 

For centuries, most historians seriously doubted the veracity of this tale, but recent experiments by scientists and historians actually confirm that this account is very likely to be accurate. Researchers have proven that a pearl weighing about one gram will dissolve in a basic white vinegar solution (the experiment used common white vinegar purchased from a supermarket) in about 24 to 36 hours. White vinegar was the kind of vinegar most commonly available in ancient Egypt, and the solution that Cleopatra drank was likely stronger than commercially produced white vinegar today. Even more interesting is the fact that the calcium carbonate in a pearl softens the acidity of the vinegar, making it more potable. 

It is possible that Cleopatra took the pearl from her earring and crushed it before pouring it into her goblet. Or, she might have crushed it a bit while it was in the goblet. Either action would have greatly reduced the amount of time needed to dissolve the pearl, making it easier to swallow. It's also possible that she dropped the pearl into the goblet and simply waited a bit longer for it to dissolve. That would have made for a much more dramatic presentation, and we all know Cleopatra loved drama. 

We don't recommend throwing jewelry of any kind into your cocktails (even though the Spanish drop their gold jewelry into glasses of champagne on New Year's Eve), but it is fun to know that Cleopatra pulled off such an impressive party trick, even by today's standards.