No one knows with exact certainty where the term “cocktail” for a mixed alcoholic drink came from. If you’re familiar with the animation of Tex Avery, you might picture the scene from the 1951 cartoon “A Symphony in Slang” in which a tuxedoed waiter plucks the tail feathers from a live (but surprisingly calm) rooster and serves them to the narrator in a wine glass.
We’re sorry to disappoint you, but cocktails probably never had anything to do with roosters. The current popular theory is a little more interesting than a drink dressed up with a garnish of rooster’s tail feathers.
Early Use of the Term
The word “cocktail” can definitively be said to have come from the United States. It was already in use in the early 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which cites its earliest known use in a 1806 New York newspaper. That newspaper used the hyphenated “cock-tail” to mean a specific mixture, one we now call an old-fashioned, composed of an alcoholic spirit (often whiskey), water, sugar and bitters.
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), the American cultural critic, journalist and language geek, looked into the matter but couldn’t answer the question of the word’s origin. Mencken’s best guess was that in the American Colonial period, tavern owners called the spirits left at the bottom of their liquor barrels the “tailings.” Barkeeps would sell these dregs for a discounted price, tapping the barrel with a spigot called a “cock.” Thus, tavern guests who wanted cheap liquor would ask the barkeep for the “cocked tailings.”
Other Historical Theories
A story that circulated in the mid-20th century was that “cocktail” was the direct English translation of the Spanish term “cola de gallo.” British sailors visiting a Mexican saloon were said to have been served drinks garnished with the green leaves of an unknown plant. The leaves were called cola de gallo for their feather-like shape.
Other would-be etymologists, finding the term cock-tail in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 novel The Spy, cite Cooper’s reference to a Westchester County tavern keeper named Betty Flanagan. Cooper calls her the inventor of the mixture. According to this theory, the Flanagan in the novel is based on a real woman, one who used bird feathers to fancy up her drink offerings.
Liquor Historian David Wondrich Weighs In
In 2015, David Wondrich gave the world his educated, quite extensively researched guess. He points to the 18th-century term “cock-tailed,” referring to horses holding their tails raised in the air. Cock-tailed horses appear alert and frisky, so horse traders who wanted to perk up a tired animal would surreptitiously apply an irritant such as ginger or pepper to the horses’s rear parts, causing it to raise its tail.
Ew. By extension, the barkeep – like a sneaky horse trader – could perk up a less-than-palatable American whiskey with ginger, pepper or, say, sugar and bitters. Think of that next time you raise your old-fashioned to your lips.