Cocktails – a history

Like the ingredients of all good cocktails, the word is cloaked in mystery


The Americans entered one claim for it, deriving it from a drink supposedly called “coquetel” served to French soldiers during the war of American independence (1775 to 1783), but “coquetel” is a French word that denotes an egg-cup sized container so it really denotes a small “shot glass” rather than the drink served within it (which most likely would have been brandy).

An article in a 1798 edition of The Morning Post and Gazetteer, a London newspaper refers to the prime-minister William Pitt (the younger) having a tab for “cock-tail (vulgarly called ginger)”. The article is satirical – the reference to “ginger” is a somewhat obscene reference to an apocryphal technique for perking up a horse and an aspersion to Mr. Pitt’s perky demeanour. However the play on words demonstrates that the word “cocktail” is already in common usage for a drink with a similar use.

William Pitt Pompous Pisshead

The fact that the cocktail was invented as a hangover cure is made explicit in an 1803 edition of the New Hampshire periodical “the Farmer’s Cabinet” – referring to someone with a hangover drinking “a glass of cocktail — excellent for the head”. In an age when most people were engaged in farming it makes sense that a hangover cure would acquire a name derived from raising the cock’s tail back up (especially when the cockerel was the unwelcome alarm clock of its day) – just slightly less obscene than the horse tale anyway.


Early recipes are usually gin combined with fruit juices and spices (possibly including ginger), so it seems likely the practice of taking “a hair of the dog” becomes common as soon as strong alcohol – in the form of gin – was plentifully and cheaply available. This came about in England in the early 18th Century when a grain surplus caused a collapse in prices. The monarch of the day – William of Orange – responded to the problem by encouraging farmers to convert the surplus into gin. The ensuing historical period is sometimes called “the Great Booze Up” and you can be sure the hangover cocktail followed not long after.

Gin alley

Pimm’s cocktail liqueurs

It was probably in the 1840s when the famous Pimm’s range of cocktail liqueurs became popular (some say the recipes begin in the 1820s but aren’t bottled until the 1850s). Basically they were an endeavour to conveniently pre-assemble all the exotic ingredients for a tonic cocktail into a bottle. A Pimm’s No1 remains the official drink at Wimbledon Tennis Tournaments to this day and includes gin, quinine (as in tonic water) ginger (ale) and cucumber. Subsequent Pimms were attempts to do the same on other spirit bases such as whisky brandy and rum but were relatively unpopular and soon disappeared.

First cocktail recipe books

These various mixes of fruit, vegetable, spice and whatever alcohol was to hand were also often called Slings, Fizzes, Toddies, Juleps or Punch. The first known printing of a recipe dates from 1831 and is credited to Captain J.E. Alexander who recommends “a mix of gin, brandy or rum one part of which is to be mixed with two parts of water and flavoured with sugar and nutmeg”.

The highball

The first known books devoted to recipes didn’t appear until the 1860s – curiously this is also when the “Great Booze Up” ended in the UK because grain prices had stabilised, so perhaps they become respectable enough to be published precisely because cheap spirits are no longer readily available to the poor.

In an 1862 publication “Bar-tenders Guide or How to mix Drinks” the author Jerry Thomas reserves the word “cocktails” for those recipes that include bitters. That most famous of cocktails – the Martini (or Martinez) – originated that same year and consists of 4 parts red vermouth to 1 part gin, garnished with a cherry.

The rules linking cocktails to bitters, or to gin – if either were ever really a rule –soon disappear. The high-ball is popularised after 1898 and is just whisky and soda.

Prohibition helps cocktails boom

The Margarita

Prohibition in the US made them ever more popular there – probably as a way of disguising alcohol in a fruit juice. One of the bibles of cocktail preparation was published at this time – the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock. (Again Americans claim to own this landmark in cocktail history, but Harry Craddock was from Stroud Gloucestershire).

The margarita, dating from 1948, was popularised by Jack Kerouac and consists of tequila, triple-sec (for example cointreau) and lime juice, (it was named after a Dallas socialite called Margarita Sames).Tequila

Tequila was again the “hip” spirit in the 1970s usually in the form of the tequila sunrise. Other cacti and succulent (agave, aloes) ingredients are now definitely in again – for example Bacanora which, like its tequila and mezcal siblings, is derived from an agave.

Cocktails have never really gone out of fashion as a party drink, but it’s in the 1970s and early 80s when growing affluence, foreign travel, and the increasing availability of exotic spirits and fruits, led to an explosion of experimentation, especially centred in the new wine and cocktail bars.

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posted by Daddio

Writer and philosopher

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