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The origin of the cocktail. Part 3: Etymology

The origin of the cocktail.

If one looks into the origin of the term “cocktail” and thus also into its actual, true meaning, one must draw a far-reaching conclusion: The cocktail does not only consist of a spirit of any kind, sugar, water and bitters, but there must be another, eponymous ingredient that makes a cocktail a cocktail.

Second intermediate review

So we can conclude that a morning Purl was taken to strengthen health. Richard Stoughton now praises his elixir by saying that one can prepare a purl without spending much time. Originally, one used beer, ale, tea or other drinks and added the elixir. Or a sack was used for a Purl Royal. This already had a slightly higher alcohol content. Although Richard Stoughton suggests taking his elixir with brandy alone, why not lower the alcohol content of the brandy to make it more like a Purl Royal? After all, one drank the drink in the morning and to maintain one’s health; a high alcohol content, sufficient to get drunk, was certainly not a priority most of the time. People also took Stoughton’s Elixir in spring water, so why not have reduced the alcohol content of the brandy with spring water, as Sir James Edward Alexander’s 1833 cocktail recipe suggests.

In 1806, an American source for the first time precisely defined that a cocktail consisted of a spirit of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. We have proved by evidence that the conclusion that all the ingredients were already mixed together in England is quite permissible.

David Wondrich even goes so far as to state that Dr Stoughton could well be considered the inventor of the cocktail and thus his shop in Borough High Street should be regarded as its birthplace, for his Stoughton’s Bitters were advertised as being taken with brandy or wine and, moreover, the brandy of the time was basically sweetened, as was the “Canary wine” (the sack): [11]

„“Stoughton’s Bitters,” as they came to be called, were the same sort of concentrated extract of roots, barks, peels, and such that bars are dashing all over the place today, and in his ads he recommended taking them in brandy or wine as a hangover cure. The brandy of the day was generally sweetened, as was the Canary wine he recommended, which puts us perilously close to the definition of the cocktail and makes Dr. Stoughton the inventor of the cocktail, and his shop—it took me until last year to pinpoint its exact location on Borough High Street—its birthplace.“ [11]

Before we go further into what this specifically means for the history of the cocktail and what can be derived from it, however, we have to stop at this point and deal with something else. Why is the cocktail actually called a cocktail? Can further valuable insights be drawn from it?


For a long time, the cocktail was thought to be an American invention. Before the aforementioned description in “The Balance” of 13 May 1806, the term appeared in 1803 in a small newspaper from Amherst in New Hampshire. There we read in the “Farmer’s Cabinet” on 28 April: „Drank a glass of cocktail“. [9-189] [11] But then the term was also found in England, and so it became clear that there must be a relationship there.

Cauld cocks. William Creech, Edinburgh Fugitive Pieces, 1791, page 58.
Cauld cocks. William Creech, Edinburgh Fugitive Pieces, 1791, page 58. [6]

As early as 1791, we read in the “Edinburgh Fugitive Pieces”, a collection of essays by William Creech, about a drink called “cauld cock”. Cauld means “cold”. [1-214] [6] Unfortunately, we are not told what this drink is supposed to be. But the fact that it is listed with many other drinks suggests that at that time it was generally known what it was supposed to be and that it was one of the standard drinks.

Cock-tail. Morning Post and Gazetteer, 20. March 1798.
Cock-tail. Morning Post and Gazetteer, 20. March 1798. [7]

On 20 March 1798 we find a mention of the drink “cock-tail” in the “London Morning Post & Gazeteer”. [4] [7] [10-14] We must be grateful to Jarred Brown and Anistatia Miller for finding this article. On 16 March an article appeared in the same paper according to which the landlord of the Axe & Gate Tavern on the corner of Downing Street and Whitehall, having won the lottery, returned to his establishment and cancelled the posted debts of his regulars: „A publican, in Downing-street, who had a share of the 20.000 l. prize, rubbed out all his scores, in a transport of joy: This was an humble imitation of his neighbour, who, when de drew the highest prize in the State Lottery, not only rubbed out, but actually broke scores with his old customers, and entirely forgot them“. Four days later, on 20 March, the same newspaper published a satirical article indicating who was in debt for what drinks at the heart of British politics. [1-214] [4] [10-14] [10-15] [10-16] We read there:

