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Why Do We Say...?

March 2023
2min read


A fetching flapper from a poster for the 1928 film Manhattan Cocktail.
keith conlon2006_3_21

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the invention of the cocktail, the United States Bartenders’ Guild was scheduled to join forces on May 13 with the Museum of the American Cocktail to present the first annual American Cocktail Awards—dubbed, almost inevitably, “The Olives”—at a ceremony in—again, almost inevitably—Las Vegas, Nevada.

The museum and the guild selected 2006 for their celebration on the basis of the appearance of the word cocktail in a Hudson, New York, newspaper, The Balance, on May 13, 1806: “Cock tail … is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling.” (The paper went on to inform its readers that the drink, similar to what is now called an old-fashioned, “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 anything else.”)

Dates of this sort are almost always provisional, however, and thanks to a recent discovery by David K. Barnhart, editor and publisher of The Barnhart Dictionary Companion, it turns out that the 200th anniversary of the cocktail was celebrated at least three years too late. Mr. Barnhart’s find comes from the April 28, 1803, issue of The Farmer’s Cabinet, a weekly that was published in Amherst, New Hampshire. Herewith, what is now the oldest-known example of the word in print, a journal entry that refers to the timeless effects of a mild hangover, complete with the original old-style s’s that look like f’s:

friday.—Waked at 7 by the bell—wonder what people mean by difturbing one fo early after an Affembly: turn’d and doz’d ’till 9: got up, and dreffed—felt queer; took a cup of coffee—no appetite.—10. Lounged to the Doctor’s—found Peter—talked of the girls—fmoked half a cigar—felt rather fqually: Van Hogan came in—quiz’d me for looking dull—great bore. 11. Drank a glafs of cocktail —excellent for the head.

Unfortunately, the early references do not shed light on the word’s origin. This has been lost in the mist—daze might be more appropriate in the context—of time. Perhaps 50 etymologies have been proposed, among them that cocktail derives from cock ale, a strong beer made by mixing the jelly or minced meat of a boiled cock in ale (and said to have an aphrodisiac effect, a quality rumored to be associated with the modern drink); from another kind of cock-ale (also called cock-bread), meaning a mixture of ale and bitters once given to fighting cocks; from cock-tail, referring both to a horse whose tail has been docked so as to stick up like that of a cock and to a horse of mixed breed (like a mixed drink?); from the practice of stirring drinks with the tail feathers of cocks; from coquetel, a drink of mixed wines, said to have been introduced to this country by French officers at the time of the American Revolution; and a corruption of coquetier, a large eggcup used around 1800 by Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a Creole apothecary in New Orleans, for serving a concoction of Sazerac brandy, sugar, water, bitters, and perhaps a dash of absinthe.

Arguing in favor of coquetier is the similarity of Peychaud’s recipe to that in the Hudson Balance as well as to the modern Sazerac cocktail, which features rye whiskey in place of the original brandy. The timing also is close. Peychaud is said to have come to New Orleans from Santo Domingo in 1795. He did not open Pharmacie Peychaud at 123 Royal Street until 1838, however, 35 years after the newfound reference in the Farmer’s Cabinet—a suspicious gap in time.

Perhaps a missing link remains to be discovered in the now soggy archives of New Orleans. Lexicographers of the world, aux armes! —Hugh Rawson

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