The First Printed Definition of the Word “Cocktail”

by Gaz Regan · Thursday, January 12th, 2012 · Not So Trivial Trivia

The First Printed Definition of the word “cocktail,” when used to describe a drink, appeared on May 13, 1806, in The Balance and Columbian Repository, Hudson, NY.

This is how it went down.  Verbatim.

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. cocktail.’ 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 cocktail 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 ***-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 cocktail, 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: – Cocktail, 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.]

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