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Why are certain drinks called cocktails?
Horse's Neck cocktail with ginger and gin
Sidecar cocktail with Brandy
Bloody Mary cocktail with tomato and cellary

What is a cocktail?

In its most basic form, a cocktail is a mixed drink made with alcohol. Cocktails are commonly made with craft spirits such as gin, vodka or brandy, and mixed with other ingredients such as fruit, syrup, liqueur, cream, bitters and ice.

When a drink only contains a distilled spirit with a mixer, such as a soda or fruit juice we call it a highball. Mixed drinks containing no alcohol, but which visually resembles cocktails, are called virgin cocktails or mocktails.

Mixologist and famous author, David. A. Embury also known as the Master of the Cocktail, explains that a cocktail has three main components:

  • A base which is the principal ingredient such as gin, rum, or vodka and makes up 75% or more of the total volume of the drink before ice.
  • A modifying agent that gives the cocktail character and softens the taste of raw alcohol with aromatic wines, spirits, bitters, and fruit juices.
  • Special flavouring and colouring agents such as liqueurs, cordials, bitters, and syrups.
lemon, mint leaves and ice

Why are drinks called cocktails?

There are a number of interesting explanations and theories on why we call drinks cocktails.

The first record is found in an edition of Balance and Columbian Repository (a federalist newspaper), on May 13, 1806. It was Henry Louis Mencken an American journalist, who explained that tavern keepers used all the leftovers (tailings) in the near empty casks, and mixed it in one barrel. This was cheaper and was poured from a spout called the cock. Patrons wanting a cheaper drink asked for ‘’cock tailings”, and this later became “cocktails”.

Or another theory was that the term “cock-tailed” originally described a horse with a docked (or clipped-short) tail, and “cock-tailed” became a derogatory term for substandard pedigree race horses. The term was quickly applied to mixed alcoholic drinks which were blended rather than pure spirits.

In 2015, David Wondrich, cocktail historian, gave one of the most believable accounts of the origin of the word; A raised (cocked-up) tail on a horse is a sure sign of a healthy, lively animal. Corrupt 18th century horse traders would administer ginger and, or pepper like a suppository to ensure horses appear more spirited. Ginger and pepper, in the same way, spices up alcoholic drinks, hence the word “cock-tail”.

How do cocktails get their names?

Many of the classic or traditional cocktails are named after the establishments where they were created. In other cases, a cocktail can be named after a place (a bar), a famous person, a town, a country or a region.

Examples include Manhattan, Alabama Slammer (see image below), Long Island Iced Tea, Colorado Bulldog, Daiquiri, Cuba Libre and Colombia to name just a few.

In Mencken’s own words, the history of the word turned out

to be quite as dark as the origin of the thing itself”,

straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak, at least that’s how the story goes.

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