One of the most common questions I get is "what is the origin of the cocktail?". An innocent question indeed, but one which does not have an easy answer.
As a child, I loved reading superhero comic books. My favorites were the ones about the origins of these characters. Now that I'm older, I don't read comic books (much) anymore, but I am still fascinated about the origins of things.
When I'm looking through a cocktail book, I am always trying to find out if this author provided any insights as to the origins of the cocktails that they write about. Some do, but most don't. I suppose cocktails can often be a hard origin to track down, unless they are named after the person or establishment that actually invented them.
The earliest known written reference to the term "cocktail" as a drink based on spirits with other spirits and/or other additives goes back to an early American magazine called "The Balance", published in May 1806.
"Cocktail 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"
But what about the term "cocktail" itself? What are its origins?
As it appears to turn out, the origins of the word "cocktail" will probably never be known. While I have come across some references that claim to have the true story on where this term came from, I have also come across equally good references that claim it is from some other root.
As an indication of the wide variety of stories surrounding the origins of the cocktail, here are the various versions I have run across.
What appears to be a very popular story, has to do with a innkeeper named Betsy Flanagan. Her husband was killed in the revolution, and she herself was considered to be one of the heroes of the revolution. In 1779 she opened an inn near Yorktown, which was frequented by American and French soldiers.
Nearby to the inn was an Englishman who raised chickens. Probably due to the current political climate, Betsy was none too fond of this neighbor, and she loved to promise her American and French patrons that one day she would serve them a meal of roast chicken. To which her guests would often mock her, claiming that this was all bravado and that she would never carry through with it.
On an evening that saw an unusual number of officers gathering at her inn, Betsy invited them into the living room, where they were served a grand meal of chicken, freshly "acquired" from the English neighbor. When the meal was over, Betsy moved her guests to the bar, where she proudly served up rounds of "Bracer" (which was a popular drink recipe at the inn). Betsy had decorated each drink with a tail-feather from the recently consumed chickens. To this, the officers gave three cheers to celebrate the defeat of this one particular Englishman. "Let's have some more cocktail" one officer proclaimed. To which a French officer added "Vive le cocktail!", and the drinking continued long into the night.
Tapping The Cocks Tail
As another story has it, the term came into use at a bar in an American harbor; the owner had a large ceramic container in the form of a rooster (cock). Every evening, the leftovers from drinks served were poured into this cock. Less economically fortunate guests could for a cheap price get a drink from this cock, served from a tap at the tail. From this came the term cocktail. It was said, that the quality was especially high the day after English sailors had been visiting, as there was a good mixture of rum, gin and brandy in the cocktail.
An evocative origin of the word "cocktail" comes from the term "cock-ale", a heady mixture of spirits fed to fighting cocks in the 18th century to inflame them. The punters and cockerel owners would undoubtedly have drunk the same mixture.
Frenchmen know how to drink
Another possible origin is from the French word Coquetel - being a mixed drink from Bordeaux served to French Officers during the American Revolution serving in what is now southern U.S.A.
Another version gives the invention to the medical profession. A New York newspaper unearthed the following explanation "from ancient print". The old doctors had a habit of treating certain diseases of the throat with a pleasant liquid applied to the tip of a feather from a cock's tail. In time this liquid came to be used as a gargle, the name of 'cocktail' still being used to describe it. In the course of further evolution, the gargle became a mixture of bitters, vermouth, and other such liquids, and finally developed into the beverage we now hold so highly.
When in Rome
One of the oldest versions I've come across has it that a doctor by name Claudius in ancient Rome mixed a drink consisting of wine and lemon juice and dried herbs. This drink he called "cockwine". Emperor [Lucius Ælius Aurelius, emperor 180-192] considered this drink to be an exquisite aperitif, and he had reputation of being and expert on the area.
Mighty Fine Lemonade
A "cock" in 19th century America was a tap; the last, muddy dregs of the tap were its "tail." Colonel Carter, of Culpeper Court House, Virginia, was served such a drink at his local tavern, and seeing it as an insult dashed it upon the floor and exclaimed, "Hereafter I will drink cocktails of my own brewing." His concoction, a mix of gin, lemon peel, bitters and sugar, was the great-granddaddy of the modern cocktail.
What was that recipe again?
Another version is that it is derived from cock-ale, a drink popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. To a cask of new ale was added a sack containing an old rooster, mashed to a pulp, raisins, mace, and cloves, and the mixture was allowed to infuse for a week or so.
A Bobbed Tail
A "cocktailed horse" is one whose tail has been bobbed, giving it a jaunty and flamboyant look. It seems reasonable that the "cocktail" took its name from the drink's alcoholic wallop, sufficient to "cock the tail" (or "knock the socks off") of an unwary patron.
The Kings Daughter
In the beginning of the 1800's, there was apparently a lot of fighting between the southern states, and a young king Axolot VIII of Mexico. Fortunately, as in most wars, peace eventually prevails. At the peace ceremonies, a drink was served to seal the reconciliation. It was brought forth in a magnificent emerald-ornamented gold cup. It was brought forth by a pretty young woman, who apparently also concocted the drink. As the young woman was approaching the King and the General she suddenly realized that with only one cup, she would have to serve one of them before the other, and thus somebody would end up getting embarrassed. She quickly saw what she had to do, and nodding to each of the dignitaries, she promptly brought the goblet to her lips and drained the cup dry. "Who was that woman" asked the General. "My daughter, Coctel" replied the king. The general then stood, and bowing to the king, pronounced: "Coctel shall be famous in my country and all over the world, her name shall never be forgotten.
Will the Real Story Please Stand Up
While these are the stories that my research was able to dig up, I'm sure that there are others, and I'm also sure that over time more will be added to this list.
I doubt that we will ever know the true origin of this term, but is that what is really important? Would knowing which (if any) of the above stories teach us anything new about the history of the cocktail, or perhaps are the diversity of the various stories themselves that have cropped up over the years the real history lesson here?