The Cocktail – A Short History

 

If I’m going to throw cocktail recipes, and anecdotes about drinks and their ingredients at you I feel that it is only proper for me to ensure that while we are having our one sided discussions, we are on the same page about what the very concept of a “cocktail” means.  You might think it’s simple, but it’s far from a simple idea as you’ll soon see.  Let’s start with the easiest way that I know of to figure out what something means – let’s hit the old dictionary.

The modern Miriam-Webster dictionary breaks the word cocktail down like this:

“An iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients.”

This is pretty reflective of a modern practice where any mixed drink is called a cocktail.  I won’t tell you that you’re wrong for doing this… but I’m certainly not going to tell you that you’re right, either.  The truth of what a cocktail is has to be traced back to the farthest origins of the word, which is much easier said than done.

It Starts With A Horse

Hang in there with me…

See, it was at one time customary to dock the tails of horses that were not thoroughbred.  They called these horses ‘Cocktailed Horses’, which later got shortened up to cocktails.  By extension of this, the word took on a new meaning for a vulgar, ill-bred person (you know the type).  This person is one of these dudes that assumes the position of a gentleman, but has an extreme deficiency in gentlemanly breeding.

See how this starts to twist into a drink?  A cocktail could be an acceptable drink… but it’s diluted.  Not ‘purebred’.  It seems like it could make some sense.  In fact, the word’s first use (outside of talking about horses) came in 1798 in the Morning Post and Gazetter, though it doesn’t give us a definition.  It takes a few years to start to get closer to that.

RE: Booze

In The Farmer’s Cabinet on April 28th, 1803 we get the first recorded use of the word as a beverage – though… still no definition.

It wasn’t until May 13th of 1806, when in The Balance and Colombian Repository editor Harry Croswell answered the question ‘What is a cocktail’ that we finally start breaking some ground on a recorded definition.

He writes:

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 to also be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.

Now we’re talking!

Booze – Sugar – Water – Bitters

It’s our first real definition of what a cocktail is.  Of course, over the years we’ve taken this idea and ran with it, creating mixed drinks of all sorts, but I still subscribe to this definition.  If you want a cocktail, it’s booze, sugar, water and bitters.  If you’re missing one of these… it’s still a drink, but a cocktail it is not.

From this base list of ingredients, all things are built: Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Martinis.  If it’s a classic cocktail you can find those four things, and only those four things.  And if you find these four things, and only these four things, chances are stellar that you’ve got a cocktail on your hands!

 

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