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The Invention of Cocktails (Plus Today's Top Tipples)

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Sex on the Beach is a cocktail made with vodka, peach schnapps, Chambord, orange juice, and cranberry juice.

Sex on the Beach is a cocktail made with vodka, peach schnapps, Chambord, orange juice, and cranberry juice.

The First Cocktail

Some mixed drinks have a definite provenance, usually the creation of a clever bartender. Others, such as the martini, have many claimants to their invention. Unsurprisingly, memories tend to get a little distorted where alcohol is concerned so determining when and how the first cocktail arrived on our planet is a matter of debate.

The Old Fashioned

Actor, foodie, and bon vivant Stanley Tucci traces America's cocktails to 1806; that's when first mention of the drink was made in a conservative newspaper called The Balance and Columbian Repository. It's called the Old Fashioned although it didn't acquire that name for some years.

The generally agreed upon recipe is two ounces of liquor, three dashes of bitters, a crushed sugar cube, and a splash of water. In its simple, four-ingredient form, it is described by cocktail historian David Wondrich as “strong, square-jawed, with just enough civilization to keep you from hollerin' like a mountain-jack.”

Then, of course, people started messing about with the concoction by adding such things as absinthe and vermouth. The newfangled version didn't please everyone and they started to ask bartenders to make their whiskey cocktail the old-fashioned way. You can see where it went from there.

But, was the Old Fashioned the first cocktail? Unlikely. What Stanley Tucci and others are probably referring to is the first use of the word “cocktail,” and they may be wrong in giving the date as 1806.

The Origin of the Word Cocktail

There is much debate about the parentage and meaning of the word “cocktail.” The Cocktail Society in Britain claims “The term 'cocktail' was first seen on March 17, 1798, as referenced from a newspaper.”

It seems to have been used as a name for punches that were popular at the time; fruit juices were mixed with liquor and spices in a large bowl. People would dip a cupful of the mixture and merriment ensued.

America is synonymous with the creation of cocktails and the claim is made that the word in question was born in 1803. The Farmer’s Cabinet was a periodical published in New Hampshire. In April 1803, the newspaper published a jocular column written by someone identified as a “lounger.” The author wrote “Drank a glass of cocktail—excellent for the head . . . Call’d at the Doct’s . . . drank another glass of cocktail.”

Eventually, many chroniclers circle back to that 1806 report in The Balance and Columbian Repository. Many chroniclers may be wrong.

Now, as to the meaning of the word; this being a family-friendly website we have to tread delicately here and leave the somewhat vulgar origins to others.

David Wondrich, who we met before, says it comes from the activities of shady horse traders. In order to make a rather broken down old nag look more perky, traders would administer a suppository of ginger and pepper to the animal. This had the effect of making the horse lift its tail like a rooster, or, in British parlance, a cock's tail. As the spices used were also employed in mixed drinks, the word moved over into the world of bars.

The folks at The Cocktail Hammer introduce us to a pharmacist in New Orleans named Antoine Amédée Peychaud. In addition to inventing Peychaud's bitters, the gentleman offered his customers a pick-me-up of brandy and adornments, served in an eggcup. The French word for eggcup is coquetier mispronounced as “cocktay.” Hang on. Peychaud didn't open his pharmacy until 1838. So, nice story, but busted.

Another yarn has tavern owners recycling the dregs in liquor barrels that were called tailings. Collected and put into one barrel, these low-quality spirits would be sold at a low price and drawn through a spigot known as a cock. Short of money, a customer would ask for a shot of cock tailings.

Another possible origin for the word cocktail? A 1737 recipe for Cock Ale, using the old custom of replacing "s" with "f".

Another possible origin for the word cocktail? A 1737 recipe for Cock Ale, using the old custom of replacing "s" with "f".

