What Is a Cocktail?

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

The first published definition of a cocktail appeared in an editorial response in The Balance and Columbian Repository of 1806. It read: "Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters." That's the accepted definition of ingredients used today when referring to the "ideal" cocktail.

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The First Cocktails

People have been mixing drinks for centuries, often to make an ingredient more palatable or to create medicinal elixirs. It wasn't until the 17th and 18th centuries that the precursors of the cocktail (e.g., slingsfizzestoddies, and juleps) became popular enough to be recorded in the history books. Though it's unclear where, who, and what went into the creation of the original cocktail, it started out as a specific drink formula rather than a category of mixed drinks.

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 his book, "Imbibe!," David Wondrich attributes the first known printed cocktail recipe to Captain J.E. Alexander in 1831. It called for brandygin, 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…"

The formula for the original "cocktail" recipe lives on. The brandy cocktail, for instance, is a mix of brandy, orange curaçao (the sweetener), and bitters, shaken with ice (the water). Since it's served most often with a lemon peel, it's technically a "fancy brandy cocktail." Replacing the base spirit creates other classics like the gin cocktail, rum cocktail, or whiskey cocktail.

Origins of the Name "Cocktail"

There are many stories behind the origin of the name "cocktail." As always, some are just myths or folklore, some are believable, and more than a few may have likely been exaggerated over the years by intoxicated bar patrons or imaginative bartenders. One may even be the truth. None the less, the stories are fascinating.

  • A famous story behind the cocktail name refers to a rooster's tail (or cock tail), which served as a Colonial drink garnish. There are no formal references in written recipes to such a garnish.
  • In James Fenimore Cooper's 1821 novel, "The Spy," 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 the tail feathers of her neighbor's rooster. Within this complicated mix of stories, it's generally assumed that Kitty inspired Betty and Betty inspired Betsy.
  • The rooster theory is also said to have been influenced by the colors of mixed ingredients, which may resemble the colors of the cock's tail. Considering the colorful array of ingredients used in the modern bar, that might be a good tale today. At the time, however, drinks were visually bland.
  • In 1936, the British publication, Bartender, published a decades-old story of English sailors who were served mixed drinks in Mexico. A cola de gallo (cock's tail)—a long plant root of similar shape to the bird's tail—were used to stir the drinks.
  • One cocktail story refers to the leftovers of a cask of ale, called cock tailings. The cock tailings from various spirits would be mixed 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 feed fighting cocks.
  • "Cocktail" may have derived from the French term for an 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 a cocktail. Due to conflicting dates, this story doesn't quite add up, however.
  • The word cocktail may be a distant derivation of the name for the Aztec goddess, Xochitl (SHO-cheetl, meaning "flower" in Nahuatl). 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 the tails of draft horses, which caused the tail to stick up like a cock's 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 tale 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; the name may have 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 1965 book, "The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of Man in His Cups," he writes, "The word itself stems from the English cock-tail which, in the middle 1800s, 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." Yes, ice was once a controversial topic in the bar!