What Really Is a Cocktail?


If you enjoy the occasional adult beverage, then you’ve probably ordered a cocktail at some point in your life. But do you know exactly what you’re ordering and where it came from? What makes this style of drink such a popular choice? 

We’ve got everything you want to know about cocktails so you can impress your friends at your next event with your knowledge about the drink they have in hand. Let’s dive into some fun facts about your favorite brunch-time staple and the history behind these famous drinks. 

We’re covering all bases today, so grab your pens, papers, and glasses (for reading and for drinking), and let’s dive in.

What Is a Cocktail? 

The textbook definition of a cocktail is: "an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients." While this definition seems broad, it’s pretty spot-on, considering all the different varieties of cocktails that are out there. 

A cocktail really is any type of alcoholic mixed drink, and they’re most often made of a mix of spirits of any kind, water or fruit juice, sugar, and bitters. They’re often served at the beginning of the meal, generally with appetizers or a first course. From this word have arisen multiple other usages—for example, cocktail attire and cocktail dresses are a designed level of formality, while shrimp cocktail is served as a first course, often alongside (you guessed it), a cocktail. 

The first published definition of a cocktail was in 1806 by The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, which defined the mixed drink as: “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water and bitters, vulgarly called a bittered sling.” Most cocktail lovers take this definition as the true definition of the beloved drink. 

Today, the rules regarding what makes a cocktail a cocktail are pretty fuzzy. Some argue that any drink can be considered a cocktail if it has alcohol in it—meaning a mixed drink with beer (like a Shandy) would be considered a cocktail, as would a one-to-one mixer like a vodka cran or a gin and juice. We think the New Yorkers got the cocktail definition right all those years ago… Way to go, guys! 

What Is the History of the Cocktail?

People have been mixing drinks for ages. From medicinal elixirs to homemade concoctions, mixed drinks have always been a favorite. However, it wasn't until the early 18th and 19th centuries that the practice of mixing drinks for enjoyment became a common practice. 

In 1862, Jerry Thomas wrote the first bartender's guide titled How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion. It was the first published drink book in America. Today, the book is still a standard for mixologists everywhere and is a solid reference for a good, old-fashioned cocktail. 

Any bartender can tell you that knowing how to make classic cocktails is one of the most important skills to learn for anyone starting on a mixology journey. It seems simple on the surface, but the endless number of ingredients and combinations can get a little overwhelming.

Where Did the Name “Cocktail” Come From? 

One of the most intriguing parts about this topic is the history of the name “cocktail,” because it’s hard to concretely say where it came from. 

Some say it is an American invention through and through. Others argue it came from royalty in France and should be honored as such. More still will argue that it has to do with thoroughbred racehorse breeding, although we’re not so sure we’re convinced by that. 

Here are all the theories we found on how the name “cocktail” arose.

Theory #1: Betsy Flanagan

One well-received theory of the name cocktail comes from an innkeeper named Betsy Flanagan, who was famous for her mixed drinks during the Revolutionary War. 

The tale is as follows:  Betsy would steal chickens from her neighbors to roast, and she also served her mixed drinks in glasses decorated with tail feathers that she secretly plucked from those same chickens. The theory has it that “cocktail” came from Betsy and her bird-inspired antics. 

Theory #2: French Coquetels 

Another popular theory is that the term came from the French word coquetel, which means “egg cup.” A New Orleans man, Antoine Amédée Peychaud, was famously known for making bitters and serving them mixed with brandy in coquetels. Supposedly, the French word was difficult to pronounce, and patrons ended up just saying “cocktail,” instead. 

Theory #3: Barrel Terminology

“Cock tailings” was a term used by tavern owners to describe the mixture created after mixing the dregs (tailings) of nearly empty barrels of beer together. Tavern owners then would sell this mixture at a discounted price. The word “cock” was used to refer to the plug/ tap of the barrel—thus, the name cocktail was born.

