Origin of the Word “Cocktail” for an Alcoholic Drink

Neil asks: Why do we call some alcoholic drinks cocktails?

cocktailTypically some type of hard liquor mixed with any of a variety of ingredients, although the idea of the cocktail is likely as old as the hills, its name is a relatively recent invention.

Early Use

There is debate about when the term was first used. According the The London Telegraph, the word is first found in print in a March 20, 1798 satirical newspaper article about what must have been a hell of a party. Of particular note, was the account of drinks imbibed by William Pitt (the younger) which included “L’huile de Venus,” “parfait amour,” and “‘cock-tail (vulgarly called ginger.)'” Some challenge whether “cocktail” in this article truly referred to an alcoholic drink, or something else.

Others point to an April 28, 1803 article from The Farmer’s Cabinet in Vermont, where to drink a cocktail was claimed to be “excellent for the head.”

Regardless, certainly by 1806, the word was being used with its current meaning. In the May 13th edition of the newspaper, Balance and Columbian Repository, the editor defined a cocktail as: “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind – sugar, water, and bitters.

Source of the Name

As with the first instance of the term, the exact derivation is also somewhat up for debate.

Egg-Cup (Coquetier)

The Online Etymology Dictionary attributes the origin of the cocktail to a mispronunciation of the French word for eggcup coquetier (pronounced in English as cocktay). Apparently, a New Orleans apothecary (and inventor of Peychaud bitters), Antoine Amédée Peychaud served brandy mixed with his bitters in eggcups in the late 18th century.

The Dregs (Cock tailings)

A second theory holds that the name is derived from the term “cock tailings,” the result of the practice of tavern owners combining the dregs (tailings) of nearly empty barrels together into a single elixir that was sold at bargain prices. This only makes sense when you know that the spigot of a barrel was sometimes referred to as a “cock.”

Docked Horse (Cock Tail)

During the early 17th century, an animal, particularly a horse, with a docked tail, was said to have a “cock tail.” By the 19th century, unlike other horses, thoroughbreds did not have docked tails, so when a regular horse was entered into a race, its cock tail was noted – and became a term synonymous with an adulterated horse. Since horse racing and liquor go together like peaches and cream, this theory holds that the word “cock tail” was soon used to mean an adulterated spirit.

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Bonus Cocktail Facts

  • How to Mix Drinks, written by “Professor” Thomas in 1862, is said to be the first bartender’s guide and had 10 cocktail recipes.
  • The Old Fashioned (whiskey, bitters, sugar, water and a bit of fruit if you have it) derives its name from drinkers in the late 19th century requesting to have a drink made in the old-fashioned way.
  • The High Ball (whiskey and water or soda) is said to date back to 1898, with the “high” referring to the tall glass, and “ball” meaning a drink of whiskey.
  • Mrs. Julius S. Walsh, Jr. held the first cocktail party in May 1917 in St. Louis, an event that the St. Paul Pioneer Press described as “the newest stunt in society.” Fifty guests attended the one-hour affair.
  • From 1920 to 1933, the selling, transporting, or manufacturing of alcohol was illegal in the United States due to the 18th Amendment and Prohibition. Filling the void, and satisfying the demand of the public, bootleggers quickly began manufacturing, distributing and selling illegal alcohol (often called “moonshine” and “bathtub gin”). It is reported that Al Capone, who had a brother who was a Prohibition officer, raked in $60 million each year through the distribution of illegal alcohol, while Uncle Sam lost $11 billion in tax revenue and spent $300 million to enforce the law.
  • Beyond the wasted tax dollars, the U.S. government also intentionally poisoned certain alcohol supplies that they knew American citizens would drink, killing at least 10,000 people.  Worse still, when the death tolls started rolling in, congress seriously considered ramping up the program in order to weed out the less desirable members of the United States, namely people who drank alcohol.  At the time, alcohol and those who drank it were commonly blamed for most of the problems with the world.
  • During Prohibition, one of the favorite cocktails served in Miami Florida’s speakeasies was The Bee’s Knees – a concoction of bathtub gin, mixed with enough lemon and honey to make it tasty.
  • Grape growers during Prohibition began selling “bricks of wine,” which were primarily blocks of “Rhine Wine.”  These often included the following instructions: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.”
  • The Mai Tai was brought back to the states by servicemen who had been stationed overseas and enjoyed the fruity cocktails of the South Pacific. The mixture of rum, curacao and lime juice was a favorite in the post-war 1940s.
  • The 1950s saw the Sloe Gin Fizz (sloe gin is gin made from “sloe” berries), which is a tasty mixture of Sloe gin, rum, lemon, Cointreau and a little ginger ale. The1960s brought us the Whiskey Sour, a combination of whiskey, sour mix and a spritz of soda.
  • If you ever wondered what was in a Harvey Wallbanger (a 1970s fav) here it is: vodka, o.j. and Galliano.
  • The Margarita, which first became popular in the 1980s remains the best-selling cocktail today. Its popularity may be attributable to the simplicity of its recipe – lime juice, orange liqueur and a healthy dose of tequila.
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  • Rafael Escalera

    I have a theory that maybe the origin of the term “cocktail” to describe a mix or assortment can come from the fact that the cocks have usually a tail that has several colors (mix of colors), that could justify the concept for describing a mix

  • Al capurso

    According to Arch Merril, newspaper reporter for the D C in Rochester, a tavern keeper’s wife in Lewiston, NY used to put a rooster tail in alcoholic beverages around 1813 and served it to British soldiers. Coincidentally, that tavern was the only structure NOT burned by British troops during the War of 1812

  • Ryan Miller

    My theory is the name originated from a girls night out of mixed drinking telling story’s of their spouses or lovers.