Origins of the name “Cocktail”

What is a Cocktail?

According to the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the official definition of a Cocktail is “an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavouring ingredients.” A prettybroad definition, but it reflects the modern practice of referring to almost any mixed drink as a Cocktail.

The Balance and Columbian Repository of 1806, published the first definition of which read: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” It is this definition of ingredients that still refers to the “ideal cocktail.

When was the cocktail created?

Although people have been mixing drinks for centuries, it wasn’t until the 17th and 18th
centuries that the precursors of the Cocktail (the Slings, Fizzes, Toddies and Juleps) became
popular enough to be recorded in history. Who, where and what went into the creation of the
original Cocktail is unclear, but it seems to be a specific drink rather than a category of mixed
drinks during that time.In a spoof editorial, the Farmer’s Cabinet (Amherst, New Hampshire,
April 28, 1803), tells a tale of a “lounger” who, with an 11 a.m. hangover, “…Drank a glass
of cocktail – excellent for the head…”. David Wondrich In Imbibe!, attributes the first
known Cocktail recipe in print to Captain J.E. Alexander in 1831 who calls for brandy, gin or
rum in a mix of “…a third of the spirit to two-thirds of the water; add bitters, and enrich with
sugar and nutmeg…”

Where did the name Cocktail come from?

This is just a small sample of the stories behind the origin of the name “Cocktail.”

Some are plausible, some are spurious, it’s up to you to decide:

A popular story behind the Cocktail name refers to a rooster’s tail (or cock tail) being
used as a Colonial drink garnish. There are no formal references in recipe to such a

In the story in The Spy (James Fenimore Cooper, 1821) the character “Betty
Flanagan” invented the Cocktail during the Revolution. “Betty” may have referred
to a real-life innkeeper at Four Corners north of New York City by the name of
Catherine “Kitty” Hustler. Betty took on another non-fiction face, that of Betsy
Flanagan. Betsy likely not a real woman though, but the story says she was a tavern
keeper who served French soldiers in 1779 a drink garnished with tail feathers of her
neighbor’s rooster. We can assume that Kitty inspired Betty and Betty inspired Betsy,
but whether or not one of the three are responsible for the Cocktail is a mystery.

The rooster theory is also said to have been influenced by the colors of the mixed
ingredients, which may resemble the colors of the cock’s tail. This would be a good
tale today given our colorful array of ingredients, but at the time spirits were visually

The British publication, Bartender, published a story in 1936 of English sailors, of
decades before, being served mixed drinks in Mexico. The drinks were stirred with a
Cola de Gallo (Cock’s tail), a long root of similar shape to the bird’s tail.

Another Cocktail story refers to the leftovers of a cask of ale, called cock tailings. The
cock tailings from various spirits would be mixed together and sold at a lower priced
mixed beverage of questionable integrity.

Yet another unappetizing origin tells of a cock ale, a mash of ale mixed with whatever
was available to be fed to fighting cocks.

Cocktail may have derived from the French term for egg cup, coquetel. One story
that brought this reference to America speaks of Antoine Amedie Peychaud of New

Orleans who mixed his Peychaud bitters into a stomach remedy served in a coquetel.
Not all of Peychaud’s customers could pronounce the word and it became known as
Cocktail. This story doesn’t add up because of conflicting dates.

The word Cocktail may be a distant derivation of the name for the Aztec goddess,
Xochitl. Xochitl was also the name of a Mexican princess who served drinks to
American soldiers.

It was an 18th and 19th century custom to dock draft horses’ tales. This caused the
tales to stick up like a cocks tail. As the story goes, a reader’s letter to the balance
explains that when drunk these Cocktails made you cock your tail up in the same

Another horse tail supposes the influence of breeders term for a mix breed horse, or
cock-tails. Both racing and drinking were popular among the majority of Americans
at the time and it’s possible the term transferred from mixed breeds to mixed drinks.

There’s a quirky story of an American tavern keeper who stored alcohol in a ceramic,
rooster-shaped container. When patrons wanted another round they tapped the
rooster’s tail.

In George Bishop’s The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of Man in His Cups (1965) he
says, “The word itself stems from the English cock-tail which, in the middle 1800’s,
referred to a woman of easy virtue who was desirable but impure…and applied to the
newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter,
including ice.”

Let’s just be grateful they are here!

Please drink sensibly.

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