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Why do we call it a "cocktail"?

A brief and intoxicating history of the cocktail

A cocktail is an alcoholic drink that combines one or more spirits with other ingredients, such as bitters, juices, syrups, or tonic water. Depending on the ingredients, the flavor profile of a cocktail can be sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, or even salty. There is a mind-boggling array of ingredient combinations and names, and the libations can be served over ice, at room temperature, or on fire. Concocting one can be as simple as blending gin and tonic water over ice and adding a wedge of lime, or it can be a splashier, more involved affair, such as the Long Island iced tea.

The creation of the cocktail was inspired by punches that combined spirits, fruit juices, and spices in large bowls. Historians suspect these punches originated in the early 17th century with British sailors, who would use local ingredients from India or Indonesia to create their own alcoholic beverages. While beer would spoil during a long voyage, the addition of sugar and citrus to spirits would help preserve the punch.

In a world once dominated by beer and wine, these diverse and flavorful punches were a novelty, and the trend took off. Mixed drinks began as a way to serve a crowd of sailors or aristocrats, and evolved into individual concoctions that played with different combinations of ingredients. Today, the cocktail’s nearly infinite varieties make it the chameleon of alcoholic beverages, limited only by imagination and the ingredients on hand. The art and science of drink-making continues to be driven by innovative mixologists who create new recipes and put their personal stamp on traditional drinks that date back centuries.

What makes a cocktail a cocktail?

The word “cocktail” was first used to describe a mixed drink in 1803. It appeared in a U.S. newspaper called The Farmer’s Cabinet, though the article didn’t include a definition of what constituted such a drink. The earliest definition of “cock tail” appeared in the May 13, 1806 issue of The Balance and Columbian Repository, which offered this description: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” The term gradually came to reference any kind of alcoholic mixed drink, and sometimes the word “cocktail” included a modifier — for example, “gin cocktail” — to specify a drink’s primary ingredient. That said, the mixing of ingredients traditionally associated with a cocktail predates the use of the word. In the 18th century, drinks combining a spirit, sweetener, water, and bitters were known to be imbibed, and bitters were often sipped for medicinal purposes.

Let’s talk about that name, though…

The origin of the word “cocktail” is as muddled as a mojito. One possible explanation links the word for a mixed drink to a British reference about “cock-tailed” horses — that is, a horse whose tail has been docked or clipped to signify it was of mixed breed. Other theories include a mispronunciation of the French word for egg cup, “coquetier,” which was used as a drinking vessel by the New Orleans apothecary who created the famous Peychaud’s bitters. Some say the name comes from mixing the dregs of spirit barrels, known as “tailings,” and selling them at a low price. Yet another theory posits the name came from a horse breeder’s practice of inserting spices, specifically ginger, into the rear end of a horse in order to make the animal appear more energetic. However it came about, a cocktail by any other name would still taste delicious.

What’s so old fashioned about an old fashioned?

The old fashioned whiskey cocktail, usually referred to as just an old fashioned, is considered by many mixology experts to be the original cocktail. In fact, the 1806 definition of a “cock tail” is the basic recipe for an old fashioned, minus the orange peel, which came later. In the late 18th century, when imported wine was expensive in the U.S., domestic rye whiskey became the drink of choice, and its harsh taste could be mellowed with the addition of water, sugar, and bitters. The simple recipe was designed to make low-quality whiskey tastier. Of course, this predecessor of the modern cocktail didn’t get its name until decades after its creation. As new versions of the whiskey cocktail (and other mixed drinks) became popular, it’s likely that bartenders and enthusiasts of the original version would make the distinction by referring to the “old-fashioned” recipe.

The Golden Age of cocktails

Starting around the middle of the 19th century, Americans fell in love with cocktails. During this “golden age” — which lasted until Prohibition began in 1920 — a number of mixology guides were published, most of them written by well-known bartenders who worked in popular clubs and hotels. These celebrity bartenders had fans and rivals and turned mixology into a form of entertainment. “Professor” Jerry Thomas, as he was known, is considered the “father of American mixology” and was the first mixologist to take an oral tradition and put it in writing. His book, How to Mix Drinks: Or, the Bon-Vivant’s Companion, was first published in 1862 andincluded directions for mixing over 600 drinks, many of them acquired on Thomas’ travels through Europe and America. The result was a compilation of traditional and obscure cocktails, including the Philadelphia fish-house punch, Baltimore eggnog,  Italian lemonade, as well as Thomas’ own signature creations, such as his flaming Scotch cocktail, the blue blazer.

Shaken, not stirred

Prohibition may have ended the golden age of cocktails, but the popularity of mixed drinks has shown staying power. Cocktails remained popular in various forms ever since, from the speakeasies and cocktail parties of the Prohibition era, to the tiki bars of the 1940s and '50s, to the three-martini lunches of the '60s. A decline occurred in the late '60s and '70s, followed by a resurgence beginning in the 1990s. Modern pop culture icons such as James Bond, Carrie Bradshaw, and Don Draper have helped immortalize their favorite drinks (a vodka martini, cosmopolitan, and old fashioned, respectively), and savvy restaurateurs have reinvented Prohibition-eraspeakeasies. On social media, celebrity mixologists and “cocktail influencers” introduce the next generation of cocktail enthusiasts to exciting new trends, such as extreme beverages that burn, cool, or tingle,contemporary twists on the classics, andinspired mocktails that bring all the flavor without any of the booze. Shaken or stirred, frosty or aflame, cocktail culture endures.

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