Origins of the Word Cocktail

Origins of the Word Cocktail

There is great controversy over the actual derivation of the term cocktail. I don’t think any one will ever agree on the actual origin, but there sure are some interesting stories.

Betsy, a barmaid in a tavern in Hall’s Corners, NY, served Betsy’s Bracers. During the Revolutionary War, American & French soldiers frequented it. American soldiers stole some male pheasants from the British & a wild party was had. While drinking they toasted to Betsy’s drink “Here’s to the divine liquor which is as delicious to the palate, as the cock’s tails are beautiful to the eye.” To which a French officer replied, “Vive le cocktail!”. There is reference to a Betsy Flanagan. Who knows which Betsy, was Betsy Flanagan. One story goes something along the lines of decorating the out side of a glass with a tail feather from a rooster. Some say that this is where Washington and his officers frequented. Washington wore feathers in his hat, and one of his officers toasted to “the cock’s tail”. (Well, you wouldn’t really want to drink “macaronis” today, would you?)

There is another tavern also In NY that claims it was the original. The tavern keeper used his witty stories, and daughter’s beauty to gain favour with good patrons. The daughter, Peggy mixed a powerful concoction which recipe was held secret. She was in love with a sailor. Upon his return with a promotion, and a prized fighting cock, named Lightning, he asked for her hand. In their honeymoon bed, Lightning crowed, and shook loose a tail feather, which she put in his concoction that she had made. She said, “Lightning names this drink! Drink this cocktail, sir, to your success with my father, and as a pledge to our future happiness!” This was a sign of good fortune & they used the sign of the tail feather on their tavern emblem for many years to come.

A drink called “cock’s ale” was served in early colonial times during cock fights. It was a mixture of ale into which a sack of a par-boiled chicken, raisins, mace and brown sugar was placed. This was left to ferment for about nine days.

And yet another colonial story is that the tap for pouring ale was referred to as a “cock”. Signs would show a cock and a bottle. When the bottom of the barrel was reached, it was called the “cock tail”. A Colonel Carter of Virginia was served a poor quality cock tail and proclaimed, “Hereafter, I will drink cocktails of my own brewing”.

Some time around 1800, King Axoloti VII of Mexico was meeting with an American General of the Southern States to discuss a peace treaty. The King asked the General if he would like a drink & a beautiful girl brought one cup, adorned in jewels. It was embarrassing for both, as one would have to drink first. Seeing this, the girl drank it. Her name was Coctel. The General promised to immortalize her name.

The Sazerac is also reported to be the first cocktail. Antoine Amedee Peychaud, born in France and creator of Peychaud Bitters was it’s inventor. Peychaud invented his bitters in Santo Domingo and brought the recipe to New Orleans with him. He opened a drugstore called Pharmacie Peychaud on Royal Street. Friends gathered frequently to sample his drinks served in a coquetier which is the French word for an egg cup. The mispronunciation of cocquetier resulted in the term cocktail.

Some say it originated in England. Horses of superb quality, but of mixed origins would have their tails docked to identify them. They were known as “cocktails”. A Dr. Johnson, familiar with the term, mixed his friend Boswell a drink of wine laced with gin. He told him, “to mix spirits to wine smacks of our alcoholic hyperbole. It would be a veritable cocktail of a drink.” Another English story points to the officers of the Second Regimen of the Royal Sussex Fusileers. Other regimens called the officers, who wore plumes in their caps, “the cocktails”.

In Mississippi, during the riverboat gambling days, men fought each other and the winner got to wear a red cock’s feather in his cap. He was then known as the “Cock of the Walk”. They also would drink every spirit in the boat’s lounge in a glass that resembled a breast of a cock, with a stirrer that resembled a tail feather.

Who knows, it is as elusive as some of the cocktails names. Everyone claims to originate them, but who really knows? I tend to think of it like the old saying, “There is no original thought.”

The true creation of a popular cocktail can be traced to the nineteenth century. One early written reference to the term “cocktail ” (as a drink based on spirits with other spirits and additives) can be found in an American magazine, The Balance, published in May 1806. It stated that a “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters… “

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