One of the customers was speculating the other day about the origin of the word cocktail. It’s a subject I have not previously dealt with because cocktail is one of those words whose etymology ought to be very straightforward, but, in fact, is cloaked in such an enigmatic miasma of wispy supposition that tracking it down becomes frustrating.
The first recorded use of the word (actually two words) to mean a beverage was in the May 6, 1806 edition of The Balance and Columbian Repository, a newspaper in Hudson, NY. A reader was so puzzled by this usage, that he asked for an explanation, and the editor (whose reply betrays his Federalist political preference) obliged the following week: “As I make it a point, never to publish anything but which I can explain, I shall not hesitate to gratify the curiosity of my inquisitive correspondent: Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters; it is vulgarly called a 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.”
Originally, most pundits agree, the word was an adjective describing a “creature with a tail resembling that of a cock, or rooster,” specifically a horse with a “docked” tail—one from which the hair has been trimmed down to the fleshy part of the tail. This was a customary treatment for hunting and coach horses. A non-thoroughbred racehorse, descended from such cock-tailed horses, became known disparagingly as a cocktail. Later, a person trying to pass as a gentleman, but lacking proper breeding, was called a cocktail. Such an adulteration of pedigree, some linguists suggest, was analogous to the adulteration of liquors in the drink that took on the name cocktail sometime around the turn of the nineteenth-century.
This is a pretty circuitous chain of reasoning, and the acerbic H. L. Mencken, who was known to lift a few cocktails in his prime, was not convinced by such far-fetched explanations. In The American Language Mencken wrote, “The etymology of the cocktail has long engaged the learned, but without persuasive result.”
He went on to cite William Henry Nugent in an article about cock fighting that surmised that cocktail derived from a mixture of stale bread, beer, wine, and spirits, as well as herbs and seeds, that was prepared by nineteenth-century Irish and English gamecock trainers to condition the birds for fighting. The trainers began to sample this concoction (before adding the stale bread) and found it to their liking. They called it cock-bread ale, or cock ale, and in the spelling of the time, it became cock ail, and somehow a t was added.
Another theory suggested by Mencken came from a 1926 article by Marcel Boulenger arguing that cocktail was derived from coquetel, the name of a drink known for centuries in the vicinity of Bordeaux. No explanation is given for the etymology of coquetel.
Yet another version of the word’s origin traces it back to coquetier, which is French for “egg-cup.” Supposedly around 1795 Antoine Peychaud, a New Orleans apothecary (who invented Peychaud bitters), mixed toddies with his bitters and brandy and served them to fellow Masons in an egg cup—and the drink took on the name coquetier, or cocktay and later cocktail in English.
Some other ideas that have been put forth are:
• Bartenders would drain the dregs of all the barrels and mix them together to serve at a reduced price. A spigot was called a “cock” and the dregs were “tailings,” so this drink was known as “cock-tailings” or later simply cocktail.
• These leftovers were served from a ceramic vessel shaped like a rooster, with a tap in the tail.
• Doctors treated throat problems with a pleasant-tasting medicine applied to the tip of a feather from a cock's tail.
• The word refers to the fact that a potent drink will "cock your tail," i.e., get your spirits up.
• The word derives from a sixteenth-century drink known as “cock-ale,” whose ingredients included a ground-up boiled rooster.
• There was an Aztec princess named Xochitl (anglicized as Coctel) who was fond of fermented beverages to which she gave her name.
Such confusion is enough to drive you to drink straight gin, as the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been known to do. The incoherence caused by such overindulgence persists in his surviving works, like the following:
A florist walked into a bar,
And said, “I’ll have two Buds.”
A laundress right behind him asked,
“Could I just have some suds?”
“On second thought,” the laundress said,
“Make that a cup of Cheer.”
And then an undertaker croaked,
“I think I’ll have a bier.”
An optician walked into the bar
And said, “I’d like two glasses.”
A fisherman declared, “I want
Some ale—make that two Basses.”
A milkman walked into the bar,
And said, “I’ll take a quart.”
A sailor right behind him piped,
“Just let me drown in port.”
A cotton-farmer in the bar
Remarked, “I need a gin.”
A census-taker then appeared
And asked for Mickey Finn.
A contortionist squeezed in
And called out, “Bottom’s up!”
Omar Khayyam came in then
And wrote, “Come fill the cup.”
A gunman walked into the bar
And said, “I’ll take a shot.”
A realtor scanned the drink list and
Declared, “Give me the lot.”