We have already stated that the Publician, the
corner of Downing-street, when he heard of his
share in the Lottery being drawn a 10,000l.
prize, washed out all scores with a mop. It
may be entertaining to lay before our readers a
list of the scores that were owing to him by the
Nobility and Gentry of the neighbourhood. –
The principal of them were as follow:

Mr. Pitt, two petit vers of “L’huile de Venus” 0 1 0
Ditto, one of “perfeit amour” – 0 0 7
Ditto, “cock-tail” (vulgary called ginger) 0 0 3/4

Now David Wondrich says that the cocktail mentioned there could not have been a cocktail in the modern sense. He justifies this with the fact that the article also mentions the prices of the various drinks and that a cocktail for 3/4 of a penny is far cheaper than all the other alcoholic drinks on the menu. [1-214] [11]

David Wondrich is right in that we are not told exactly what is meant by a cocktail in the article, and this of course leaves some room for conjecture. We believe that it is negligible whether the cocktail referred to in the article was a cocktail as we understand it today. It is important to note that the term “cock-tail” is also commonly used for ginger: ““cock-tail” (vulgary called ginger)“”. The cocktail meant here must therefore have had something to do with ginger, and in this respect David Wondrich is right, because ginger does not appear by default in what we understand by a cocktail today.

But how does this statement come about? Why does a cocktail have something to do with ginger? Where does this equation come from? The explanation can be found in horse breeding. Although there are numerous other ethymological explanations for where the name cocktail comes from, none of them really makes sense.

At that time, the most common use of the word cocktail was in connection with horse breeding. It was used to describe a horse with a short cut tail to indicate its mixed breed. The tail was thus carried high by the horse, [4] [5] and in a way it looked like a cock’s tail, like a cocktail, according to the literal translation.

It was the practice of English horse traders to shove a piece of ginger up their horses’ bottoms to make them look livelier and racier and to make them carry their tails higher. This was called “gingering” and it was hoped that it would fetch higher prices because the horse would show wide open eyes and a raised tail and appear more energetic. [1-215] [4] This practice was also called “feague” and is described, for example, by Captain Grose in his book “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” published in 1788. [1-215] [2] [11] There we read:

FEAGUE. To feague a horse; to put ginger up a horse’s
him lively and carry his tail well: it is said, a forfeit is
incurred by any horse dealer’s servant, who shall shew a
horse without first feaguing him. Feague is used, figura-
tively, for encouraging or spiriting one up.

David Wondrich now comes to the conclusion that in this figurative sense a cocktail was consumed, namely to cheer oneself up, and that in the article in the Morning Post this must have been a glass of ginger beer or ale with ginger extract: „A cocktail is something that cocks up your tail – in the case of the Morning Post citation, that something being a glass of ginger beer or ginger extract mixed with ale.“ [1-215]

Cockt-tail. Sportman's Slang, 1825, page 27.
Cockt-tail. Sportman’s Slang, 1825, page 27. [3-27]

This equation between ginger and cocktail is also confirmed by John Badcock. In 1825 he writes in “Sportsman’s Slang” on page 27 that cock-tail was understood to mean both ginger and, in horse breeding, a half-breed: „Cock-tail ― is ginger; and a cockt-tail horse is a half-bred, nick’d.“ [1-215] [3-27] [11]

John Badcock also reports on the practice of horse traders. On page 67 he writes that small pieces of ginger were inserted into the horse’s anus to make them temporarily appear more lively: „Fig, figged ― ginger; little lumps whereof are thrust into the rectum of horses to give them a short-lived vigour; they are then said to be figged, and carry better while the stimulus lasts; but horses of any original breeding afterwards flag in their disposition, as if resentful of the beastly indignity shewn them. Fellows there are who traverse Smithfield of Friday evenings seeking for old figs.“ [3-67] As a small anecdote, it should not go unmentioned that, interestingly, live eels had previously been used instead of ginger to make horses appear more lively, as is reported on page 75: „To Feague a horse ― formerly a live eel was used, ginger being then dear. See Fig.“ [3-75]

