Who among us can honestly say they do not enjoy cocktails? The colors are vibrant, the presentation pretty awesome, and the taste simply blows your mind. Why be content with one type of alcohol when you can mix several in an innovative combination, dress it up with a cute little paper umbrella or glitter stick, and serve it with aplomb?
However, even the most avid cocktail enthusiast cannot really claim to know much about the origin of this wonderful drink. Where does it come from? What is its history? Where does it get its peculiar name? It is these questions we attempt to answer in this article.
Merriam Webster defines cocktail as “an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients.” This definition is extremely broad in nature, allowing virtually any mixed drink to fall within its scope. However, the first definition for cocktails ever to be published was in The Balance and Columbian Repository of 1806 and it read as follows – “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” This is considered, by purists, to be a more appropriate definition of the “ideal cocktail.”
This same point is affirmed in cocktail maestro Jerry Thomas’ book “Bar-Tender’s Guide or How To Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion”, which is the first known published guide for bartenders on…well, the art of making cocktails. In this guide, Jerry Thomas lays out a clear distinction between cocktails and other mixed drinks by mentioning that the former contains bitters. Today, although bitters continue to be used to make a few cocktails, they are not as popular as they were in the old days.
Tracing the definition of cocktail is easier that trying to locate the origin of this drink. Historical references are pretty fragmented on this particular detail. However, from what little information there is, it is believed that 19th century California was the birthplace of the first few cocktails, the most popular one from that era being the martini.
The recipe for this drink can be found in Jerry Thomas’ guidebook, at which time it was called the Martinez. Legend goes that Thomas made this drink for a gold miner who was on his way to the town of Martinez that lay about 40 miles to the east. The recipe included sweet vermouth, Old Tom gin, a dash of bitters and maraschino, two dashes of gum syrup, and a slice of lemon. Obviously, the modern day martini, consisting of dry white vermouth and gin, garnished with an olive, is very different from its ancestor.
1920 to 1933 was the period of Prohibition in the US, where manufacturing, transporting, selling, importing, or exporting intoxicating liquors was not allowed. This, however, did not discourage the general public from procuring alcoholic drinks and it was usually through speakeasies and private parties. Bootlegging and moonshine were rampant in this period, and cocktails became popular, partly because it was the best way to cover up the bad taste of the illegally smuggled alcohol. One of the most popular cocktails from the Prohibition period is the Long Island Iced Tea which was disguised to look like a tall, innocent glass of homemade iced tea.
If tracing the history of cocktails is difficult, hunting for the origin of the word itself is an uphill task. There are as many stories behind it as there are mixed drinks all over the world. Some are simple enough to be believable while others are so preposterous it’s difficult to take them with even a pinch of salt.
For instance, the most popular story is that the name comes from the rooster’s tail that was used as a garnish for the drinks. It has to be mentioned here that there are no formal references of this in any document. Yet another theory is that the colors of the mixed ingredients of the drink resembled that of the cock’s tail, hence giving rise to the name. In Mexico, drinks were stirred with a root known as Cola de Gallo, which translates to “Cock’s tail” because it is shaped like a bird’s tail.
As you can see, all these stories are extremely fascinating, even if there is some doubt regarding their historical accuracy. However, that does not take away from the fact that they make for an interesting topic of conversation while you are enjoying your favorite mixed drink, with or without bitters!
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