History & Background of Cocktails

The origin of the word cocktail? It was customary to dock the tails of horses that were not thoroughbred.  They were called cocktailed horses, later simply cocktails. By extension, the word cocktail was applied to a vulgar, ill-bred person raised above his station, assuming the position of a gentleman but deficient in gentlemanly breeding.  Cocktail may also be a reference to ‘gingering’, a practice for perking up an old horse by means of a ginger suppository so that the animal would cock its tail up and be frisky. Some of our recipes do have ginger but fortunately it’s delivered in liquid form !

Mixed alcoholic drinks have been around for around 5,000 years with traces of alcohol being 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 British punches—big bowls of spirits mixed with fruit juice, spices, and other flavours, consumed in punch houses in the 18th century.  Punch was also popular in the British Navy and basically consisted of five ingredients (punch means five in Hindi) and the drink had liquor, citrus juice, sugar, water and spice (usually tea). The term cocktail was first described in 1806 as: “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water and bitters, called a bittered sling.”  Cocktails were often considered as recuperative morning drinks and were provided at fox hunts and polo matches (they’d shed the ill-bred image by then !).

In 1862 the first mixology book the Bartenders Guide by Jerry Thomas was published and around that time the ready availability of ice gave cocktails wider appeal.  Prohibition (1920 –33) in the USA provided an incentive to mix something with the unpalatable home brewed hooch.  Drug stores were allowed to sell “medicinal whiskey” during this time to treat everything from toothaches to the flu. With a physician’s prescription, “patients” could legally buy a pint of liquor every ten days.

With the end of prohibition, Tiki culture arrived in America. Don the Beachcomber (Ernest Gantt) ran an iconic Hollywood restaurant and Polynesian hot spot, while Victor Bergeron (aka “Trader Vic”) opened a self-named 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 The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock which contained some 750 recipes.

During the 50s, 60s and 70s cocktails fell out of favour until reviving in the 80s with vodka often substituting for gin in some cocktails, like James Bond’s favourite the Vodka Martini.  It wasn’t until the 90s, however, that there was a real revival of classic cocktail culture, bringing historical recipes and strict quality standards back. The early 2000s saw the rise of cocktail culture, mixing traditional cocktails and other novel ingredients.