He also tells us about ginger on page 87, and we learn that red-haired persons were also called “ginger”, as were those men who dyed their beard hair with yellow soap or other aids. He also tells us that “gingery” was used as an adjective meaning “hot-blooded, ill-tempered”: „Ginger ― another name for red-haired persons, and ‘ginger-whiskers’ is an appellation for such men as use yellow soap, or otherwise discolour their whiskers: ’tis a regimental mark with some commanders. Among grooms and horse-dealers they obtain the description ‘chesnut.’ Gingery ― (stud) hot, distempered; applied to horses, whether they have been figged or not. So, at a flash-house, ‘how gingery is Cow-cross Billy to-day; b——y eend, if he han’t had a quarrel vith all on us: I suppose he’ll fight, and I vish he may nap.““ [3-87]

Cock-tail. Boxiana, 1828, page 68.
Cock-tail. Boxiana, 1828, page 68. [8-68]

John Badcock does not tell us anything about a drink in this book. He makes up for this three years later and reports in “Boxiana; or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism” on page 68 that cock-tail (pronounced ginger) was put in gin or beer: „gin and beer, or both combined with a scratch or two of cock-tail in it“ [8-68] In this context, David Wondrich thinks that this cocktail must have been something like a ginger extract. [1-215]

It is against this background that one can understand the satire of the 1798 article in the Morning Post and Gazetteer. William Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister at the time, and since he was unmarried all his life, his sexuality provided material for speculation and crude jokes. This explains why all three drinks named for him can be understood with a sexual connotation: „L’huile de Venus … perfeit amour … cock-tail (vulgary called ginger)“ [5]

The connection between the “treatment” of horses and the “cock-tail” is also evident in a small political satire printed in a provincial English newspaper in 1790, in which a certain clergyman „hath been guilty of monopolizing all the ginger and pepper in the neighbourhood, to make the asses who vote for Sir Gerald Vanneck cock their tails.” [11] The translation is a little delicate, since it seems to go into the vulgar here and David Wondrich hopes that the statement was only meant figuratively. One could perhaps put it this way: the clergyman was guilty of monopolising all the ginger and chilli (pepper will probably not be meant here) in the neighbourhood in order to strengthen the tails (or to increase the vulgar connotation even more: “to raise the tails”) of the donkeys (one could also translate as “asses”) who voted for Sir Gerald Vanneck. So here we see not only ginger but also chilli mentioned together – as it is also in the cocktail recipes of William Terrington in 1869, which we will come to in the following chapter. This use of chilli instead of ginger as a cocktail ingredient is also confirmed by David Wondrich, and he confirms that in England ginger or sometimes chilli was added to the drink. [11] This probably also happened in the United States, and we read from William Crawford from Pennylvania that in the years after the Revolution he usually drank a “‘Cock-tail’ with pepper in it”. [11] It should also be mentioned that in the 18th century, not only ginger but also chilli (cayenne) was added to beer. [12]

Bentley’s Miscellany, Vol. 4. 1838, page 47.
Bentley’s Miscellany, Vol. 4. 1838, page 47. [13-47] [13-47]

As further evidence that the term ‘cocktail’ does indeed derive from the addition of ginger to a drink, as inferred here, let us quote from an article in Bentley’s Miscellany, published in London in 1838. There, a voyage from New York to Philadelphia is described, and on the occasion of a ship’s voyage on the Delaware it is noted: “We had been talking on deck until we had the gang-way to ourselves, the other passengers having all retired to the stoves in the cabin, or to the bar-room, where ale-cocktail (ale with ginger and pepper in it), sangaree (spirits and sugar), and Mononghahela (whiskey) punch were in great demand.[13-47] [13-47]

As we can see, the addition of ginger (and here also ‘pepper’, by which chilli will be meant) turns a simple beer into a beer cocktail. And any other drink with ginger is also a ‘cocktail’ according to our derivation.

