If you asked a barkeep in early 1700s America for a cocktail, they’d probably think you wanted to buy a horse. Horses who’d had their tails bobbed or docked short were known as “cocktails.” Docking, or the cutting off of a horse’s tail down to the tailbone (ouch!) was common practice for any kind of working horse, particularly those that pulled carriages and wagons. It was a safety measure to prevent the long tail hair from tangling in the reins and harnesses. Racehorses of mixed parentage (i.e., not Thoroughbreds) were also known as “cocktails,” since their tales were docked in order to indicate their mixed blood for future owners and those who bet on them.
By 1798, however, cocktails were being referred to as a kind of drink, though exactly what kind is unclear. The Morning Post and Gazetteer in London, England on March 20, 1798, contains this short letter of sorts:
two petit vers of “L’huile de Venus”
Ditto, one of “perfeit amour”
Ditto, “cock-tail” (vulgarly called ginger)
It isn’t clear what kind of drink this was, but later offhand references in books and newspapers indicate it had some kind of restorative or medicinal power. This is likely due to the bitters that early cocktails may have contained. Bitters is a liquid that consists of alcohol and water infused with herbs, botanicals, barks, fruits, roots, and other ingredients which have been used for thousands of years to treat various ailments. Eventually, they were also used to flavor cocktails. There are hundreds of different kinds of bitters on the market today, but the eighteenth and nineteenth century saw an explosion of the stuff, particularly in Britain. Most of them were packaged as patent medicines rather than flavoring agents. People claimed that a few drops of bitters could cure all sorts of things. A 1910 Times London article claimed bitters could cure “hypochondria, ennui, nervous depression, dysentery, ague, colic” and even malaria and other “fevers of tropical climes.”**** While many decried bitters as snake oil, no one could deny that they also made alcohol taste better. But just because a drink has bitters in it doesn’t make it a cocktail—not yet, anyway.
Over in America, the first time the word “cocktail” was printed in a manner we’d recognize today (i.e., as an alcoholic beverage) didn’t happen until 1806, when the editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository responded to a reader’s question “what is a cocktail?” with this reply:
Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.
This kind of basic cocktail—a combination of a strong spirit, a bit of sugar, and a dash of bitters—is what is known today as an Old Fashioned. If you ordered a cocktail in the 1800s and on through the early 1900s, that is pretty much what you’d get.
Of course, none of these definitions tell us how the term “cocktail” came to be. Many people have tried to discover the origin of this term—and failed. The great H.L. Mencken, famous journalist, satirist, and all-around critic, supposedly found over forty different origin stories in 1946 for the cocktail’s name. After going through them all, Mencken put his money on what Colonial tavern keepers called “cocktailings“: the dregs of alcohol (known as “tailings”) at the bottom of the cask which, when mixed together and poured out through the spout (known as a “cock”), was sold to customers at a reduced price.
Ultimately, H.L. Mencken concluded that the origin of the word “cocktail” was “quite as dark as the origin of the thing itself”—but there are tons of fun, different theories out there, many of which are fun to think about.
Here are some of the best I’ve found so far:
- A cocktail could be named such simply because it “cocks your tail” or perks you up, like the crow of a rooster at dawn. This could be thanks to the restorative zing of the bitters, or the fact that cocktails began their life as morning drinks.
- Quite a number of theories refer to horses and horse racing. Mixed drinks were popular with gamblers at the tracks during the Victorian Age, so they may have been the first to concoct—and name—cocktails. It could even be named after the gamblers themselves, as a “cocktail” was also Victorian slang for a low-born man who pretended to be a gentleman. Otherwise, the term may come from horse racing itself. It may refer to a mixed-blood racehorse as mentioned earlier (mixed blood horse = mixed drink), or it may refer to the act of “gingering” a horse to invigorate them before a show or a race—a practice which left them bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (and probably rather uncomfortable).***
- Antoine Peychaud—the same New Orleans apothecary who invented Peychaud’s bitters—liked to serve his customers drinks made of brandy, sugar, water, and bitters in a double egg-cup back in the 1790s. The term “egg cup” in French is coquetier; over time this word may have been corrupted by his American customers into the term “cocktail.”
- Emperor Lucius Aurelius (180-192 AD) enjoyed drinking “cockwine,” a mixed wine drink made by Roman doctors for medicinal uses—and given the early healthy connotations of bitters may have prompted a similar name.
- Cockfighting lends itself to a number of theories. A mixture of bread and fortified wine, known as “cock ale,” was served to fighting cocks to perk them up before a fight. Their human owners sometimes partook as well. A victor in a cockfight was sometimes toasted by his fellows with a special libation crowned with feathers, one for each of them left on the winning rooster’s tail. A particularly bizarre related theory may have to do with a different kind of “cock ale” from the 1500s—the kind that involved a dead chicken. Here is an actual recipe from William Grime’s excellent book, Straight Up or On the Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink:
Take 10 gallons of ale and a large cock, the older the better; parboil the cock, flay him, and stamp him in a stone mortar until his bones are broken (you must craw and gut him when you flay him), then put the cock into two quarts of sack, and put to it three pounds of raisins of the sun stoned; some blades of mace and a few cloves; put all these into a canvas bag, and a little before you find the ale has been working, put the bag and ale together in vessel; in a week or nine days bottle it up, fill the bottle just above the neck, and give it the same time to ripen as other ale.
