What is a Cocktail Umbrella?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Cocktail umbrellas are used as colorful garnishes with frozen and mixed cocktails.
Cocktail umbrellas are used as colorful garnishes with frozen and mixed cocktails.

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.

A cocktail umbrella may reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the ice inside a cold drink in a tropical setting.
A cocktail umbrella may reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the ice inside a cold drink in a tropical setting.

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.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

anon1004444

The first record of a miniature paper parasol being used in western society was in America 1909 as place markers in a Japanese table display. by the end of the 1920’s they were also being used as wedding favors.

But paper parasols were not initially intended for drinks, glass and silver makers were confirm-ably developing products as far back as 1931.

The first recorded umbrellas for cocktails are silver gilt and enamel made by Adie Brothers UK, hallmarked 1931.

Glass umbrellas by Eduard Dressler, Germany were advertised in 1931 for use in Punch.

It is claimed that Don the Beachcomber used paper umbrellas in 1932, although there are no contemporary reports to confirm this.

The first recorded use of a glass umbrella in a drink was in the Ithaca Journal Dec 19th 1935 in a Manhattan cherry.

The first recorded advertisement of a paper umbrella for a drink was June 30th 1937 Indianapolis Star. “As Paper Umbrellas for Iced Drinks” within an advert for summer picnic items.

The first recorded use of a paper umbrella in a cocktail was reported 13th June 1950 in the Akron Beacon Journal at a Hawaiian Dance Party by the women’s city club. They were stuck in the Manhattan cherries.

ddljohn

The son of the founder of Trader Vic's actually said that they are not the founders of the idea of putting a cocktail umbrella in drinks. I read an article about this in a local magazine once. Someone actually called them up and asked about it. Although they adopted the idea from another restaurant, they also acknowledged that the idea was a Chinese American invention and already existed in Chinese restaurants.

There actually isn't any concrete proof that cocktail umbrellas have anything to do with Polynesian culture. And everything that is said about the parasols serving various purposes are just rumors. The cocktail umbrella was thought of only for the purpose of decoration and nothing else. And they actually have nothing to do with tropical beaches, although that's what most people think of when they get a cocktail with a decorative umbrella.

turquoise

I think that the history of the cocktail umbrella goes even farther back than Trader Vic's. Paper decorations have been used in Asian cultures since a very long time. I think that the Chinese and Japanese used paper decorations in drinks (not necessarily alcoholic drinks) even before the "cocktail umbrella" came about.

It's impossible to really trace the exact origin of this decoration. I don't think that anyone really knows. But I'm sure that it's going to be around for along time. It's a great idea and I know that it makes many people happy.

SarahGen

The cocktail umbrellas I have seen have always been very small. Where does one get a large cocktail umbrellas?

The small umbrellas don't really serve any purpose aside from decoration. They certainly don't keep ice from melting or trap the fumes of the alcohol. They just look pretty, which is fine by me.

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    • Cocktail umbrellas are used as colorful garnishes with frozen and mixed cocktails.
      Cocktail umbrellas are used as colorful garnishes with frozen and mixed cocktails.
    • A cocktail umbrella may reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the ice inside a cold drink in a tropical setting.
      A cocktail umbrella may reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the ice inside a cold drink in a tropical setting.