History & Background of Cocktails

What’s In A Name?

The origin of the word cocktail? Horses that were not thoroughbred usually had their tails docked.  They were called cocktailed horses, later simply cocktails. By extension, an ill-bred person raised above his station who assumed the position of a gentleman was also called a cocktail.  Cocktail may also be a reference to ‘gingering’ which was the practice for perking up an old horse in preparation for it’s sale.  A ginger suppository was applied, so that the animal would cock its tail up and become frisky. Some cocktail recipes do include ginger but usually in the form of a drink!

Knockout Punch

Mixed alcoholic drinks have been around for around for over 5,000 years. Traces of alcohol have been detected on Mesopotamian pottery.  Bitters and lime have been added to alcoholic drinks for medicinal purposes for at least 200 years.  Cocktails were partly inspired by punches which were popular in the British Navy. It consisted of five ingredients (punch means five in Hindi) with liquor, citrus juice, sugar, water and spice (usually tea).  Cocktails were often provided at fox hunts and polo matches as a morning pick-me-up – they’d shed the ill-bred image by then!

Bartender, Mix Me A Drink

The Bartenders Guide written by Jerry Thomas in 1862 was the first book on mixology. Cocktails gained wider appeal at that time through the ready availability of ice.  Prohibition in America (1920-33) provided an incentive to mix something with the unpalatable home-brewed hooch.  Drug stores, however, were still allowed to sell ‘medicinal whiskey’. Patients could legally buy a pint of liquor every ten days with a physician’s prescription (the original Dr Feelgood?).

The Golden Age

Tiki culture arrived in America shortly after prohibition, . Don the Beachcomber (Ernest Gantt) opened an iconic restaurant and Polynesian hot spot in Hollywood.  Victor Bergeron (aka “Trader Vic”) ran a competing Tiki spot in San Francisco.  Many of the great cocktail recipes were created during the 1930s.  One of the definitive cocktail books of that era was Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book which contained some 750 recipes.

The Modern Era

Cocktails fell out of favour  the 1950s, 60s and 70s until reviving in the 1980s with vodka often substituting for gin in some cocktails.  The 1990s saw the real revival of classic cocktail culture, bringing back historical recipes and strict quality standards. The early 2000s saw the real rise of cocktail culture, mixing traditional cocktails and many other novel ingredients.