With the 204th anniversary of the cocktail fast approaching 4bars.com.au thought it was apt to tell the story of the cocktail’s first definition in print and why we celebrate May 6 – 13 as World Cocktail Week.
Early May, 1806 there was apparently an election held in Claverack New York and, as often occurs in elections, somebody lost. The Balance and Columbian Repository – a newspaper from Hudson, New York – printed on May 6, 1806, a tongue in cheek piece by the loser of said race – it was an itemised account of their gains and losses for the election.
The Museum of the American Cocktail – who promote World Cocktail Week around the globe and who are on a mission to preserve and promote the history of the cocktail – have thankfully dug up this piece for us.
Rum! Rum! Rum!
It is conjectured, that the price of
this precious liquor will soon rise at
Claverack since a certain candidate has
placed in his account of Loss and Gain,
the following items: —
17 brandy do.
411 glasses bitters
25 do. cock-tail
The following week the paper printed a letter from a subscriber who was perplexed by the term ‘cock-tail’ seen above. Here’s a wee extract from that letter that cuts more or less to the point:
Will you be so obliging as to inform me what is meant by this species of refreshment?
… I have heard of a forum, of phlegm-cutter and fog driver, of wetting the whistle, of moistening the clay, of a fillip, a spur in the head, quenching a spark in the throat, of flip & c, but never in my life, though have lived a good many years, did I hear of cock tail before. Is it peculiar to a part of this country? Or is it a late invention? Is the name expressive of the effect which the drink has on a particular part of the body? Or does it signify that the democrats who take the potion are turned topsycurvy, and have their heads where their tails should be?
The good editor obliged this inquisitive chap and a good thing too! The response, that was printed on May 13, 1806, gives us the first recored definition of the term cocktail and thus every year May 13 is marked as World Cocktail Day. Here is that same definition:
[As I make it a point, never to publish anything (under my editorial head) but which I can explain, I shall not hesitate to gratify the curiosity of my inquisitive correspondent: 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 any thing else.
So there you have it! A cocktail is “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters”. In these olden times a cocktail was simply a classification of mixed beverage, but it’s popularity grew so much over the 19th and early 20th centuries that it became a term synonymous with all mixed alcoholic concoctions.
The cocktail and, indeed, all mixed beverages, are often viewed as the pinnacle of a bartender’s craft. A skilled cocktailian in the 19th and early 20th century was a figure of respect. Promoting cocktail culture and awareness through celebrating the likes of World Cocktail Day has started revitalise this image amongst the public.
If you like to know more about the history of the cocktail paying a visit to The Museum of the American Cocktail is a great start. While you’re there become a member – which will give you access to some cool out of print cocktail books – and help preserve the history of grand beverages and the bartending craft.