No, it doesn’t have anything to do with a rooster—but it does have something to do with a horse. Type “origin of word cocktail” into your search engine and you may see a dictionary entry that explains the term cock-tailed originally described a horse with a docked (or clipped-short) tail, and “cock-tailed” became a sort of pejorative for racehorses without thoroughbred pedigrees—with mixed lineage, if you will. So the term may have come to be applied to alcoholic drinks that were similarly blended rather than pure spirits.
But that’s still not quite right. Keep reading for cocktail clarification.
We may never know precisely when the first cocktail was made or who invented it, and for a long time, the etymology of the term used to describe it—in the words of H. L. Mencken (who did extensive research on the topic but in the end came up short)—was “quite as dark as the origin of the thing itself.”
Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant's Companion, $16.98 on Amazon
The very first cocktail book ever published, in 1862, in case you want to get closer to the source.
The first version of this article, published in 2008, explored several intriguing theories, which we’ll include in this revision for posterity, but the real story, appropriately enough, shall be revealed…in the end.
Old Theories on the Origin of the Word Cocktail
What we wrote in 2008: “We do know that the term [cocktail] originated in America, showing up in publications around the early 19th century. According to the “Oxford English Dictionary,” the earliest definition of the word appeared in the May 13, 1806, edition of Balance and Columbian Repository, a federalist newspaper in Hudson, New York, where the editor printed an answer to the question ‘What is a cocktail?’ His reply: ‘A cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind—sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch 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 anything else.'”
This is, in large part, accurate, and it’s true that “cocktail” originally referred only to a specific blend of alcohol, sugar, water, and bitters—not to a wide range of mixed drinks as it does now. (As an aside, if that blend of ingredients sounds familiar, well, it’s also the reason we call an Old Fashioned an Old Fashioned.)
As we went on: “There’s a lot of speculation about the actual etymology of the word cocktail, but none of the theories have been verified. Of all the ones Mencken researched, he thought this to be the most likely: During the Colonial period, tavern keepers stored their spirits in casks. When the casks got near empty, the dregs, or tailings, would be mixed together into one barrel and sold at a reduced price—poured from the spigot, which was referred to as the cock. Patrons wanting this cheaper alcohol would come in asking for ‘cock tailings.’
Another popular story comes from New Orleans, where an apothecary by the name of Peychaud (of bitters fame) served a mixed brandy drink in a French eggcup. Eventually the drink was named coquetier, the French term for an eggcup. Peychaud’s guests shortened the name to ‘cocktay,’ and eventually it became ‘cocktail.'”
Those both sound totally legit, right? We might even have entertained other popular theories like the ones involving the mythical Aztec maiden Xochitl, or the one mentioning Betsy Flanagan, the enterprising (and fictional) tavern keeper who garnished her drinks with feathers.
The Probable Actual Origin of the Word Cocktail
Turns out, the sanitized dictionary explanation for the etymology of cocktail isn’t far off the mark, but Wondrich distills the (much grosser) story thusly: A perky, cocked (or raised-up) tail on a horse is a sign of vim and vigor, so unscrupulous horse traders in the 18th century would put ginger and/or pepper in a place the horses surely didn’t want it, in order to make them look a little more frisky.
As ginger and pepper were also common ingredients used to liven up alcoholic drinks (and by extension, their imbibers), the theory is that the term “cock-tail” was applied to those invigorating libations after the practice of unpleasantly surprising the poor horses with spicy suppositories.
At some point, the plain old ginger or pepper component of drinkable “cocktails” was widely replaced with bitters—Wondrich traces the practice of adding those aromatic, complex flavor boosters to sweetened booze to one Dr. Richard Stoughton, who sold his own astringent blends of distilled roots, citrus peels, and bark as a tonic (and hangover cure!) in his London apothecary shop—and by then, the common name was inseparable from the drink itself. Even later on, “cocktail” came to encompass all the many variations of boozy tipples both shaken and stirred that we enjoy today, and the origin of the word itself faded into blessed obscurity—until the intrepid Wondrich unearthed it for our collective benefit.
Wonder what Mencken would have made of that…not to mention mocktails. At any rate, you know what you have to do at your next cocktail party: Ask everyone if they know the origin story of the word, and if they don’t, regale them with the whole tale (but try not to make anyone who repeats one of the older, now-debunked theories feel like a horse’s ass for being behind the times). Bottoms up!
Give guests something to sip on while they’re digesting their newfound knowledge.
Pretty much the OG cocktail formula—spirits (in this case, whiskey, whether rye or bourbon), sugar, bitters, and a diluting agent—but with club soda in place of regular water for a little extra lift. And a zesty orange twist for garnish. Get our Old Fashioned Cocktail recipe.
Knowing what we now do about the equine origins of the word cocktail, the “mule” in this ginger-heavy drink’s name packs a double meaning (although the theory is just that it refers to the kick of the aromatic key ingredient). Bonus points if you serve it in the iconic copper mug, but it tastes just as good from any other glass. Get our Moscow Mule recipe.
Here’s another gingery pick, but one that’s far removed from the original cocktail. Can you imagine Dr. Stoughton’s reaction to a frozen margarita machine and its gloriously slushy, sweet output? Not a trace of bitters in sight, but plenty of tequila. Get our Frozen Ginger Peach Margarita recipe.
Another fantastic tidbit from the Saveur article by Wondrich is that George Washington, while arranging the surrender of New York by the British, hosted a sort of cocktail hour at which he offered wine and bitters. We still love wine cocktails—and this one combines oaky chardonnay with bittersweet Aperol, which maybe even our first president would’ve enjoyed. Get our Chardonnay Coverup White Wine Cocktail recipe.
Even more stripped-down than the original cocktail, the martini is a more modern—yet equally timeless—creation, strictly for lovers of gin and vermouth. And olives, in some cases. Get our Perfect Martini recipe.
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This post was originally published by Michele Foley in 2008, and was updated by Jen Wheeler.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.