A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "cocktail"?

April 17, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Could you tell me where the word "cocktail" derived from in the form of a mixed drink?

Well, first I need to take a stab at clearing up the dismaying confusion between plebeian "mixed drinks" and true cocktails. While it's not uncommon nowadays for people to call any drink with alcohol in it a "cocktail," much the way just about any drink served in a martini glass is often dubbed a "martini" (even if it never got within three feet of gin, vodka or vermouth), professional bartenders tend to be chary about what they honor with the "cocktail" label. A cocktail is generally considered to be a short (3-4oz.) drink consisting of alcohol and juice or mixers. This definition excludes long drinks like Greyhounds and Screwdrivers, all "shots" and alcoholic milkshakes like the Mudslide from the esteem properly belonging to the "cocktail" label.

Anyway, back to your question. There are as many proposed origins for the word as there are girlie-drinks in a fern bar. The first recorded use of "cocktail" was in 1806, and it seems fairly accepted that it is of American origin. Here's a rundown of some of the more likely etymologies.

Supposedly, bartenders used to drain the dregs off all the barrels and mix them together, serving the resultant muddle at a reduced price. "Cock" was another name for spigot, and "tailings" is the last bit of alcohol, so this drink was called "cock-tailings," quickly shortened to "cocktail." A similar theory claims that leftover liquors from drinks served were dumped into a ceramic container shaped like a rooster, and you could get cheap drinks from a tap set in the tail of the rooster; hence these drinks were called "cock's tail."

A popular story with mixologists is that in New Orleans, an apothecary named Peychaud (of bitters fame) occasionally served his guests a mix of brandy, sugar, water and bitters in an egg-cup. The drink eventually acquired the name of the egg-cup--"cocquetier" in French--which his guests shortened to "cocktay" and then "cocktail." The French word "Coquetel" may also have had something to do with "cocktail"; it was the name of a mixed drink from Bordeaux served to French officers during the American Revolution.

Some claim that doctors once would treat throat problems with a pleasant-tasting medicine applied to the tip of a feather from a cock's tail; then when people started to drink or gargle the medicine outright, the name "cock's tail" was still used.

One story alleges that a doctor in ancient Rome made a wine-based mixed drink that he called "cockwine" that was our modern cocktail's predecessor. Supposedly, Emperor Lucius Aurelius (180-192 A.D.) was quite fond of it.

The simplest theory I found (though no more likely to be true for all that) is that it referred to the fact that a potent drink will "cock your tail," i.e., get your spirits up.

Another possibility incorporates the fact that "cock-tail" was once a term for a non-thoroughbred horse.  Their tails were bobbed, or "cocked" to distinguish them from their purebred brethren. It also meant a man who wished to appear to be a gentleman but lacked the breeding to do so. Therefore, some assumed that either these faux-gentlemen's drinks of choice over time acquired the same name, or a clever chap noted that a non-thoroughbred horse is a mix of breeds and "cocktail" is a mix of spirits and was inspired to give the drinks that moniker.

My favorite theory is that "cocktail" was derived from the 16th century drink "cock-ale," which had as an ingredient--I kid you not--a dead rooster. A recipe from the 1500s:

Take 10 gallons of ale and a large cock, the older the better; parboil the cock, flay him, and stamp him in a stone mortar until his bones are broken (you must gut him when you flaw him). Then, put the cock into two quarts of sack, and put to it five pounds of raisins of the sun-stoned; some blades of mace, and a few cloves. Put all these into a canvas bag, and a little before you find the ale has been working, put the bag and ale together in vessel. In a week or nine days bottle it up, fill the bottle just above the neck and give it the same time to ripen as other ale.

Lest you think that was just an example of The Funny Stuff People Did A Long Time Ago, people actually still make this stuff. Boston Beer Co. recently whipped up some cock-ale from a recipe from Compleat Housewife (a British cookbook from 1736), out of 12 gallons of beer, "one large and elderly cockerel," raisins, mace and cloves. According to Koch, the founder of Boston Beer Co., the beer was a great success. "People loved the idea (after they got over a little shock) and were surprised at how tasty it was," he claimed. I'm sure. Given the coffee-, maple-, and hazelnut-flavored beers that crowd our shelves, can poultry-flavored beer be far behind?

In keeping with the chicken motif, our next possibility mentions a "cock-ale" that was a combination of bread and alcohol fed to fighting cocks. The owners would partake of the mixture themselves as a victory celebration. Another cockfighting-related story claimed it came from a ritualistic toast of the victor in a cockfight, in which into the drink would be inserted a number of feathers corresponding to the number of feathers left in the victorious cock's tail. Perhaps it was an au natural predecessor to our modern-day pink plastic flamingo swizzle sticks.

There are also quite a few "legendary" type stories, but I am inclined to give these less weight than other explanations. One of these is that the name was of Mexican origin, and was introduced to the United States by soldiers returning from the Mexican War. Supposedly, an Aztec noble sent his emperor his daughter, Xochitl, bearing a drink. The emperor liked the drink and the daughter, and gave the drink her name. Unfortunately for this story, the word "cocktail" had been in use for approximately 40 years before the Mexican War, although a similar theory claiming Mexican origin at least gets the date right, attributing "cocktail" to a diplomatic young Aztec woman named Coctel who in the early 1800s avoided a social faux pas by chugging a drink. (In my experience I've found drinking makes one far more likely to commit a faux pas, but anyhow.)

Many of the other legendary stories seem to be a little too quick to name a local bar, family or legendary hero as the originator to have much credence for me. From the number that are claimed to have happened around the time of the Revolutionary War (often spotlighting American heroes) you'd think nobody could walk past a bar during that time period without sticking a feather in a drink and calling it, not macaroni, but "cock's tail."

In the end, the choice of which etymology to accept as correct one seems to be a matter of taste, much like one's choice of cocktail. As for me, all this typing has made me thirsty, so I think I'll toast this fine word and finer concoction with a well-shaken Sidecar.

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