The Origin of the Cocktail

By on January 4, 2018

Story by Lucky G.

Wow – what a Holiday Season! If yours was anything like mine, then you’re probably still enjoying the after effects of all the festivities. And just so you know, even though it might sound pretty gnarly, Coke and orange juice is a great morning-after tonic – especially when there’s no booze to be had. Anyway, I definitely want to thank everyone who enjoyed last month’s Cocktail Corner. Apparently, a lot of people really liked the cocktails that Santa and his helpers featured. So a hat’s off to Ritchie, Peter, Haley, John, and, of course, Brooke. From all of us at Santa’s workshop – we thank you.

So my buddy and I are visiting with Brooke, and talking about cocktails, when all of a sudden, this guy sitting a couple of seats over, makes a joke about guys having drinks and gals having cock-tails. Yeah, we groaned too. But once the guy moved on, we actually got into a discussion about where the word ‘cocktail’ came from. It’s a word we all use, but no one really seems to know how it became a part of our everyday speech. So after about 20 minutes, Brooke blurts out, “Hey, why don’t you write about that!” And before I could say anything, my buddy agrees, saying that he thinks it’s a good idea too. So under the circumstances, how could I say “no” – especially to Brooke?

So this month’s Cocktail Corner is going to be all about how the word ‘cocktail’ got to be a part of our language. Now, I was already familiar with some of the stories about where this word came from, but I didn’t know how accurate they were, because I heard them second-hand from old school bartenders I used to work with years ago. But after doing some research into these stories, I have to say that I was totally surprised that there is no one source for the word ‘cocktail’. But there are a lot of stories – legends – about how this word came about. So I read through everything I found, and came up with the stories that seemed to make the most sense. And they’re pretty interesting …

The Horse … During the mid-1700’s, there was a practice of bobbing a horse’s tail to make it look flamboyant, as well as training the horse to strut around in a pompous manner. This combination produced what was called a “cocktailed horse.” While this has nothing to do with an alcoholic drink, it had everything to do with describing someone who was reckless in his drinking, which is where they say the word ‘cocktail’ came from – mixed drinks during this time had a high alcoholic content, so they had the ability to “cock the tail” of anyone who was careless and got drunk too quickly.

The Colonel … During the War for American Independence, a certain Colonel Carter owned and operated an inn called the Cock and Bottle, in Culpepper Court House, Va. Cock was the name for the wooden handle on a beer keg, and Bottle represented ale, so this meant he sold both. When the beer was near the end of the keg, it started to get a “muddy” taste (be thankful for refrigeration), that was called dregs, or tails, so drinking from the bottom of the barrel meant that someone was having a “cock tail.” But as likely as that sounds, this is not where ‘cocktail’ comes from.

According to the legend, Colonel Carter was one time served a cock tail from one of his own barrels. Apparently, he was so disgusted by the taste, that he threw it to the ground and supposedly yelled out, “Hereafter, I will only drink cock tails of my own brewing!” He promptly came up with a drink made of brandy, lemon, water, sugar, and bitters. Now, how the Colonel went from drinking lousy beer to jumping right into an alcohol drink is totally missing from the record. But hey, why let a few details get in the way of a good legend? Personally, I think he just needed to wash the taste of bad beer out of his mouth. In any event, Colonel Carter supposedly created this first cocktail in a moment of angered inspiration, and in the process, attached the name to it as well.

The Rooster … During the late 1700’s, there supposedly was an owner of an American bar (both are unknown) that had a large ceramic container shaped like a rooster. Apparently, this owner would pour all the leftover drinks that his customers didn’t finish into the ceramic rooster. And since the bar was near a seaport, the owner had access to all the liquors of the day, so the container would be filled with a combination of gin, rum, and brandy. Now as disgusting as it might sound, this owner would sell drinks from the ceramic rooster to people who didn’t have a lot of money. And since the drinks were poured from a tap at the tail, this is how they say we got the word ‘cocktail’ – drinking a mix of different spirits from a cock’s tail.

The Innkeeper … In 1779, a widow named Betsy Flanagan opened an inn just north of New York City. Because her husband was killed in the War of American Independence, she didn’t care much for the British, so she wasn’t exactly too fond of her neighbor who happened to be an English chicken farmer. Since a lot of American and French military officers visited the inn, she promised that she would one day serve them a meal of roast chicken – using her neighbor’s chickens. But the officers used to always tease her, because they never believed that she would follow through on her boast.

As the story goes, there was a group of officers that gathered at the inn one night, when Betsy surprised them with a lavish roast chicken dinner – made with her neighbors’ chickens. Afterward, they all moved to the bar where Betsy served drinks made of rum, water, sugar, and bitters. But the real surprise was that she served the drinks garnished with a tail feather from the chickens. The group got such a kick out of this that a French officer supposedly yelled out, “Vive le coq tail!” and the officers spent the rest of the night drinking while constantly calling out for more “cock tails!” So this legendary incident of patriotic fun is how they say we got the ‘cocktail’ – both word and drink.

And there you have it – four pretty cool stories about how we supposedly got the word ’cocktail’. Now I know that a couple of the stories seem a little far-fetched, but hey, you know what they say – truth is stranger than friction. Because the history of alcohol and cocktails has so few written records, and the records that do exist are so culturally conflicting and sketchy, it’s really difficult to know the definitive truth. But I don’t think that would be much fun, either, because it would take all the fun out of the stories. After all, how many of you are going to argue over which ‘cocktail’ story makes the most sense? Anyway, we’ll probably never know for sure where we got the word ‘cocktail’, but at least we can enjoy one while discussing the possibilities. And as far as truth or friction is concerned, Brooke is about to end her shift, so … CHEERS!

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