"Cocktail" Part 2 Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

So where does the word cocktail come from? Could it even come from French? Welcome to the Endless Knot.  Today we’ll continue exploring the word cocktail, and its connections to horses, eggcups, and the Republican elephant.

Last week we looked at the origin of the cocktail, and I went over a bunch of sometimes outlandish etymologies for the word cocktail – Aztec princess, I’m looking at you. Today we’ll look at some more plausible options, though it’s impossible to be sure, and then move on to consider the cocktail as a social institution.

In his 1965 book The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of a Man in His Cups, George Bishop claims that the word came from a 19th century slang for “a woman of easy virtue who was desirable but impure…and applied to the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice.”  While the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t record this usage, it does list the sense ‘Any horse of racing stamp and qualities, but decidedly not thorough-bred, from a known stain in his parentage’ and thus by extension to people referring to “a person assuming the position of a gentleman, but deficient in thorough gentlemanly breeding”, so there is perhaps a plausible idea of a cocktail referring to something mixed or adulterated.  Maybe.

Another suggestion is that the word cocktail comes from the French coquetel, a mixed drink from the Gironde, which contains the Bordeaux wine region in France. But I haven’t been able to find any good evidence that such a drink exists – except in books giving etymologies for “cocktail”!

The most linguistically well-supported explanation for the word – even though it might seem to be one of the most unlikely, on the face of it – comes from the well-documented use of the term cocktail to refer to non-thoroughbred horses whose tails had been docked and this remaining stump cocked up, perhaps resembling a rooster’s tail. How this word then came to be transferred to the drink is uncertain, but  perhaps the bracing effect made one perk up like the horse’s tail, or perhaps it was a reference to the practice of sticking ginger somewhere, erm, rather close to that “cocked” tail, to get the horse to look more lively when trying to sell it. That idea is supported by that earliest attested use of the word “cocktail” in Pitt’s bar tab that I mentioned last time: “cock-tail” (vulgarly called ginger)” – this suggests that the drink was known as something that would perk you up. But it also brings us back to the idea of Bishop’s that there’s a suggestion of ‘mixture’ or ‘adulteration’ in the term – maybe that sense of “cocktail” combined with the sense of “docked tail” to produce the modern meaning.

But still – even if the word seems to come from England, does that mean they get to claim the modern cocktail as their invention? Well, no, not necessarily. Because there’s one other tale that almost certainly isn’t true, but seems to reflect a clear early step on the road to the cocktail as we know it now. A commonly repeated and on the face of it quite plausible story is that the cocktail comes from New Orleans.  As the story goes an apothecary named Antoine Amédée Peychaud who emigrated to the French Quarter of New Orleans, from what is now Haiti, in 1795, served a kind of brandy toddy which contained a special bitters he made, what we now call Peychaud bitters.  He would either measure out or serve the drink with an eggcup which in French is called a coquetier, and this French word supposedly becomes, in English, cocktail.  Unfortunately the dates don’t quite work out, since this story seems to date from about the 1830's, well after the first recorded uses of the word cocktail.  The drink persisted, however, in the form of the Sazerac, which is named after a brand of cognac called Sazerac de Forge et Fils, and contains absinthe (or other anise-flavoured liqueur) and Peychaud’s bitters.

The first actual printed cocktail recipes are in Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, which gives recipes for many types of mixed drinks, including a number categorized as cocktails, having bitters in them.  Thomas was a colourful individual, the first celebrity bartender.  He developed a flashy showmanship and techniques for mixing drinks, juggling bottles, using silver and jewel-encrusted barware, and wearing flashy jewellery himself. His signature drink, the Blue Blazer, which involved pouring flaming whiskey from one cup into another creating an arc of flame, was the world’s first flaming cocktail.  He owned and/or worked at a number of bars, but his most famous bar, on Broadway in New York City, is notable for containing funhouse mirrors, and displaying caricatures of famous people, including the work of Thomas Nast.  Nast was notable caricaturist and satirical cartoonist, and is most famous for creating the modern visual representation of Santa Claus and the Republican Party elephant, two American cultural icons.

American Prohibition further drove the development of the cocktail.  In addition to the cultural focus that grew up around the speakeasies, often celebrated in stories and film, the cocktails too changed, with the greater use of flavourings such as fruit juices, cream, honey, and so forth, to hide the awful flavour of the bathtub gin and other bootlegged moonshine, which was produced secretly and quickly to fill the illicit demand.

The OED lists the first use of the term ‘cocktail hour’ as the 1928 Ernest Hemingway story “In Another Country” from his famous collection Men without Women, but the term almost certainly predates this by quite a bit, and the tradition of the pre-dinner cocktail perhaps grew out of the traditional British 5 o’clock tea time at hotels, that slowly began to also serve drinks then, sometimes made in shakers in the shape of a teapot.

British novelist Alec Waugh, older brother of the more famous Evelyn Waugh, claimed to have invented the cocktail party in the spring of 1924 when he served rum swizzles to his astonished guests, who had thought they had come for tea.  The OED’s first citation of the term cocktail party is from fellow English novelist D.H. Lawrence’s most famous and most notorious novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Though Waugh does seem to have been responsible for kicking off a vogue for the cocktail party, the first actual cocktail party may have been held a while before that in the United States, by Mrs. Julius S. Walsh of St. Louis, Missouri in May 1917, according to a contemporary newspaper report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

So, to end off, I’m going to take it back to that popular story of the so-called first cocktail, and make a Sazerac.  And to be really authentic, I’m doing it with an eggcup!  Add a few dashes of Absinthe or Pernod to a chilled old fashioned glass to coat the sides and pour out any excess. Stir or shake 2 ounces of cognac, a few dashes of Peychaud bitters, and a sugar cube with ice, strain into the glass, and garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

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.