What’s the Origin of the Word “Cocktail”?

We don’t know when the first cocktail was made, or the etymology of the word itself, though there are plenty of theories. H. L. Mencken did extensive research on the topic but in the end came up short, saying the origin of the word cocktail is “quite as dark as the origin of the thing itself.”

We do know that the term originated in America, showing up in publications around the early 19th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest definition of the word appeared in the May 13, 1806, edition of Balance and Columbian Repository, a federalist newspaper in Hudson, New York, where the editor printed an answer to the question “What is a cocktail?” To which he answered: “A cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind—sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It 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.”

There’s a lot of speculation about the actual etymology of the word cocktail, but none of the theories have been verified. Of all the ones Mencken researched, he thought this to be the most likely: During the Colonial period, tavern keepers stored their spirits in casks. When the casks got near empty, the dregs, or tailings, would be mixed together into one barrel and sold at a reduced price—poured from the spigot, which was referred to as the cock. Patrons wanting this cheaper alcohol would come in asking for “cock tailings.”

Another popular story comes from New Orleans, where an apothecary by the name of Peychaud (of bitters fame) served a mixed brandy drink in a French eggcup. Eventually the drink was named coquetier, the French term for an eggcup. Peychaud’s guests shortened the name to “cocktay,” and eventually it became “cocktail.”

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