  1. David Wondrich: Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, A Salute in Stories and Drinks to „Professor“ Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar. 2. Auflage. ISBN 978-0-399-17261-8. New York, 2015, page 313-316.
  2. Francis Grose: A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. 2. edition. London, 1788. https://archive.org/stream/aclassicaldicti00grosgoog#page/n106/mode/1up
  3. Jon Bee [John Badock]: A New Dictionary of Terms Used in the Affairs of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase and the Cock-pit, with Those of Bon-ton and the Varieties of Life : Forming an Original and Authentic Lexicon Balatronicum Et Macaronicum, Particulary Adapted to the Use of the Sporting World … : Interspersed with Anecdotes and Whimsies, with Tart Quotations and Rum-ones, with Examples, Proofs and Monitory Precepts, Useful and Proper for Novices, Flats and Yokels. London, 1825. Page 27 and 67. https://books.google.de/books?id=rCBTAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=de#v=onepage&q&f=false
  4. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/luxury/travel/1256/the-surprising-history-of-the-cocktail.html: The surprising history of the cocktail. By Jared Brown, 13. December 2012. Unfortunately, this article was no longer available at the Telegraph. However, it can also be found here:: https://web.archive.org/web/20131013065914/http://www.telegraph.co.uk/luxury/travel/1256/the-surprising-history-of-the-cocktail.html
  5. http://www.beeretseq.com/the-cocktails-origin-the-racecourse-the-ginger-part-i/: The Cocktail’s Origin, The Racecourse, The Ginger, Part I. By Gary Gillman, 30. January 2017.
  6. William Creech: Edinburgh fugitive pieces. Edinburgh, 1791. Page 58. https://archive.org/stream/edinburghfugitiv00creeiala#page/58/mode/2up
  7. https://newspaperarchive.com/uk/middlesex/london/morning-post-and-gazetteer/: Mr. Pitt’s tab. Morning Post And Gazetteer, London, Middlesex, March 20, 1798. Page 2.
  8. John Badcock: Boxiana; or, Sketches of modern pugilism, containing all the transactions of note, connected with the prize ring, during the years, 1821, 1822, 1823. London, Sherwood, Jones and Co, 1828?. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433061838151;view=1up;seq=112. A
  9. Anistatia Miller & Jarred Brown: Spirituous Journey. A history of drink. Book one: From the birth of spirits to the birth of the cocktail. ISBN 0-9760937-0. Mixellany, 2009.
  10. Anistatia Miller & Jarred Brown: Spirituous Journey. A history of drink. Book two: From publicans to master mixologists. ISBN 0978-1-907434-06-8. Mixellany, 2009.
  11. http://www.saveur.com/how-the-cocktail-got-its-name: Ancient Mystery Revealed! The Real History (Maybe) of How the Cocktail Got its Name. By David Wondrich, 14. January 2016.
  12. http://www.beeretseq.com/the-cocktails-origin-the-racecourse-the-ginger-part-ii/: The Cocktail’s Origin, The Racecourse, The Ginger, Part II. By Gary Gillman, 31. January 2017.
  13. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.461694/page/n53/mode/2up/search/%22ale+cocktail%22?q=%22ale+cocktail%22 Bentley’s Miscellany, Vol. 4. 1838.

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Hi, I'm Armin and in my spare time I want to promote bar culture as a blogger, freelance journalist and Bildungstrinker (you want to know what the latter is? Then check out "About us"). My focus is on researching the history of mixed drinks. If I have ever left out a source you know of, and you think it should be considered, I look forward to hearing about it from you to learn something new. English is not my first language, but I hope that the translated texts are easy to understand. If there is any incomprehensibility, please let me know so that I can improve it.

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