Why is it called a cocktail?

4 May 2020

Food + Drink Recipes Summer

You may be certain you know what your favourite type of cocktail is, but do you know why it’s called a cocktail?

You may be certain you know what your favourite type of cocktail is, but do you know why it’s called a cocktail?

What springs to mind when you think of a cocktail? Is it a multi-coloured drink topped with floating floral garnishes in a fancy bar? Is it a good, old fashioned classic you’ve stirred up in a few minutes to enjoy as a summer drink? Whilst cocktails are widely enjoyed around the UK, it seems less is known about its origin, and even less is known about how it earned its title.

In fact, H. L. Mencken, who did rather extensive research on the subject, ended up concluding that the etymology of the term used to describe it was “quite as dark as the origin of the thing itself”. Whether you see yourself as a cocktail amateur or connoisseur, we invite you to join us as we try to get to the bottom of this obscure beverage.

The cocktail’s history

It seems everyone wants to claim the title of the cocktail inventor: some argue it was invented in Mexico and named after an Aztec princess, whilst some believe it earned its title in New Orleans after the French for egg cup (coquetier). Most commonly believed is that cocktails were an American invention: even Charles Dickens characterised cocktails as a predominately American drink.

However, whilst the Americans may have popularised the cocktail – according to spirits historian David Wondrich in his book ‘Imbibe’, the cocktail became popular in Hudson Valley – it seems they were inspired by us Brits. Myles Cunliffe, Imbibe’s Educator of the Year 2017, states that cocktails can be traced back to the Medieval drink called a wassail, mead-like cider / apple-based spiced drink.

The knowledge of cocktail-making didn’t become commonly known until Connecticut-born Kerry Thomas wrote ‘The Bartender’s Guide’ in 1862 – an encyclopedia of cocktail recipes which became the foundation for bartenders to work from all around the US.

The origin of the word ‘cocktail’

Whilst the word ‘cocktail’ might cause you to wonder if it has any relation to a cockerel, the origin behind this label is, unfortunately, not as straightforward. However, you would be along the right lines if you thought it had something to do with an animal. Surprisingly, the term cocktail is alleged to have come from a horse, although the authentic meaning isn’t the most appetising thought.

Wondrich argues that the term cocktail comes from unscrupulous horse traders who wanted to make their horses seem spritely and full of energy. According to Wondrich, a raised up – or cocked – tail on a horse was a sign of vigour, so traders would put ginger and pepper in the rear end of a horse to make it a little more frisky.

Just as ginger was used to perk up horses, it was added to drinks with other spices to act as a stimulant for humans. By the 19th century, this was exchanged for something called bitters – a flavouring which was mixed with spirits, sugar and water. 

The cocktail today

Nowadays, a cocktail has a whole range of ingredients. Fruity, sweeter mixes are created for a summer drink, and creamier more intense cocktails are crafted for a celebratory evening. At Hotel Chocolat, we’ve created our own range of alcohol, so that you can enjoy cocktails in a unique way.

Our award-winning Cocoa Gin and must-try Salted Caramel Vodka Liqueur come together in our Little Tipples Gift Set. If you’re new to mixing cocktails, why not try these miniature versions to create an indulgent caramel cocktail? If you need something stronger than a bowl of punch for a garden party, use our Classic Prosecco to create the perfect summer drink in the form of a Mango Bellini Cocktail.

Whilst the origin behind the name of the cocktail might make your stomach flip, cocktails have become a staple alcoholic beverage – for that, we’re grateful!