Perhaps H.L. Mencken said it best:

The cocktail to multitudes of foreigners, seems to be the greatest of all the contributions of the American way of life to the salvation of humanity, but there remains a good deal of uncertainty about the etymology of its name and even some doubt that the thing itself is of American origin.

Nowadays, we’re somewhat more certain that the word is American in origin than Mencken was, but there is still considerable question about its exact etymology. The explanation best supported by the evidence is that the noun meaning a mixed, spirituous drink is taken from an earlier adjectival use meaning something stimulating or that would “cock one’s tail.”

The earliest known use of cocktail is from the New Hampshire newspaper The Farmer’s Cabinet, 28 April 1803:

Drank a glass of cocktail—excellent for the head...Call’d at the Doct’s. found Burnham—he looked very wise—drank another glass of cocktail

A somewhat earlier citation, from 1789 in the poem titled The Prelateiad; or, the Rape of the Holy Bottle, uses the word as an adjective meaning spirited or rousing, and contextually associated with liquor and its effects:

All Ceylon’s spicy gifts its moisture mends, And Kyan’s Pep. its cock-tail virtue lends.

The context is apparently that of alcoholic drinks (Kyan’s Pep. is a reference to cayenne pepper).

The adjectival use stretches back to at least 1600, when it is found in Samuel Rowlands’s The Letting of Humours Blood in the Head-Vaine:

How cock-taile proude he doth his head aduance How rare his spurres do ring the moris-daunce.

There are various other explanations that appear from time to time, but none are well supported by evidence. Perhaps the most commonly told one is that it is from the French coquetier, or egg-cup. According to this story, the cocktail was invented in New Orleans, circa 1795, by Antoine Amédée Peychaud, an apothecary from Santo Domingo. Peychaud, who is famous as the inventor Peychaud bitters, held social gatherings for fellow Masons at his pharmacy at 437 rue Royale. He would serve brandy toddies to which he would add his own mixture of bitters and would serve in an egg-cup. The drink acquired the name of the cup, but English speaking guests would call it a cocktay, which eventually became the cocktail. The specificity of the details, Peychaud’s renown as a mixologist and the date provide circumstantial credence to this explanation, but there is no direct evidence to support it.

Another explanation has the word deriving from the French coquetel, a drink known in the Bordeaux region for several centuries. According to this account, the drink and its name were introduced to America by French officers during the American Revolution. Again, there is no evidence for this.

Yet another is that it is from cock-ale, a drink popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, but to the modern palate seems a bit disgusting. To a cask of new ale was added a sack containing an old rooster, mashed to a pulp, raisins, mace, and cloves, and the mixture was allowed to infuse for a week or so. From Kenelm Digby’s The Closet of Sir K.D., written sometime before 1648:

To make Cock-Ale. Take eight Gallons of Ale; take a Cock and boil him well.

Or, the explanation could be a prosaic one—that it comes from the practice of inserting rooster feathers into a drink, much like we do today with paper umbrellas.

Finally, here is one that is certainly false, but it has a wonderful folkloric quality to it. According to the tale, long ago an Aztec noble, in an attempt to curry favor, sent the emperor a drink by the hand of his daughter, Xochitl. The emperor liked the drink so much that he married the daughter and named the concoction after her. According to this tale, the term was introduced to the United States by soldiers returning from the Mexican-American War (1846-47). It’s a great story, but alas the evidence shows that the word cocktail was in use more than forty years before that war.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; ADS-L; Mencken’s The American Language, including Supplement I; Radford’s Unusual Words)

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