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The Origins and History of the Cocktail

Origins and History of cocktails

The Origins and History of the Cocktail is as mysterious the construction of the pyramids. Being the age of communication, there is a huge amount of information available. With every article you read and every theory presented, the further down the rabbit hole, you fall just like Alice.

How much is too much?

The major problem with having so much information is its near impossible to tell who has the correct origin and history. What proof they have, if they have any. Or is it just another entertaining story? So far that’s all they have been entertaining stories. 

Then you come across an article with the proof that is compelling. You think the author has it correct. Then the author of this compelling info shows that it maybe, probably be correct but might not be.

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole to Understanding the Origins and History of the Cocktail

Two beverages mixed with one of them containing alcohol is how the Cambridge online dictionary defined a Mixed Drink.

Chemical analysis of ancient organics absorbed and preserved in pottery discovered in A Neolithic village in Northan China have revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit was being produced as early as 9,000 years ago. 

That is the same time that barley beer and grape wine were being made in the Middle East.

A mixed drink has been around for a long time. Is the cocktail a mixed drink? Yes, I think so but it has its own set of rules and ingredients it has to stick too.

Tonics, Elixirs and Proprietary Medicine in the Origins and History of Cocktails

Elixir from the history and origins of cocktail s

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first published use of the term cocktail originating in the U.S.A. published by The Farmer’s Cabinet (April 28, 1803). The article is satirizing the fast young men of its day. 

“Drank a glass of cocktail… excellent for the head… Call’d at the Doctor’s found Burnham… he looked wise… drank another glass of a cocktail.” – The Farmers Cabinet 1803

The quote is an extract from one of their diaries of the fast young men. A very clear reference for a hangover tonic or remedy. This was the era of proprietary or quack medicine. Many people used these tonics; distrust of the medical industry was rife.

Proprietary medicines began in England. Manufactured under grants or patents of royal favor. These medicines arrived in America with the first settlers in the 18th century.

A Stimulating Liquor

Harry Croswell was the editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository (Hudson, New York) and on May 13, 1806, he answered the question; What is A Cocktail? For one of his readers. Croswell’s definition is the beginning of the Cocktail as we know it. Harry Croswell was the editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository,1806.

‘a cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.’

History and Origins of Cocktails

The amount of conjecture surrounding the history and origins of a cocktail is a common theme. Classic cocktails like the Martini have many stories surrounding their origins and names. As do the origins and history of cocktails. Some stories are funny while others are distasteful.

Story A

Docking the tail of a non-thoroughbred horses was common practice in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The term for such a horse was a cocktail’d horse. In time, they shortened the term to be cocktails.

As an insult, they referred the word cocktail to a vulgar, ill-bred person who rose above his station. They said that a cocktail is an acceptable alcoholic drink, but it watered down, not ‘thoroughbred’, a drink raised above its station.

Story B

The Bartender, A British publication, ran a story in 1936 about English sailors from decades past. They were being served mixed drinks in Mexico. The drinks stirred with a cola de Gallo, a long root similar in shape to a bird’s tail (a Cock’sTail).

Story C

This story refers to Cock-tailings which was a term used to describe the mixture created when tavern owners would combine the dregs or tailings of the barrels of ale that were nearly empty. They then sold the contents at a discount price. Using the term cock-tailings they referred the spigot or tap of a barrel to as a cock.

Story D

This story about the term Cocktail may have derived from the French term for an egg cup, a coquetel.

Antoine Amedee Peychaud Peych of Peychaud bitters fame would mix the Bitters as a stomach tonic. Antoine would then serve the drink of bitters in a coquetel. Not all of Peychaud’s customers could pronounce the word properly and it ended up being called Cocktail.

The Truth Maybe…

David Wodrich is a Spirits Historian who has spent the last 15 years researching the origins and history of cocktails. His research is compelling.

In Francis Grose’s 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue he defines what ‘to fit or Fagin’ is as putting “ginger up a horse’s fundament, to make him lively and carry his tail well.” A horse dealer would do this before exhibiting the horse for sale. A raised or cocked-up tail being a sign of a spirited horse. Grose added that feaging is “used figuratively to encourage and raise someone’s spirits up.

Origins and History of Cocktails are English?

Feaguing or to “cock-tail” association again proven with a political satire printed in 1790 in a provincial English newspaper. The writer claims that a certain clergyman has been guilty of using all the ginger and pepper in the neighborhood. Using it to make the asses of those that voted for Sir Gerard Vanneck cock their tails.

The English used ginger or sometimes hot pepper added to a drink to pep themselves up and called it a cocktail.

By 1806, when Croswell answered the question of what a cocktail was, the Americans had replaced the ginger or the pepper for bitters.

The name Cocktail seems to not be an American term but an English term. For me, this is the origin of the name cocktail.

English named now English invented? Origins and History of the cocktail sorted

300 years ago, Richard Stoughton sold from his apothecary shop south of London Bridge on Borough High Street an “Elixir Magnum Stomachicum”. “Stoughton’s Bitters,” were the same concentrated extract of roots, barks, peels that bars use today.

