How The Cocktail Came To Be

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So, about that name.

Originally, it was thought that the term “cocktail” referred to horses whose tails had been docked and stuck up in the air like, well, a cock – but we’re talking about roosters here, okay?

Or maybe not. Like the cheeseburger, the consumption of cinnamon rolls as a side to chili, and the syrah grape, the cocktail comes with as many creation myths as there are mixed-drink recipes, including that cocktails also were initially called “gingers,” which brings the poor horse back into it once again. 

Apparently, sticking a piece of ginger in a horse’s, um, behind made it lively, which was evidenced by its tail stuck up in the air – visibly proving that the horse was “spirited,” and leading bartenders in ye olde times to add ginger to alcohol-based drinks. 

As those of us who start checking the clock right after lunch to see if it’s happy hour yet can attest, a good cocktail can indeed raise the spirits. But which tale (tail?) is true, and how did we get from there to here?

 Americans – never ones to shy away from taking credit – have long laid claim to the cocktail as a U.S. invention, dating back to the early 1800s. The food magazine Saveur ran an article in January 2016 by noted spirits historian David Wondrich that traced the first reference to cocktails to a New England newspaper article in 1803.

As Wondrich points out in his article, the cocktail at the start of the 19th century was defined by its inclusion of bitters – without it, he says, “it was merely a ‘sling,’ an older drink of not much interest.”

But our friends on the other side of the pond disagree. In an article from December 2012, London-based The Telegraph had already tracked down a 1798 edition of a long-gone London newspaper called The Morning Post and Gazetteer, which had run a list of bar tabs owed by longtime patrons of the Axe & Gate tavern – a list that included William Pitt the Younger’s purchase of a “cock-tail.” 

In addition, several references to cocktails for medicinal purposes – this was back in the days of scurvy and other stomach ailments that were beaten back by a little alcohol – have been unearthed on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Whatever the origins, though, it’s hard to dispute that what the cocktail has turned into is immeasurably better and more delicious than the early recipe of alcohol, bitters, sugar and water – the bitters having replaced the ginger.

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These days, you can get your craft cocktail filled with live flowers frozen in ice cubes, lit on fire, speckled with flakes of gold, drizzled with barbecue sauce and garnished with bacon, topped with dissolving tufts of cotton candy or exploding Pop Rocks, sprinkled with powdered flavorings, infused with wood smoke, packed with enough fruits or vegetables to qualify it as a meal, or served by the gallon in a cauldron or treasure chest, complete with multiple two-foot-
long straws so a group can imbibe simultaneously.

In fact, it lifts our spirits just to think about it.