The History of the Cocktail
3 - Minute Read
World Cocktail Day is a global celebration of cocktails; it falls on the publication date of the first definition of a cocktail on the 13th of May 1806. Just as cocktails, their components and popularity have changed over the years, so has their tale. For this reason, we are delving into the etymology and history of the cocktail.
There are no fixed origins of the cocktail. But what we do know is that in some shape or form the cocktail has been around for a while. Without the name ‘cocktail’, we can trace mixed drinks back to ancient times from the Romans to the South Americans, and mixed drinks in Great Britain called punch were being made back in the 1500s.
There are a few etymologies for the term cocktail, all deriving from the concept of ‘mixing’, none of which can be substantiated:
- The Dregs Theory - A mixture of the last dregs of barrels, tailings, poured from all the taps, known as ‘cocks’, hence the term ‘cock-tail’.
- The Egg-Cup Theory - American apothecaries and, specifically, the inventor of Peychaud bitters, Antoine Amédée Peychaud served a mixture of brandy, sugar, water and bitters in an egg cup. The French word for an egg cups is a cocquetier, which was shortened over time to ‘cocktay’.
- The Docked Horse Theory – In the 17th century, mixed-breed horses in Britain had their tails docked or ‘cocked’ to distinguish them, a ‘cock-tail’. Further, racehorses with cocked tails were perky than those without, so ‘cock your tail up’ became a saying similar to eye-opening.
Nevertheless, the very first published definition of the word ‘cock-tail’ appeared on the 13th of May in The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806. The editor, in response to a reader, described beverage as ‘a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters’. More than half a century later, the first known guide to cocktail making ‘‘The Bartenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks’ was published in 1862 by the American bartender Jerry Thomas, often named the father of mixology. In the modern world, mixed drinks such as the Old Fashioned, the Sazerac and the Manhattan are the closest versions of these original cocktails.
As prohibition rolled around in 1919 across the US, the practice and popularity of cocktails took a hit. The alcohol trade moved underground to speakeasies, those that you see in films, and a new wave of alcohol consumption became very popular. Most spirits produced quickly during prohibition tasted awful, which prompted bartenders to come up with creative ways to mix a few other ingredients to disguise the horrible taste of the alcohol (and hide it from police). This experimentation continued after prohibition and many affluent Americans began to travel and bring these drinks to Europe. The best known and longest lasting American bar in London was (and still is) at The Savoy.
Post War, cocktails became less and less popular but started to make a comeback in the mid-late 1970s, many originally gin-based cocktails were now being made with vodka. The popularity of cocktails can be propagated to their influence by popular culture; the song ‘Escape’ popularising the Pina Colada, the desire to be the suave James Bond with his Martini, or Carrie Bradshaw sipping on a Cosmopolitan in the heart of New York City. The early 2000s saw the rise of cocktail culture through the style of mixology, which mixes traditional cocktails and other novel ingredients. A style that remains a passion of ours at Pale Fox.