The Early History of the Cocktail

The Early History of the Cocktail

BACARDÍ rum has played an integral role in the birth of several iconic cocktails, from the mojito and the daiquiri to the famously eponymous BACARDÍ Cocktail. But where does the history of the cocktail begin? Most agree that the cocktail was invented in England in the 17th century, when distilled alcohol became the favored drink of the common people.

The Rise of Grain Alcohol

The English largely favored beer and cider prior to the late 1600s. More than mere recreational beverages, these drinks helped people stave off the water-borne pathogens such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery, that were common at the time. The populace combated these afflictions by consuming alcohol each day instead of plain water—sometimes constantly. At breakfast, for example, one would typically enjoy a thick, unfiltered beer with around 2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).

When William of Orange ascended to the throne in 1688, he inherited a national grain surplus accumulated over several years. To take advantage of low grain prices, King William cut taxes on distillation, describing the decision as being “for the health of the nation”—perhaps both literally and figuratively. As a result, British distillers produced some 500,000 gallons of neutral grain alcohol during the subsequent year.

The surplus of grain spirits soon filtered into the early pharmaceutical industry. In fact, the nation’s second medical patent, issued in 1712, was for alcohol-based bitters called Stoughton’s Elixir. Although it was intended for medicinal purposes, the mixture of alcohol and bitters was more commonly consumed in local pubs.

By the 1720’s, London distillers had produced over 20 million gallons of grain alcohol. The illicit production of alcohol skyrocketed as well, and an estimated 25 percent of all habitable buildings were equipped with a working gin still. Ironically, a measure initially intended to better the health of the nation had caused a trend of rampant spirit consumption, which some argued was a primary cause of crime. Parliament attempted to right this perceived wrong with the Gin Act of 1751, which restricted the sale of gin to unlicensed merchants. However, the popularity of spirits persisted.

Behind the Name

Stories of the origin of the word “cocktail” vary widely, with some attributing it to the use of a rooster’s tail as a drink garnish in the American colonies, and others claiming it as a mispronunciation of the word “coquetel,” a French egg cup once used to serve alcohol-based pharmaceutical remedies in New Orleans.

The first printed use of the word “cocktail” occurred in London in the March 20, 1798, edition of The Morning Post and Gazetteer, which four days earlier had reported that the owner of the local tavern the Axe & Gate had won the lottery and, “in a transport of joy,” shared his newfound wealth by clearing the bar tabs of his regular patrons. The March 20 paper referenced this with a satirical article that listed the hypothetical tabs of noteworthy British politicians who frequented the venue. William Pitt, who had recently imposed a tax that doubled the price of the paper, owed for “cock-tail (vulgarly called ginger).”

At the time, “cocktail” referred to a horse with a bobbed tail, which indicated a mixed breed. The alternative term “ginger” was a nod to a practice known as “gingering,” by which the owners of cocktail horses would apply raw ginger beneath a cocktail horse’s tail to add a certain spring to its step that would hopefully draw a higher price. Similarly, these early mixed spirits gave drinkers a burst of gusto.

Early instances of the word “cocktail” in American print suggest that it initially referred to a specific drink rather than a genre of beverages. It first appeared in an issue of the Amherst, New Hampshire, satirical editorial The Farmer’s Cabinet in a description of a man who cures his hangover with a cocktail, which was regarded as being “excellent for the head.” In the 1806 publication of The Balance, and Columbian Repository newspaper in Hudson, New York, writers defined the cocktail as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind – sugar, water, and bitters, vulgarly called a ‘bittered sling.’” This definition has held true for some classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Sazerac, but cocktails now comprise a much wider selection of mixed alcoholic beverages.

The First Cocktail Guides

According to David Wondrich, author of Imbibe!, the first printed cocktail recipe was written by British Captain J. E. Alexander in 1831, after a visit to New York’s City Hotel. The drink that Alexander enjoyed and transcribed called for bartenders to use gin, rum, or brandy, and combine “…a third of the spirit to two-thirds of the water; add bitters, and enrich with sugar and nutmeg.”

In 1862, Connecticut resident Jerry Thomas published America’s first-known cocktail recipe book: The Bar-Tender’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks. Thomas had worked for several years as a chef in London and drew heavy inspiration from French chef Alexis Benoit Soyer, whose influence is evident in recipes such as Soyer au Champagne. The first British cocktail book was published in 1869. Penned by William Terrington, Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks harkened back to the original use of the word “cocktail” with its introductory recipe—a gin or brandy cocktail with bitters, ginger syrup, and a splash of water.