On May 13, 1806, the Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, answered a reader’s query as to the nature of a cocktail: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called a bittered sling.” The cocktail had been born, it had been defined, and yet it couldn’t have been very well known by the general populace, or the newspaper wouldn’t have considered it a fit topic for elucidation.
Where does the word cocktail come from? There are many answers to that question, and none is really satisfactory. One particular favorite story of mine, though, comes from The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of a Man in His Cups, by George Bishop: “The word itself stems from the English cock-tail which, in the middle 1800s, referred to a woman of easy virtue who was considered desirable but impure. The word was imported by expatriate Englishmen and applied derogatorily to the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice. The disappearance of the hyphen coincided with the general acceptance of the word and its re-exportation back to England in its present meaning.” Of course, this can’t be true since the word was applied to a drink before the middle 1800s, but it’s entertaining nonetheless, and the definition of “desirable but impure” fits cocktails to a tee.
A delightful story, published in 1936 in the Bartender, a British publication, details how English sailors of “many years ago” were served mixed drinks in a Mexican tavern. The drinks were stirred with “the fine, slender and smooth root of a plant which owing to its shape was called Cola de Gallo, which in English means ‘Cock’s tail.’” The story goes on to say that the sailors made the name popular in England, and from there the word made its way to America.