Theory #4: An Aztec Princess

This one may seem a little far-fetched, but the theory has quite the following. Some say that the name cocktail is a distant derivation of the Aztec goddess, Xochiquetzal. The story goes that a Mexican princess, Xochitl (named after the goddess), would serve alcoholic mixed drinks to American soldiers. 

Theory #5: Cock Your Tail!

The most straightforward definition (and perhaps the most believable!) is that the name simply comes from the fact that the famous drink will “cock your tail”—a.k.a., get your spirits up!  

Regardless of the actual origin, it’s safe to say that the cocktail is not only a fan favorite but world-renowned too. Part of the fun of cocktails is deciding for yourself what goes into your drink—so why not do the same when deciding where the name came from? It’s up to you, so which theory do you believe? 

The History of the Most Popular Cocktails

Now that we have established the origins of the cocktail, let’s explore some specifics about these classic beverages. People have been using alcoholic beverages as a source of entertainment and enjoyment for centuries, and the cocktail has a huge part in that.

Let’s dive into some of the most popular cocktails and their origins. 

1. The Old-Fashioned

In 1806, one of the most popular beverages was called a Whiskey Cocktail. As bartending and mixology became more common practice, mixologists started to stray away from the original recipe. At that point, many began asking for it to be made the “old-fashioned way,” hence the name. 

2. The Bellini

This drink rose into popularity thanks to Giuseppe Cipriani, the founder of Harry’s Bar. He created the drink now famously known as the Bellini sometime between 1934 and 1948. 

This tangy, pink drink bears the name “Bellini” to pay homage to one of his favorite Italian Renaissance painters, Giovanni Bellini. Cipriani said that the pink color of the drink reminded him of a toga in one of his favorite Bellini pieces. And if you’re craving a Bellini without all the work that goes into making one, we’ve got you. 

3. The Manhattan

One of the most well-known of the cocktails is the Manhattan, and many names over the years have claimed to have created this classic. The most credible answer comes from the Big Apple. The drink likely dates back to the 1860s bar scene, and the cocktail we know and love is rumored to have come from the famous Churchill family.

Jennie Churchill is rumored to have thrown a party to celebrate the victory of Samuel J. Tilden winning New York’s gubernatorial election. An up-and-coming bartender created the Manhattan specifically for this event—they definitely knew how to party back then. 

Who knew that there was so much history and mystique surrounding such a simple drink? Whether you consider yourself a beginner or a mixology expert, the world of mixed drinks just got a little bigger for us all. When it comes to cocktails, understanding where they came from can really help anyone capture the flavor profile and the overall vibe of the drink! 

Cocktail Honorable Mentions

Of course, there are plenty more cocktails than the ones we’ve listed here, and the specific formula always varies. Here are a few more classics that you may want to experiment with:

  • Martini: Vodka or gin and vermouth
  • Mojito: Mint, rum, soda water, and lime
  • Daiquiri: Rum, simple syrup, and lime
  • Margarita: Tequila, triple sec, and lime
  • Tom Collins: Gin, lemon juice, soda water, and simple syrup

The Creativity of the Cocktail

From the 1800s to now, the classic cocktail doesn't seem to be going out of style anytime soon. Regardless of what you whip up behind the bar, the cocktail is a staple for any event, from brunch to a night on the town. 

Here at Ohza, we love ourselves a cocktail, but we understand that you may not always have the time or patience to mix one up yourself. That’s why we’ve created the perfect sweet-but-not-too-sweet options for you, ready-made! Whether you choose something tart and tangy like our Cranberry Mimosa, or you keep it classic with the original version, there’s something for everyone. 

All that's left to do is get some hands-on experience. Define a cocktail as you choose, and don’t be afraid to do some experimenting yourself with flavors and liqueurs. 

Sources 

Definition and History of the Cocktail | The Spruce Eats  

The Stories Behind 11 Famous Cocktails | Mental Floss

How Did a Cocktail Come to Be Called a Cocktail? | The Daily Beast 

The Real Origin of the Word Cocktail | Chowhound 

Legends, Myths And Facts About The History Of The Cocktail | Food Republic 

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