The Disturbing Origin of the Word Cocktail

by Chelsea Cummings
origin of the word cocktail

origin of the word cocktail

Whether you’re into margaritas, mojitos, cosmopolitans or negronis, everyone loves a cocktail. When sipping your tipple of choice, it’s probably crossed your mind what cocktail actually means. Although we may never know the true origin of the word cocktail, we’re going to share the most plausible of many theories, and trust us, you’ll never look at a cocktail in the same way again.

The Origin of the Word Cocktail

To find out the origin of the word cocktail, it makes sense to look for the first occasions when it was used, and see if that gives us any clues about its meaning. The earliest mention historians have found of the word cocktail is in a citation from 1789 in the satirical newspaper The London Telegraph. One of its articles lists a range of party drinks including ‘parfait amour’, ‘L’huile de Venus’, and a ‘cock-tail’.

But we’re going to have to dig deeper if we want to find out the truth behind the origin of cocktails. While there are loads of stories out there, we’ll explore the three most likely theories.

Mixing dregs

One of the most plausible explanations is that the origin of the word cocktail comes from the colonial period when tavern keepers stored their spirits in large barrels. When the barrels were near empty, tavern owners combined the dregs (also called tailings) into one barrel and sold it at a reduced price. This discounted mix was poured from a spigot, also called a cock. Bar goers wanting this cheaper alcohol mix would ask for “cock tailings”. It’s not hard to see how this could’ve then been shortened to cocktail.

Purebred Horses

Another theory claims that the origin of the word cocktail comes from racehorses. The word  ‘cock-tailed’ was originally used to describe a horse with a short tail. ‘Cock-tailed’ was subsequently used to describe racehorses with mixed lineage. Based on analogy, it seems probable that the term then expanded to describe drinks made from a blend of ingredients rather than just pure spirits.

Before bolting to conclusions though, let’s hear one last story.

Spicy Suppositories

Hold onto your horses, this last story will leave you shocked!

According to David Wondrich, one of the world’s top authorities on the history of the cocktail, this is the most probable of all the explanations.

Returning to the subject of racehorses, a raised and perky tail, or a cocked tail, is considered a sign of energy and vigour. It makes sense then, that horse traders could expect to sell cock-tailed horses for a higher price.

Now, we wish we were just horsing around with you for this next part, but unfortunately, we’re not. Story has it that in a bid to make more money, shady 18th-century horse traders used to stick ginger and pepper up a horse’s bottom.

This would make the poor horse raise its tail, resulting in it looking more energetic and youthful, and earning the trader more money.

But how does that link to cocktails? Just like with the horses, ginger and pepper were often added to alcoholic drinks to liven up both the beverages and their drinkers. Although ginger and pepper were eventually replaced with bitters and other aromatic botanicals, the name cocktail remains and can now refer to any mixed drink.

So there you have it. Who would have thought that our favourite party drinks could be named after horses’ spicy suppositories?

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Whilst we may never be 100% sure about the origin of the word cocktail, the uncertainty definitely adds to cocktails’ mystique, as well as making for fun trivia to entertain your dinner guests!

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