Cocktail: What is it, and Where Did the Word Come From?

by Gaz Regan · Thursday, March 22nd, 2012 · Not So Trivial Trivia, Quotes

Much of the material you’re about to encounter was uncovered by others, so please allow me to thank Ted HaighRobert Hess, David Wondrich, Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown, for sharing their findings with me, and with others.  You are generous souls to be sure.

The Ultimate Cocktail (A Manhattan, of Course)

Before you read on, let me say that I draw no conclusions here, I’m just posting documents that contain early references to the word cocktail, used in a context that makes it appear that the word refers to a drink.  For your consideration, then, I bring you the following:


On 16 March 1798, London’s Morning Post and Gazetteer reported that a pub owner won a lottery and erased all his customers’ debts:

 A publican, in Downing-street, who had a share of the 20,000 l. prize, rubbed out all his scores, in a transport of joy: This was an humble imitation of his neighbour, who, when he drew the highest prize in the State Lottery, not only rubbed out, but actually broke scores with his old customers, and entirely forgot them.

The next week, on 20 March 1798, the Morning Post and Gazetteer satirically listed details of 17 politicians’ pub debts, including the following:

Mr. Pitt,

two petit vers of “L’huile de Venus” 0 1 0

Ditto, one of “perfeit amour” 0 0 7

Ditto, “cock-tail”

(vulgarly called ginger) 0 0 3/4

 The fact that the “cock-tail” was one of Mr. Pitt’s drinks—listed after two obviously French beverages—suggests that the word “cock-tail” might have had French origins.

After all, Mr. Pitt’s tenure as Premier (as the Prime Minister was called back then) was marked by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Excerpted from A Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Book Two by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown





No. 25]                            Thursday, April 28, 1803.                         [Vol. I

 [from p. 2]

 Amusing Miscellany.



Mr. Cushing,

THE enclosed “brief chronicle,” of a short period of a lounger’s life, was lately found on the plain, lost probably from the pocket of the careless author. From the careless dress in which the loose minutes appear, it is doubtful whether they were intended for public inspection; it is more probable that they were written either to avoid the attacks of the author’s old and inveterate enemy—Time, or perhaps to excite a smile on the countenance of some beloved fair one. The author would probably be totally unable, at this distant period, to collect a history of the events he has here recorded, from the dark cells of treacherous memory, since but for this little memorial they had already been covered by the broad mantle of oblivion. We request you to publish them for the gratification of your readers, because we conceive them to be a picture of existing manners, correctly, though perhaps unintentionally, drawn. Besides, if the author still frequents the haunts where he has been accustomed to lounge, though he never looks into an old paper, still perhaps his eye may chance to glance on the article thus rescued from oblivion, if conspicuously displayed in your Miscellany.



