"Cocktail" Part 1 Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

What exactly is a cocktail? Who invented the cocktail? Both Britain and America claim it - who’s right?  Welcome to the Endless Knot.  Today we’ll look at the word “cocktail” and its connections to political satire, feathers, and Aztec princesses.

Cocktails are trendy these days; every bar is inventing new drinks. I’m partial to a tipple occasionally myself – and I love the odd names some of them have. Not just “Harvey Wallbanger”, but even the classics – where does Gimlet come from? Or Martini? Or Gibson? Or Gin Rickey? So I’m making a series of videos exploring the origins of cocktails, and cocktail names – and I think you may be surprised at where we end up!

First, let’s get the definition straight. Traditionally the word cocktail refers to a short mixed drink that contains spirits, bitters, sugar, and water, but these days it’s used to refer to just about any mixed alcoholic drink, especially those *not* consumed at a meal.  The Old Fashioned cocktail, made with whiskey, Angosura Bitters, sugar, and water, reflects the traditional definition – it’s literally a cocktail made in the old fashioned way without all kinds of other ingredients like fruit juices or syrups.  The Oxford English Dictionary labels ‘cocktail’ an American word in origin, with the first recorded use of the word to refer to a beverage found in an 1803 issue of the Amherst, New Hampshire newspaper called The Farmer’s Cabinet: “Drank a glass of cocktail–excellent for the head... Call'd at the Doct's...drank another glass of cocktail”.  The earliest definition of a cocktail as an alcoholic mixed drink is from another American periodical, The Balance and Columbian Repository, of Hudson, New York: “Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else”.  [insert joke here] But recently the word cocktail has been backdated — that’s when you find an reference to word that’s earlier than the one the lexicographers knew about. Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller found an earlier *British* reference in the London newspaper The Morning Post and Gazetteer, from 1798.  The story goes that the owner of a pub in Downing Street called  The Axe and Gate tavern won the lottery and in an act of generosity decided to cancel bar debts. The newspaper in question then satirically ran a supposed list of the pub debts of prominent politicians, including this one: “Mr. Pitt, two petit vers of "L'huile de Venus" Ditto, one of "perfeit amour" Ditto, cock-tail (vulgarly called ginger)”.  The Mr. Pitt in question of course was William Pitt the Younger, the celebrated and very successful Prime Minister, a notoriously heavy drinker, who was sometimes referred to as a “three bottle man”.  Pitt is perhaps most well known for steering the country through the Napoleonic Wars, an expensive endeavour for which he enacted a number of new taxes, including Britain’s first ever income tax and a tax which raised the price of newspapers; no wonder, then, that a paper ran a satirical story on him! And of course the man who took their money to fight Napoleon was drinking a bunch of French-sounding drinks.

Leaving aside the issue of the name ‘cocktail’, the background for the type of drink itself may lie in 17th and 18th century England.  A mixed alcoholic beverage in the form of punch already existed.  The word punch comes either from the Hindi word pānch meaning five, referring to the five ingredients, spirits, water, lemon juice, sugar, and spice, or from the word puncheon, of unknown origin, which is a type of barrel.  In either case the drink seems to have been brought to England by sailors of the British East India company in the early 17th century.  Then in the late 17th century, during the reign of William of Orange, with surpluses of locally grown grain, and a desire for an alternative to brandy imported from their rival, France, the tax on distillation of grain was reduced and the production of local spirits was encouraged.  This led to the Gin Craze of the 18th century and much public outcry and worry, but it may also have fostered the development of the cocktail, what with all the cheaply available spirits.  So in a sense, British colonialism and foreign policy may be the real foundation for the cocktail.
But this still doesn’t settle the question of who invented the cocktail as we know it today, and where. Maybe it would help to look at the origin of the word itself?

