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What is a Cocktail?

Definition and History of the Cocktail

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VodkaHerbitan Cocktail Recipe

VodkaHerbitan Cocktail Recipe

Photo Courtesy of: © Sonnema VodkaHERB

What is a Cocktail?

The official definition of a "cocktail" according to the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary is "an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients." That's a pretty broad definition, but reflects the modern practice of referring to almost any mixed drink as a cocktail.

The first published definition of the Cocktail appeared in an editorial response in The Balance and Columbian Repository of 1806. This read: "Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters." It is this definition of ingredients that we continue to use when referring to the 'ideal' cocktail.

When was the Cocktail Created?

People have been mixing drinks for centuries, but it wasn't until the 17th and 18th centuries that the precursors of the cocktail (the Slings, Fizzes, Toddies and Juleps) became popular enough to be recorded in the history books. It is unclear where, who, and what went into the creation of the original cocktail, but it seems to be a specific drink rather than a category of mixed drinks during that time.

The first published reference to the cocktail appears in the Farmer's Cabinet (Amherst, New Hampshire, April 28, 1803). The spoof editorial tells of a "lounger" who, with an 11 a.m. hangover, "…Drank a glass of cocktail - excellent for the head…" In Imbibe!, David Wondrich attributes the first known cocktail recipe in print to Captain J.E. Alexander in 1831 who calls for brandy, gin or rum in a mix of "…a third of the spirit to two-thirds of the water; add bitters, and enrich with sugar and nutmeg…"

Where did the Name Cocktail Originate?
There are as many stories behind the origin of the name cocktail as there are behind the creation of the first Margarita or the Martini. As always, some are preposterous, some believable and who knows, one may be the truth. None the less, the stories are interesting.

  • A popular story behind the cocktail name refers to a rooster's tail (or cock tail) being used as a Colonial drink garnish. There are no formal references in written recipes to such a garnish.
  • In the story in The Spy (James Fenimore Cooper, 1821) the character "Betty Flanagan" invented the cocktail during the Revolution. "Betty" may have referred to a real-life innkeeper at Four Corners north of New York City by the name of Catherine "Kitty" Hustler. Betty took on another non-fiction face, that of Betsy Flanagan. Betsy was likely not a real woman, but the story says she was a tavern keeper who served French soldiers a drink in 1779 garnished with tail feathers of her neighbor's rooster. We can assume that Kitty inspired Betty and Betty inspired Betsy, but whether or not one of the three are responsible for the cocktail is a mystery.
  • The rooster theory is also said to have been influenced by the colors of the mixed ingredients, which may resemble the colors of the cock's tail. This would be a good tale today given our colorful array of ingredients, but at the time spirits were visually bland.
  • The British publication, Bartender, published a story in 1936 of English sailors, of decades before, being served mixed drinks in Mexico. The drinks were stirred with a Cola de Gallo (cock's tail), a long root of similar shape to the bird's tail.
  • Another Cocktail story refers to the leftovers of a cask of ale, called cock tailings. The cock tailings from various spirits would be mixed together and sold as a lower priced mixed beverage of (understandably) questionable integrity.
  • Yet another unappetizing origin tells of a cock ale, a mash of ale mixed with whatever was available to be fed to fighting cocks.
  • Cocktail may have derived from the French term for egg cup, coquetel. One story that brought this reference to America speaks of Antoine Amedie Peychaud of New Orleans who mixed his Peychaud bitters into a stomach remedy served in a coquetel. Not all of Peychaud's customers could pronounce the word and it became known as cocktail. This story doesn't add up, however, because of conflicting dates.
  • The word Cocktail may be a distant derivation of the name for the Aztec goddess, Xochitl. Xochitl was also the name of a Mexican princess who served drinks to American soldiers.
  • It was an 18th and 19th century custom to dock draft horses' tales. This caused the tales to stick up like a cocks tail. As the story goes, a reader's letter to The Balance and Columbian Repository explains that when drunk, these cocktails made you cock your tail up in the same manner.
  • Another horse tail supposes the influence of a breeder's term for a mix breed horse, or cock-tails. Both racing and drinking were popular among the majority of Americans at the time and it's possible the term transferred from mixed breeds to mixed drinks.
  • There's a quirky story of an American tavern keeper who stored alcohol in a ceramic, rooster-shaped container. When patrons wanted another round they tapped the rooster's tail.
  • In George Bishop's The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of Man in His Cups (1965) he says, "The word itself stems from the English cock-tail which, in the middle 1800's, referred to a woman of easy virtue who was desirable but impure…and applied to the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice." Of all things, not ice!

References and Suggest Reading…

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