A cocktail umbrella generally consists of a wooden or split bamboo skewer, several cardboard ribs, and a colorful piece of Japanese art paper. After mixing certain types of frozen or mixed cocktails, a bartender will open the canopy of the umbrella and place it in the glass as a colorful garnish. A small ring around the skewer generally holds the umbrella open as the recipient sips the drink through a straw.
Believe it or not, a cocktail umbrella does have at least one practical function. Drinks served outdoors, especially in a true tropical setting, tend to melt very quickly in the sun. A large cocktail umbrella, also known as a paper parasol, does reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the ice inside a cold alcoholic concoction.
There are those who suggest the cocktail umbrella also prevents volatile spirits such as rum from evaporating too quickly. The fumes of the alcohol are thought to be trapped under the umbrella, so when the consumer pushes it aside to take a sip, the aromatic gases reach his or her nose. This theory may just be wishful thinking, but a large cocktail umbrella can indeed trap the escaping alcohol molecules as they evaporate.
The actual origins of the cocktail umbrella are a bit murky, but some have theorized that small umbrellas may have been created by native Polynesians as symbolic gifts to the gods. Numerous other representational trinkets are commonly found in Asian and Polynesian countries. The use of paper parasols to protect alcoholic beverages may have started as native Polynesians welcomed the business of foreign captains and their crews.
According to a popular rumor, the first cocktail umbrellas used for decorative purposes appeared at a legendary tropically-themed nightclub called Trader Vic's in 1932. The owner of Trader Vic's, however, claimed he co-opted the idea from an earlier Polynesian bar called Ed's Beachcomber. The appearance of the umbrella and other elaborate garnishes coincided with the surge in popularity of cocktails among female customers. Many of the more elaborate cocktail recipes used today came from the friendly competition between bars to attract more female customers.
There are plans available to create homemade cocktail umbrellas, but the majority of commercial paper umbrellas are produced in Asian countries. While Japanese art paper is often used for the canopy of an umbrella, the manufacturers often use Chinese newspapers as inexpensive backing material. This practice has created an urban legend concerning hidden messages placed inside these umbrellas, but they are not true.