The Advance of the Cocktail

Of course, people were drinking cocktails long before the word made an appearance. Early alcohol probably tasted horrible so additions were made to make it more palatable. But here, we are dealing with the history of cocktails as we understand the term today. So, this is where we meet Jerry Thomas, known to his clients Professor Thomas.

Also called “the father of American mixology,” Thomas plied his trade in Europe and the United States. In 1862, he published The Bar-Tender's Guide, the first book to give detailed instructions on how to make many mixed drinks; he updated it as new drinks emerged and added his own inventions such as the Tom Collins (gin, lemon juice, carbonated water, and sugar). The original book included 10 recipes that Thomas referred to as cocktails.

“Professor” Thomas dazzled his customers by juggling bottles and pouring drinks from a height.

“Professor” Thomas dazzled his customers by juggling bottles and pouring drinks from a height.

The website MerchantandMakers tells us that “In Britain, in 1869, William Terrington’s Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks was published, outlining the traditional cocktail; Gin Cocktail—brandy or gin, ginger syrup, aromatic bitters, and a splash of water. At some point around this time, the cocktail shaker is thought to have been invented, adding the classic showmanship to cocktail making and shaking.”

By the start of the 20th century, the cocktail had evolved to using two or more liquors—marrying spirits with fruit juice or pop became simply a mixed drink, even if you do stick a small, paper umbrella in it.

This is the heyday of the Manhattan (whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters), the White Lady (originally, brandy, Crème de Menthe, Cointreau, and blast off), and The Last Word (gin, green Chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur, and lime juice).

Prohibition brought many creations, often born out of the need to mask the vile taste of spirits with a dodgy provenance.

It was the golden age of the cocktail when women wore cocktail dresses to attend cocktail parties in cocktail lounges. In movies, stars sipped their cocktails and smoked cigarettes while engaging in bright chatter.

The drug culture of the 1960s saw many drinkers turn away from cocktails for the hallucinogenic buzz of LSD or cocaine's stimulation of the central nervous system. Apparently, among the epicurean crowd, the cocktail has made a recovery.

Your beverage is ready M'lady.

Your beverage is ready M'lady.

Today's Top Tipples

According to the website DrinksInternational, that bills itself as an online platform for matters boozy, the top 50 cocktails of the present day include:

  • Corpse Reviver #2—it comes in at 48 and includes “equal parts gin, lemon juice, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, and a dash of absinthe.” An objective observer might suggest such a libation could cause more corpses than it revives.
  • Long Island Iced Tea takes 35th place and combines “light rum, vodka, tequila, and gin.” Do not be fooled by its innocuous-sounding name.
  • The Zombie, a refugee from the Great Depression, sits at number 28. It's a mixture of three different kinds of rum with lots of fruit juices added so the unsuspecting drinker does not understand why his or her legs no longer work.
  • Penicillin (13th) is a combination of “blended Scotch, smoky Islay Scotch, lemon juice, and honey ginger simple syrup.” It does not replace antibiotics but after a few of these the patient may be feeling no pain, until later that is.
  • And, look who is on the podium, it's our longtime pal the Old Fashioned. The creators of this ranking booted this venerable drink out of first place after holding top honors for eight years. Its exalted status has been assumed by something called a Negrito (gin, Campari, and vermouth).

Perhaps, in the future, the Old Fashioned will return to its proper place in the firmament.

Bonus Factoids

  • Named “The Winston” after Churchill this is a cocktail offered in Melbourne, Australia. The active ingredient is 1858 Croizet cognac, which, if it can be found, sells for around $160,000 a bottle. Created by bartender Joel Hefferman, the Winston costs about $13,000 per shot.
  • The website lists 631 different cocktails, many with such unpromising names as Kamikaze (vodka, triple sec, and lime juice), Death in the Afternoon (champagne and absinthe), and Duck Fart (Kahlua, Irish cream, and whiskey).
  • In the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, Yukon you can get the Sourtoe Cocktail. For once, there is truth in advertising because the drink contains a preserved human toe. You can read more about this here.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor