CockTale – A Cocktail Etymology



Written by Lindsey Kesel
Stories abound on how the cocktail got its name, but not a single one involves a rooster’s derrière.
If you’ve ever wrapped your lips around a Mojito, an Old Fashioned or a Cosmopolitan, then you know the joy of the cocktail—a concert of flavors blended together to tickle the taste buds and warm the belly. The terms “mixed drink” and “cocktail” are used interchangeably, but die-hard drinkophiles know the difference. Discern the true definition of a cocktail and you’ll have a clever little conversation starter in your pocket, and if you really want to impress your friends, enlighten them with a few theories on how this palate-pleasing invention got such a curious name.
While the phrase “mixed drink” refers simply to a libation involving alcohol stirred or shaken with one or more ingredients, the cocktail boasts a more specific definition. To be a bona fide cocktail, a beverage must combine at least three things—alcohol, a sweet substance and a bitter or citrus additive.
If you’ve got a distilled spirit and a non-alcoholic mixer like soda or fruit juice in your cup, you’re actually sipping on a highball (Gin and Tonic). If the bartender poured you a spirit and a liqueur (sweetened distilled alcohol), you’re downing a “duo” (Black Russian: vodka and Kahlúa). Spirit plus liqueur plus mixer? You’ve just ordered a “trio” (White Russian: vodka, Kahlúa and cream).
Perhaps the word cocktail first cropped up among the tavern proprietors in colonial America. In an effort to economically dispose of the “nasty lastys,” bartenders advertised “cock tailings”—drinks combining the tail end of various liquor barrels in a mash-up that didn’t taste half-bad. The spigots on said barrels were called—you guessed it— “cocks.”
The first print reference using the word as a beverage showed up in the 1803 Vermont publication, The Farmer’s Cabinet, where the act of imbibing a cocktail was said to be “excellent for the head.” Three years later, an official definition appeared in the federalist New York newspaper Balance and Columbian Repository, but with an opposite take on how the concoction impacted a drinker’s state of mind:
The California Mai Tai? Despite its tropical name, this hero of the Tiki generation was said to have been born by the hand of Victor J. Bergeron, proprietor of the California restaurant chain Trader Vic’s. Bergeron reportedly made it for a few mates who were on holiday from Tahiti in 1944, one of whom offered the Tahitian language compliment Maita’i roa ae!, which means “out of this world!” His recipe had no dark rum float, umbrella or fruit, but today’s version goes something like this:
Mai Tai:
“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.”
An equally convincing cocktail naming anecdote set in the 1800s concerns a Creole apothecary named Antoine Amédée Peychaud, the fellow credited with inventing bitters, an herbal alcoholic potion once touted as a fountain of youth and a cure for malaria. In his French Quarter pharmacy, Peychaud sprinkled his secret bitters formula into a shaker full of bourbon and served it in a French eggcup, or coquetier. Typical Americans butchering the French language, his customers mispronounced it “cock-tay,” which evolved into the “cocktail” we know and love today.
Finally, our favorite alias story comes from spirits historian David Wondrich’s journey down the rabbit hole for his 2007 book, Imbibe. He confidently concludes that the cocktail came to be after the meeting of two ideas: the early English trend of adding a stimulant—often ginger—to liven up alcoholic beverages, and a practice common in the business of horse trade:
“If you had an old horse you were trying to sell, you would put some ginger up its butt, and it would cock its tail up and be frisky. That was known as ‘cock-tail’… It became this morning thing. Something to ‘cock your tail up,’ like an eye-opener.”
And so the silly-sounding term was adopted far and wide as a reference to anything that added spirit to a person’s mood, and eventually caught on as the right way to order alcoholic spirits mixed up with the bitters/sugar formula.
The true intention behind the original naming of the cocktail is anyone’s guess. But if you’ve ever sipped a spicy Bloody Mary the morning after a night of spirited drinking, you know why this last version makes perfect sense!
Harvey Wallbanger:
Harvey Wallbanger, the Fictional Liquor Salesman. This 1960s gem is as fun to drink as it is to say. Historian David Wondrich credits its inception to a marketing strategy created by McKesson Imports Company to boost sales of Galliano, an Italian liqueur. The campaign included the Harvey Wallbanger mascot, a surfer-type character who helped put a face to the drink.
Don’t Mess with a Texas Margarita. Ah the lovely Margarita — so popular, she’s the most widely ordered cocktail worldwide. Some claim the drink originated in Mexico, but legend has it that it was actually head bartender Santos Cruz who first mixed one up in 1948 for legendary singer Peggy Lee at the Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas. Lee’s nickname was Margaret, hence the adaptation of “Margarita.” Today we enjoy all kinds of creative reimagining with fruit additions, flavored tequilas, and various rim spices. (Cucumber Jalapeno Margarita, anyone?)
Author: Lindsey Kesel