Today, drinking straws are associated with kids’ juice boxes, soda fountains and iced coffee, but this technology's origins are twinned with the history of alcohol. Straws may have an inherent whimsy, but their development has been driven almost entirely from necessity, with their biggest innovations accompanied by societal shifts in liquor consumption.
Grainy Beer and Ancestral Straws
The Sumerians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Canaanites all independently developed straw-like devices for sipping the earliest "chunky style" fermented beverages, which, being unfiltered, contained a fair amount of grain flotsam. At their simplest, these straws were just reeds with small bores that wouldn't admit larger bits, but versions made from metal or precious stones have been found in tombs as old as 3,000 B.C.
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Wealthier ancestral tipplers might have used straws with actual strainers on their ends. Canaanite depictions from the 14th century B.C. show “tube elbows,” (we like to think of them as ur-bendy-straws), that allowed multiple drinkers to sit around a common jug.
Like many inventions from antiquity, metal and bendy straws were mostly abandoned by the Western world as time went on. Some communities in East Asia, Africa and South America went on consuming traditional brews with filtered straws, but improvements in brewing methods in England and Germany saw brewers straining the grains out of the mash during production to create a wort, a sugary liquid which was then fermented to create a relatively grit-free final product. Plus, the spread of distillation during the Renaissance meant a surfeit of chunks-free booze. Should a European drinker in the 17th century absolutely require a straw, the standard solution was a dried stalk of ryegrass.
A Great Ju-Leap Forward
As more Europeans colonized the Americas, ryegrass (not to be confused with rye) made its way to the New World, where it proliferated, providing a bounty of functional, if fairly fragile straws. One fateful day in the 1880s, however, a ryegrass stalk found its way into the julep cup of Marvin Stone, and everything changed. The crushed ice in a Julep necessitates either a julep strainer or a straw to avoid getting a faceful of sugary whiskey ice. Trouble was, high-test bourbon caused ryegrass to disintegrate, leaving an unappetizing layer of grassy detritus. And Stone wasn't about to take detritus in his Julep. Besides being an irritable Julep drinker, Stone was also an inventor and had made a successful career inventing items like the paper cigarette holder. He immediately set his mind to improving the drinking straw.
In his initial version, Stone simply wrapped paper around a pencil, taped the seam and removed the pencil. The straw was capable of delivering Mint Juleps untrammeled by herbaceous residue. Stone then slapped a layer of wax on the paper to keep it from disintegrating like ryegrass, and the modern straw era was upon us. In 1888, Stone was issued the patent for the paper straw. In his patent, Stone called for the straws to be made with green material “colored in imitation of the natural straw,” likely because he thought they would sell better.
Stone's invention was well received, except, naturally, by ryegrass farmers. Years later, the inventor's obituary in Home Furnishing Review noted, “The orders from Holland and other places abroad, as well as the domestic demand, were so great that Mr. Stone was obliged to double the capacity of the works.”
In the early 20th century, mass production and a public outcry over hygiene at soda fountains and other public venues forced many proprietors to adopt dispensable paper straws, which reigned supreme until the 1960s, when they were, thankfully, largely unseated by plastic versions.
The Boozy Straw Dark Ages
Of late, most innovations around straws have not concerned liquor (though we'd wager whoever invented Straw Glasses wasn't sober). Bendy straws (1937) and Krazy Straws (1960s) were both aimed at kids. Extra-wide straws came with the invention of boba tea in the 1980s. Now, though, after many painful years without any advancement in straw-based cocktail consumption, bartenders across the U.S. have reignited the quest for better beverage basics.
Some bartenders—and companies like Aardvark Straws—favor reviving Stone’s paper version, lending cocktails an old school, soda fountain feel. Others prefer metal, which complements other metallic drinkware like the copper mug for a Moscow Mule or the silver julep cup. Still others, like Kathryn Weatherup’s Brooklyn speakeasy Weather Up, utilize straws with built in filters or stirrers. Meanwhile, bartenders Adam Nystrom and Brittney Olsen at E.P. & L.P. in Los Angeles recently developed a boba-version of a Jungle Bird (rum, Campari, lime, pineapple and simple syrup), complete with wide boba straw.
With great minds hard at work developing new ways for us to slurp liquor into our faces, it seems the plucky straw industry will continue to supply innovative bars and bartenders with a panoply of options. Let's just pray ryegrass doesn't make a comeback.