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The Surprising (True) Origin of the Word Cocktail

You’ll either be amazed or grossed out.

Bartender with green apron pours cocktail for restaurant patrons.
Bartender with green apron pours cocktail for restaurant patrons.

Cocktail. The word alone can solicit a giggle. But where does this funny word originate from, and what does it have to do with a drink? If you have ever wondered about the origin of the word cocktail, we have the answer, and it has nothing to do with a rooster.  

Cocktail historian David Wondrich suggests the term originates from cocked (perky) horsetails. Horse traders would give their old horses a “spicy suppository” of pepper and ginger to give them vigor, which props their tails up. And because pepper and ginger were typical ingredients in alcoholic drinks, and its consumers get vigor and perky themselves, the term naturally slid into our lexicon.

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But there’s a lot more to it than that. So let’s take an in-depth look at the origin of the word cocktail.

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Cocktails thought the ages.

Earliest Citations of the Cocktail 

It stands to reason that the best way to find the origin of the word cocktail is to find it’s first recorded citation.

The Betty Flanagan Citation (1821)

One of the earliest recorded instances of the word cocktail comes from a James Fenimore Cooper novel initially published in 1821, “The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground.” Set in Westchester County, New York. In the book, a fictional tavern-keeper named Betty Flanagan is described as 

“the inventor of that beverage which is so well known at the present hour, to all the patriots who make a winter’s march between New York City and Albany, and which is distinguished by the name of “cock-tail.” 

But there is an even older citation of the word cocktail. 

Balance and Columbian Repository Citation (1806)

One of the earliest references of the word cocktail appeared on May 13, 1806, in Balance and Columbian Repository, a federalist newspaper in Hudson, New York. The editor printed an answer to the question, “What is a cocktail?” In which he replied 

“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, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.” 

Up until a few years ago, this was the oldest citation of the word cocktail. But in 2010. An even older citation was discovered.

The London Telegraph (1789)

In 2010, historians Jared Brown and Anastasia Miller made a landmark discovery when they found a citation from 1789 for “cocktail”, in the satirical newspaper The London Telegraph. The article references a large party where a list of drinks were named, including “L’huile de Venus,” “parfait amour,” and a “cock-tail”. 

Early citations of the word alone won’t provide us with an answer. For that, we need to consider the many theories surrounding the origin of the word cocktail. 

The Many Theories behind the Origin of the Word Cocktail 

If you’ve done any research on the topic, you’ll find that there is no shortage of origin theories.

Xochitl the Aztec Princess

One of which claims that the word cocktail was invented in Mexico and named after the Aztec princess “Xochitl” meaning “flower” in Nahuatl, the Aztecs’ language. Don’t buy it? Yea, Me neither.

English Sailors in Mexico

A story originally published in 1956 suggests that the term comes from English sailors in Mexico who were served drinks infused with a fine slender root called “Cola de Gallo,” which translates to cocktail. The word was popularized by those sailors in England, thee spread around and was eventually attributed to any mixed drink. This theory is also a little on the weaker side for my taste.

Cola de Gallo palm origins of the word cocktail.
A Cola de Gallo palm.

Peychaud’s Coquetier

This is one of the most common explanations for the origin of the word cocktail. The theory suggests that the origins of the word cocktail are a result of the mispronunciation of the French word for eggcup, “coquetier” (pronounced in English as cocktay).

The story goes that a French apothecary (a person who prepared and sold medicines and drugs) by the name of Antoine Amédée Peychaud ( inventor of Peychaud bitters) would serve his guests a mixed brandy drink in a french eggcup at his shop in New Orleans. The drink was named coquetier (the french word for eggcup), and predictably shortened by his guests to “cocktay.” 

And considering most of his patrons didn’t speak French, it’s not hard to imagine how they might have mispronounced the concoction and defaulted to “cocktail.” 

Antique shop in New Orleans origin of the word cocktail.
The supposed location in New Orleans where the word “cocktail” was coined.

However, according to the Sazerac company, the (producers of Peychaud bitters) the apothecary didn’t open until 1838, Which means that this famous origin story, while satisfactory, is busted.

Tavern Keepers & Mixing dregs 

One of the more plausible theories suggests the word comes from a technique colonial tavern keepers used to preserve alcohol. Tavern Keepers stored their spirits in large barrels. When the barrels were near empty, tavern owners combined the dregs (tailings) into one barrel and sold it at a discount.

This mix would be poured from a spigot, which was also referred to as a cock. So a patron looking for a cheap alcoholic drink would ask for “cock tailings.” Not too hard to see how this would eventually be shortened to cocktail. This is definitely one of the more plausible theories for the origin of the word cocktail.

wooden barrels
Wooden barrels used for storing alcohol.

Purebred Horses

There’s also a theory that the term came from racehorses. The term cock-tailed was initially used to describe a horse with a short tail, and “cock-tailed” became a term used for racehorses with mixed lineage (not purebreds). It is easy to see how the term may have been applied to blended or mixed alcoholic drinks rather than pure spirits.

The Spicy Suppository

Out of all these theories, the one that is probably the most likely is the spicy suppository theory by alcohol expert David Wondrich. Wondrich has done extensive research on the topic and believes he has the definitive answer to the origin of the word cocktail. And it’s a little gross.

In the racehorse world, a raised, perky tail (often referred to as cocked) is a sign of vitality and energy. 

Supposedly, crafty (and shady) horse traders in the 18th century would stick a bit of pepper or ginger up the horses’ backside” to make them look and act more youthful and energetic. And because pepper and ginger were typical ingredients in alcoholic drinks, it’s easy to see how the term cocktail was used to invigorate tavern patrons just as the horse traders did with those spicy suppositories. Eventually, the plain old ginger and pepper components of a cocktail were replaced with bitters (distilled roots, citrus peels, bark, and other aromatic botanical ingredients). 

source
This horse is more than getting ready to have its tail cocked.

Wondrich traces the practice of adding bitters to a Dr. Richard Stoughton, who created and sold a blend of citrus peels, distilled roots, and bark as a tonic, and even as a hangover cure at his shop in London. The word eventually came to represent the many variations of boozy concoctions we enjoy today.

If you’re looking for another great resource to help you understand the theories behind the origin of the word cocktail, check out this video by The Humble Bartender as he breaks down some of the same stuff I just mentioned, in video format.

Conclusion

The word cocktail is one of the most elusive words in the bartending and mixology lexicon, and the truth is we may never know the true origin of the word cocktail. But truth be told, I prefer the multitude of entertaining theories over one single explanation. Not knowing keeps us wondering and adds to the mystique of the cocktail. And it makes for a fun dinner conversation.

So next time someone makes a joke about the word cocktail, you’ll be armed with some stories that are sure to entertain. 

So, did you have a theory we missed? Let us know your theory in the comments below. Click here to check out all of our blog posts. Thanks for reading, and remember to stay safe and stay hammered.

The Surprising (True) Origin of the Word Cocktail.
The Surprising (True) Origin of the Word Cocktail.

Written by Yerain Abreu

As a native New Yorker, Yerain is no stranger to fine food and cocktails. He writes with a deep appreciation and passion for the art of mixology. When he’s not writing or practicing flair bartending techniques, you can find him practicing his many hobbies including, cycling, video production, and photography.

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