Some people are still making this stuff today. Jim Koch, the founder of Boston Beer Company—the same people who make Samuel Adams beer—decided to whip up something special for a friend of his who was turning 50. So, he dug through the archives and found a 1736 recipe for cock ale and made it, dead chicken and all. The drink was a hit. According to Jim Koch, “people loved the idea . . . and were surprised at how tasty it was.”
- There is an old French recipe of mixed wine called coquetel. It may have come over to America in the 1770s with General Lafayette, and was supposedly served to French soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
- The most well-known story by far, however, involves Betty Flanagan, the Revolutionary War, and rooster feathers. Depending on who you ask, Betty–or Betsy, as some accounts call her–was a widowed innkeeper whose husband had died during the Revolutionary War. There are many, many versions of this story, but this one from DrinkBoy had the most detail that I could find:
In 1779 [Betsy] opened an inn near Yorktown, which was frequented by American and French soldiers. Nearby to the inn was an Englishman who raised chickens. Probably due to the current political climate, Betsy was none too fond of this neighbor, and she loved to promise her American and French patrons that one day she would serve them a meal of roast chicken. To which her guests would often mock her, claiming that this was all bravado and that she would never carry through with it. On an evening that saw an unusual number of officers gathering at her inn, Betsy invited them into the living room, where they were served a grand meal of chicken, freshly “acquired” from the English neighbor. When the meal was over, Betsy moved her guests to the bar, where she proudly served up rounds of “Bracer” (which was a popular drink recipe at the inn). Betsy had decorated each drink with a tail-feather from the recently consumed chickens. To this, the officers gave three cheers to celebrate the defeat of this one particular Englishman. “Let’s have some more cocktail” one officer proclaimed. To which a French officer added “Vive le cocktail!”, and the drinking continued long into the night.
The problem with this fun little story? Betty Flanagan never existed. In fact, she is a fictional character in a James Fennimore Cooper novel called The Spy. And though she may have been a composite of several real people (Cooper interviewed a number of real life revolutionary war veterans when he wrote The Spy), there are no records of her actually existing—much less inventing the first cocktail. This seems to be the most popular theory by far, however. It’s all over the Internet, and it’s been mentioned in every modern cocktail book I’ve read so far for these posts. Don’t believe me? Check out this plot summary of The Spy.
- According to George Bishop in his book The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of Man in His Cups (1965), the term “cock-tail” had another use in Victorian English parlance: a woman of easy virtue who was “desirable but impure.” The British may have applied it to “the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice”—and thus the term cocktail was born.
- The West African term for scorpion, kaketal, could have been applied to the cocktail because both contain a “sting.”
And finally, there’s my favorite story: Robert, the semi-anonymous French bartender of the Embassy Club—and author of Cocktails, how to mix them, offered up this silly story as the origin of the cocktail. He claims it’s the “generally accepted story,” but if you ask me it sounds more like a fairy tale. Just swap out “cavalry officer” for “knight” and change the setting from the Great War to the medieval countryside and you’re good to go, more or less. Here’s Robert’s story:
The squire of a little country inn was very proud of his beautiful daughter, and he was equally fond of a magnificent prize-fighting cock. The bird suddenly disappeared and could not be found anywhere. Weary of searching the country round, he swore and told everybody in the village that the man who brought the cock back alive would be allowed to marry his daughter. Many days passed, until one summer morning a young cavalry officer rode into the village, stopped in front of the inn, and handed the cock back to its owner. The squire, full of joy, produced drinks that all might toast the tail of the cock, who had not lost a single feather. His daughter, either by accident, or from excitement at the sight of her future husband, mixed whisky, vermouth, bitters and ice together. Everybody liked this delicious concoction so much that it was christened on the spot ‘Cocktail.’ The officer introduced the ‘cocktail’ amongst his fellow officers, and soon it became known to the entire American Army. Gradually its reputation grew, and the cocktail became famous all over the world.
I thought this story was pretty ridiculous until I saw almost the same damn thing published in a 1910 article from Times London on the blog The Art of the Drink. It goes like this:
Weird, huh? The rest of the 1910 article can be found here.
So, what do you think, readers? Which one of these cocktail name theories speaks to you? What stories have you heard that aren’t listed here? Please share them below! Any and all comments are welcome. 🙂
*** FYI, “Gingering” is a rather horrible practice that involves shoving a piece of raw ginger into the nether regions of a horse in order to give it “pep.” Aren’t you glad you asked? :p
**** Actually, this isn’t as bizarre as it might seem. Some medicinal bitters were prepared with bark containing quinine, which is a naturally occurring antimalarial substance.
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The Free Library. S.v. Samuel Adams Brews Up an ‘Old Cock Ale’ with Everything but the Feathers.” http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Samuel+Adams+Brews+Up+an+%27Old+Cock+Ale%27+with+Everything+but+the…-a018744803
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