London newspapers of the 1690s and early 1700s have many advertisements the Stoughton brand “Elixir Magnum stomachicum”.

The ads recommend taking the elixir in brandy or wine as a hangover cure. Brandy of that day was sweeter. This is just nearly the definition of the cocktail and makes Dr. Stoughton the inventor of the cocktail.

The Father of Modern Cocktails

In 1862, Jerry Thomas published the first-ever bartender’s guide How to mix Drink or The Bon Vivant’s Companion.

Father of modern cocktails in the origins and history of cocktails
The Professor at work

Within the book, Thomas defined a Cocktail. He defined it by the ingredients alone. Spirits, sugar, water, and bitters are what he wrote. These simple ingredients began the modern cocktail. The Old Fashioned classical cocktail uses those very ingredients.

Jerry Thomas is the father of modern cocktails. He was the first to write a bar tending method and the first to document the precise practices for stunning cocktails.

The book also introduced two of the biggest classic cocktail recipes; the Tom Collins and the Martini. The guide is still in print today.

Thomas displayed creativity and showmanship while preparing drinks and established the image of the bartender as a creative professional. They nicknamed “Professor” Jerry Thomas. His signature was the drink the Blue Blazer. Whist making the drink you light whiskey on fire. Then you pass the liquid back and forth between two mixing glasses. This creates a theatrical arc of flame.

Cocktail History Throughout the Prohibition Era

Once, during Prohibition, I had to live for days on nothing but food and water.

– W. C. Fields

The fight on liquor was as old as the constitution in America itself. It began early in the 19th century but looked on as “another crank notion.” The Crank notion gathered strength as church doctors, and anti-liquor societies, including the Anti-saloon League, got behind it.

Washington, Jan. 16, 1919

Prohibition became part of the basic law of the United States. The ratification of the federal amendment made the eighteenth amendment to the federal constitution.

Prohibition in the origins and history of cocktails

After one year from the ratification of this article, the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within the United States became prohibited. 

The Roaring Twenties

The strict law didn’t stop the cocktail industry from flourishing. The loop-holes of the law identified and exploited in various ways, some did so completely legally and others had to get creative.

People took advantage of loopholes in the law and continued to drink legally. The amendment taking a year to come into effect people had time to stock up on alcohol. People gained enough alcohol to see them through the whole prohibition.

Doctors still legally prescribed whiskey, distilled spirits, and wine during the era. The manufacture and distribution of wine for Sacramental or religious purposes was still legal. Rabbis and Priest numbers increased in the same period.

Speakeasies and Cocktails begin Today’s Bar Culture 

Dancing in speakeasies was a job, and none of us knew for sure who were gangsters. No one told us, so how could we know?

– Ruby Keeler

The rise of speakeasies is a key legacy of Prohibition and has shaped the bar scene as we know it today.

Speakeasies were illegal, therefore getting their name from their secretive and hidden nature. In New York, there were over 100, 000 speakeasies. Some original speakeasies are still around today, like 21 Club in Manhattan.

The only way that speakeasies could exist was through illegal activities to stock their bars. One way that speakeasies would do this was through the huge network of organized crime.

Prohibition changed the Cocktail

The alcohol itself either came from illegal smuggling or illegal brewing. Homemade wine and brewing gin were popular alcohols to manufacture. They brewed bathtub Gin in a bathtub using cheap grain alcohol.

Bathtub gin tasted foul as did the rest of the illegally brewed alcohols because of the inferior products in its manufacture. This gave bartenders a freehand to be creative to cover the taste.

The Bee’s Knees cocktail is a great example of flavor usage to hide the taste of the inferior alcohols. The usage of strong flavors like honey, lemon juice, and orange juice to mask the gin. Some other classic cocktails were born of the Prohibition Era, like The Mary Pickford, French 75 and the Sidecar.

Modern Renaissance Cocktail Revival

A modern definition of a cocktail by the Oxford Dictionary is an alcoholic drink comprising a spirit or spirits mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit juice or cream. This reflects the evolution of cocktails to today’s modern interpretations of the original recipes.

Cocktails became less popular in the late 1960s and 1970s until a resurgence in the 1980s with vodka often substituting the original gin in drinks such as the martini.

Traditional cocktails began to make a comeback in the 2000s. As a result, in the mid-2000s, there was a renaissance of cocktail culture in a style typically referred to as mixology that draws on traditional cocktails for inspiration while it uses novel ingredients and often complex flavors.

Molecular Mixology

With the huge popularity of molecular gastronomy molecular mixology has risen. Molecular mixology creates cocktails using the equipment and techniques of molecular gastronomy.

The New age of cocktails in the origin and History Of cocktails

These methods allow creating greater intensities and varieties of flavor with unusual flavor combinations. Likewise, using gels, powders, foams, atomized sprays enable bartenders to present the cocktail in different ways. These methods allow creating greater intensities and varieties of flavor with unusual flavor combinations. Likewise, using gels, powders, foams, atomized sprays enable bartenders to present the cocktail in different ways.

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