FRIDAY.—Waked at 7 by the bell—wonder what people mean by disturbing one so early after an Assembly, turn’d and doz’d ‘till 9: got up, and dressed—felt queer; took a cup of coffee—no appetite.—10. Lounged to the Doctor’s—found Peter—talked of the girls—smoked half a cigar—felt rather squally: Van Hogan came in—quiz’d me for looking dull—great bore.—11. Drank a glass of cocktail—excellent for the head; all sauntered away to see the girls: Miss —- not up: Went to the Squire’s—girls just done breakfast. Mem. Girls not so bright after dancing. Talked of the weather—then of the walking—then of the weather again—was very witty—Peter not quite so brilliant. Went to the Col’s found the girls very lively and sociable—drank a glass of wine—talk’d about Indians—call’d Miss —– a Squaw—all laugh’d—damn’d good one—talked about the walking—insisted that the more muddy it was, the better walking—all look’d queer: nothing else to say—jogg’d off.  Call’d at the Doct’s: found Burnham—he looked very wise—drank another glass of cocktail. All went to the printing office—began to smoke—Mons. —- look’d into an old paper—stupid fellow—never look into papers myself—spoils the imagination.—1. Strol’d home—dinner ready—ate a little. Mr. —- fatigu’d me with politics—don’t like it—so threw myself into an easy chair—fortunately got into an easy posture and smoked a cigar.—3. Went into the Doct’s.—found Burnham and Van Hogan—drank a little gin bim—vile stuff—all went down to the Squire’s—got into spirits—talk’d very bright—introduced the weather again. Mem. Always to talk about the weather,–can always say witty things about it: Took a walk with the girls—felt tired—returned—saw the Court House open, so strolled in—heard lawyers wrangling and disputing—hate disputations—happened to laugh heartily at something Burnham said; an odd, musty looking fellow, with a huge white staff call’d out Silence! Insolent fellow—all mere boors—no regard to gentlemen—walked off. Smoked another cigar at the Doct’s.—N.B. Doctor’s a famous lounge. Tried to walk up the turnpike—too fatiguing—went into Peter’s office—he very busy—quiz’d him—swore business was a bore; bright one—all laugh’d. Thought I shouldn’t say any thing better,–so went home to tea.—7. Stroll’d into Atty’s Hall—call’d for cards—play’d till 12—got rather hazy. N.B. Bad wine, never drink such again—went home, to go to bed—wonder what makes me feel sick—folks all asleep—went to bed very tired.

[Transcribed by David Wondrich, 10/2005]

from Dave. 10/21/05

Discussion by David Wondrich


I really haven’t figured out what the hell to do with this thing–I’m the guy who was trolling for bluefish and caught a shark. I will say this, though: you’re all free to use this however you wish. It was there in a computer database (Early American Newspapers) just waiting for somebody to type in the right search term; that s.o.b. happened to be me, but sooner or later somebody else would’ve found it, and probably sooner rather than later.

I certainly don’t wish to disrupt any celebrations or plans, but I do think that this isn’t the last we’ve heard of this–as old newspapers, etc. get digitized, more and earlier references will almost certainly turn up (as Doc pointed out to me, the reference I found mentions “cocktail” with no sense that it would be misunderstood by the reader; in other words, a popular drink). What’s more, there’s very good evidence that they were drinking brandy, sugar andStoughtonbitters mixed together inEnglandas far back as 1746, so I’m sure some new info will come out of that quarter as well. In other words, definitive claims about firsts in a field like this one–a field that hasn’t been thoroughly gone over by PhD candidates with nothing but time on their hands and very loose deadlines–are bound to be upset (I met a guy the other night who just finished his dissertation on American “mysteries of the city” novels of the mid-19th century; he read over 300 of them; that’s what I’m talking about).

On the other hand, the Hudson Balance article [below] is unique in that it provides a firm definition of what a cocktail actually is, a thing that the 1803 quote in no way does. In fact, in the early 1900s “cocktail” appears to have been different things to different people: Cooper, in The Spy (1821) says that it included mint, while Dr. Samuel Mitchill in 1820 said it was “rum and honey, to combine sweetness with strength.” The significant thing about the Balance article is that it recorded and defined the formula that won out in the end.

Anyway, ciao for now, D



May 6, 1806, The Balance and Columbian Repository, Hudson, NY

Rum! Rum! Rum!

It is conjectured, that the price of this precious liquor will soon rise at Claverack, since a certain candidate has placed in his account of Loss and Gain, the following items:




720 rum   grogs
17 brandy do.
32 gin-slings
411 glasses bitters
25 do. cock-tail
My Election


On May 13, under the heading “Communication,” was the following:

To the Editor of the Balance.


I observe in your paper of the 6th instant, in the account of a democratic candidate for a seat in the Legislature, marked under the head of Loss,’25 do. cock-tail.’ Will you be so obliging as to inform me what is meant by this species of refreshment? Though a stranger to you, I believe, from your general character, you will not suppose this request to be impertinent.