The word cocktail seems to contain the elements cock, as in a rooster, and tail, but what does a rooster’s tail have to do with an alcoholic drink?  Well, the answer may lie in colonial America.  There are various stories circulated that a rooster feather was used as a garnish, or that the ingredients were kept in a rooster-shaped container.  In his 1821 novel The Spy, James Fenimore Cooper, the iconically American novelist who is most famous for writing The Last of the Mohicans, assigns the creation of the cocktail to one of his characters, Betty Flanagan, a lively tavernkeeper. Betty Flanagan may be based on the real-life innkeeper Catherine “Kitty” Hustler of Four Corners, New York, and in turn her fictional character may also have inspired a commonly repeated story about a certain *Betsy* Flanagan who in 1779 in Georgetown, Virginia is said to have served drinks to her customers garnished with the feathers of her neighbour’s rooster; she and her father had killed it earlier that day because of a feud with that neighbour. The patrons took to calling the drink cocktails, so the story goes.  Of course these stories are almost too entertaining to believe.

Another explanation is that the name doesn’t refer to a literal rooster’s tale, but to a plant called a cock’s tail, or cola de gallo, because of its resemblance to the feathered tail. According to this story the root of the cola de gallo plant was used to stir a kind of mixed drink in Mexico.

Another fanciful rooster-related explanation is that the word comes from “cock ale”, a mixture made from ale along with other ingredients, and fed to roosters to prepare them for cock fighting.

Yet another idea is that cocktail comes from the expression cock tailings, tailings as in the dregs, in this case at the bottom of a barrel of ale. The cock in this case supposedly refers to the peg used to stopper the barrel. According to this idea, the tailings would be mixed together and sold at reduced price, perhaps with other ingredients mixed in to make it more palatable, thus leading to the idea of a mixed drink.  But there’s little linguistic evidence for this explanation.

And now for one that’s pretty clearly untrue, but it’s so great that I can’t resist telling it:
As the story goes, the word cocktail comes from the name of an Aztec princess, Xochitl, and related to the name of an Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal, goddess of fertility and beauty.  The name Xochitl is a Nahuatl word meaning flower.  There are a number of variants to this story, which don’t make a lot of historical sense. Xochitl was either a princess who served drinks to American soldiers (very unlikely), or an Aztec princess who gave a drink to the king for some romantic purpose. The most elaborate version suggests that Xochitl was the daughter of the Aztec emperor, and was due to be married. However, she was also the mistress of the conquistador Hernan Cortes, and secretly made a deal with him, possibly to protect her family. Apparently, she got the Aztec warriors drunk and seduced them, then when they were passed out Cortes was able to kill them all. When her role in this was discovered she was put to death. However, there doesn’t seem to be any such historical figure, and this story may be mixed up with the very real figure of the linguistically talented La Malinche, who was indeed Cortes’s mistress as well as his translator. The closest thing to a historical Aztec princess by that name is the semi-legendary Toltec queen Xochitl. During the civil war which brought down the Toltec empire, she is said to have raised a battalion comprised entirely of women. Interestingly, she is in fact credited with inventing an alcoholic drink, pulque, made from agave honey, which she gave to her future husband, the emperor Tecpancaltzin–though that’s certainly not a cocktail.This drink and their relationship was said to have brought misfortune to the Toltec civilization, which in fact fell before the Aztecs arose, and thus before the conquistadors arrived too. This story might have become confused and turned into a later folk etymology for cocktail, since Xochitl’s name sounds a bit similar.

Well all that etymologizing is thirsty work. I think I’ll take a break now, and next time we’ll look at a few more possibilities, including the most likely origin for the word cocktail, and how the drink flows through subsequent history, like it’s about to flow into my cocktail glass.

Today, since I’ve been discussing the earliest forms of cocktails, I’m going to make an Old Fashioned cocktail, a recipe developed by whiskey distiller Colonel James Pepper and the bartender of the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky around 1900, but in the style of the original cocktail drink. First, place a sugar cube in the appropriately named old fashioned glass, and saturate it with Angostura bitters, then add a dash of water.  Muddle until the sugar is dissolved, fill the glass with ice cubes and add an ounce and a half of rye whiskey.  Garnish with an orange slice and a cherry.

See you next time for the conclusion of ‘cocktail’! If you have comments or questions, I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comment section below. You can also read more of my thoughts at my blog, The Endless Knot.