How Did a Cocktail Come to Be Called a Cocktail?
In the new revised and updated edition of his book, ‘The Joy of Mixology,’ drinks expert Gary Regan explores the possible origins of the word.
On May 13, 1806, the Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, answered a reader’s query as to the nature of a cocktail: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called a bittered sling.” The cocktail had been born, it had been defined, and yet it couldn’t have been very well known by the general populace, or the newspaper wouldn’t have considered it a fit topic for elucidation.
Where does the word cocktail come from? There are many answers to that question, and none is really satisfactory. One particular favorite story of mine, though, comes from The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of a Man in His Cups, by George Bishop: “The word itself stems from the English cock-tail which, in the middle 1800s, referred to a woman of easy virtue who was considered desirable but impure. The word was imported by expatriate Englishmen and applied derogatorily to the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice. The disappearance of the hyphen coincided with the general acceptance of the word and its re-exportation back to England in its present meaning.” Of course, this can’t be true since the word was applied to a drink before the middle 1800s, but it’s entertaining nonetheless, and the definition of “desirable but impure” fits cocktails to a tee.
A delightful story, published in 1936 in the Bartender, a British publication, details how English sailors of “many years ago” were served mixed drinks in a Mexican tavern. The drinks were stirred with “the fine, slender and smooth root of a plant which owing to its shape was called Cola de Gallo, which in English means ‘Cock’s tail.’” The story goes on to say that the sailors made the name popular in England, and from there the word made its way to America.
Another Mexican tale about the etymology of cocktail—again, dated “many years ago”—concerns Xoc-tl (transliterated as Xochitl and Coctel in different accounts), the daughter of a Mexican king, who served drinks to visiting American officers. The Americans honored her by calling the drinks cocktails—the closest they could come to pronouncing her name. And one more south-of-the-border explanation for the word can be found in Made in America, by Bill Bryson, who explains that in the Krio language, spoken in Sierra Leone, a scorpion is called a kaktel. Could it be that the sting in the cocktail is related to the sting in the scorpion’s tail? It’s doubtful at best.
One of the most popular tales told about the first drinks known as cocktails concerns a tavern keeper by the name of Betsy Flanagan, who in 1779 served French soldiers drinks garnished with feathers she had plucked from a neighbor’s roosters. The soldiers toasted her by shouting, “Vive le cocktail!” William Grimes, however, points out in his book Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail that Flanagan was a fictional character who appeared in The Spy, by James Fenimore Cooper. He also notes that the book “relied on oral testimony of Revolutionary War veterans,” so although it’s possible that the tale has some merit, it’s a very unsatisfactory explanation.
A fairly plausible narrative on this subject can be found in Famous New Orleans Drinks & How to Mix ’em, by Stanley Clisby Arthur, first published in 1937. Arthur tells the story of Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a French refugee from San Domingo who settled in New Orleans in 1793. Peychaud was an apothecary who opened his own business, where, among other things, he made his own bitters, Peychaud’s, a concoction still available today. He created a stomach remedy by mixing his bitters with brandy in an eggcup—a vessel known to him in his native tongue as a coquetier. Presumably not all Peychaud’s customers spoke French, and it’s quite possible that the word, pronounced coh-KET-yay, could have been corrupted into cocktail. However, according to the Sazerac Company, the present-day producers of Peychaud’s bitters, the apothecary didn’t open until 1838, so there’s yet another explanation that doesn’t work.
Another theory has it that in England, horses of mixed blood had their tails docked to signify their lack of breeding, and were known as “cocktailed” horses, but since I first wrote that, the term has been clarified. David Wondrich, cocktail historian extraordinaire, has concluded that the word’s origins did indeed involve horses and their tails, but with a difference: “cocktail,” he found, was a bit of ginger or cayenne pepper that crooked horse dealers would put into tired old horses’ bums to make them cock their tails up and act a little more lively than usual. I never argue with David Wondrich unless we’re discussing whose turn it is to buy the drinks…
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Excerpted from The Joy of Mixology, Revised and Updated Edition: The Consummate Guide to the Bartender’s Craft by Gary Regan. Copyright © 2018. Used with permission of the publisher, Clarkson Potter. All rights reserved.