I have heard of a jorum, of phlegm-cutter and fog driver, of wetting the whistle, or moistening the clay, of a fillip, a spur in the head, quenching the spark in the head, of slip, etc., but never in my life, though I have lived a good many years, did I hear of cock-tail before. Is it peculiar to this part of the country? Or is it a late invention? Is the name expressive of the effect which the drink has on a particular part of the body? Or does it signify that the democrats who take the potion are turned topsyturvy, and have their heads where their tails should be? I should think the latter to be the real solution; but am unwilling to determine finally until I receive all the information in my power.

At the beginning of the revolution, a physician publically recommended the moss which grew on a tree as a substitute for tea. He found on experiment, that it had more of a stimulating quality than he approved; and therefore, he afterward as publically denounced it. Whatever cock-tail is, it may be properly administered at certain times and to certain constitutions. A few years ago, when the democrats were bawling for Jefferson and Clinton, one of the polls was held in the city of New   York at a place where ice cream was sold. Their temperament then was remarkably adult (?) and bilious. Something was necessary to cool them. Now when they are sunk into frigidity, it may be equally necessary, by cock-tail, to warm and rouse them.

I hope you will construe nothing that I have said as disrespectful. I read your paper with great pleasure, and wish it the most extensive circulation. Whether you answer my inquiry or not, I shall remain, Yours,

[ As I make it a point, never to publish anything (under my editorial head) but what I can explain, I shall not hesitate to gratify the curiosity of my inquisitive correspondent: – Cock tail, then, 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, 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.
Edit. Bal.]


Oft-Told Tales

Excerpted from The Joy of Mixology

Where does the word cocktail come from?  There are many answers to that question, and none are really satisfactory.  One particular favorite story, 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 toEngland 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.

Another theory has it that, inEngland, horses of mixed breed had their tails docked to signify their lack of breeding, and were known as cocktailed horses.  This is true, and since the cocktail comprises of a mixture of ingredients, it makes sense that the term could have come from this source, but it’s somewhat of a stretch.

There’s a delightful story, published in The Bartender, a British publication, that details English sailors of “many years ago” who 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 inEngland, 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 Xochitl and Coctel in different accounts), the daughter of a Mexican king, who served drinks to visiting American officers.  The Americans honored her the best they could 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 in 1779 by the name of Betsy Flanagan who served French soldiers drinks that were garnished with feathers that 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:  A Cultural History of American Drink, that Flanagan was a fictional character who appeared in The Spy, by James Fenimore Cooper.  However, 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 and first published in 1937.  Mr. Arthur tells the story of Antoine Amedée Peychaud, a French refugee from Santo 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, which are still available today.  He made a stomach remedy by mixing his bitters with brandy in an egg-cup—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, present-day producers of Peychaud’s bitters, the apothecary didn’t open until 1838, so there’s yet another explanation that doesn’t work.

If pushed to pick a story that rings truer than all others, I’ll go for the one mentioned in Grimes’s book which cites a paragraph from H. L. Mencken’s The American Language.  “Cock,” it explains, refers to the tap on a barrel of spirits, and the “tailings” were the dregs from the bottom of the barrel.  The last drops of all manner of spirits used to be mixed together and sold at a reduced rate, and the cocktail, in a very unappealing manner, was born.


4 Responses to “Cocktail: What is it, and Where Did the Word Come From?”

  1. games says:

    Hmmm… this looks very interesting. By the way, does the video really has no sound? Can’t hear anything.

  2. gaz regan says:

    Video? Ain’t no video here to my knowledge

  3. Gaz,

    Great article, I’m still going for impure and desirable; sums up most aspects of my life 😉

    Oh and about the video, sound on mine was fine but that cat meowing in the background was driving me crazy!

  4. Pat Collins says:

    The first quote is new to me, thanks for that.

    The quotes from 1803 and 1806 are given in the Oxford English Dictionary, probably from the original entry from 1891.

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