Cocktail History

The origin of the word cocktail is widely disputed. Most dictionaries simply say:

Origin: Unknown.

Helpful I know.

For those who refuse to accept this look no further: the first use in print when referring to a drink was in New York 1806 where the editor of the ‘Balance & Columbian Repository’ defined ‘cock tail’ as a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. 

Two centuries pass and over a dozen stories emerge to explain the origins of the term. Most involve cockerels or appealing young women with a name similar to cocktail (whatever that name may be?)


Here are some of the more believable explanations:


  •  Coquetier (pronounced cock-tyay I believe) is the French name for an egg-cup, in which a Frenchman in New Orleans is said to have served mixed drinks. In time they began to ask for his ‘Coquetiers’ which was Anglo-Bastardised to ‘Cocktails’


  • An old French recipe of mixed wines, called Coquetel, was perhaps carried to America by General Lafayette in 1777. ( a general in the American Revolutionary War and a leader of the Garde Nationale in the French Revolution)


  • Miss Betsy Flannagan of Virginia is believed to have served a handsome soldier a mixed drink containing all the colours of a cock’s tail, you guess the rest.


  • A centuries old expression ‘cocked tail’ describes a horse or person displaying high spirits. A beverage which raises spirits was named accordingly.


  • In 1769 the term cock-tailed appeared, a racing term used to describe a non-thoroughbred horse. The usual practise was to dock the tails of such animals, causing the tail to look like a cockerels’. According to the journals of the time a ‘cock-tailed’ horse was one of mixed blood. A short step to accept that cocktailed would so become acceptable to describe anything with mixed fluids.



To continue, Cocktails were a small group of recipes similar to the 1806 formula until the 1880s when it began to develop into a generic term for an ever widening class of mixed drinks.


The actual etymology of the word is most likely to have come from an expression. The last two remain the most plausible explanations, but with number 5 a favourite because it alone accounts for the use of ‘stimulating’ in the original definition.

Personally I prefer the Frenchman and his egg cups.

True entrepreneurial spirit (forgive the pun)



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