Molecular Mixology

This Wednesday’s New York Times had an article by Peter Meehan ("Two Parts Vodka, a Twist of Science") that used the term molecular mixology, the practice of applying knowledge of chemistry and cooking techniques to make distinctive cocktails–I almost wrote original instead of distinctive, except that it seems most of these new cocktails are variants of old classics, like the Martini, instead of being new creations. The term was new to me, so I looked for its origin.

Meehan’s article stated that molecular mixology is a variant of an earlier term, molecular gastronomy, the application of scientific principles to cooking. Newspaper articles are notorious for getting etymologies wrong, but this time Meehan has got it right. The earliest use of molecular mixology that I could find is from 10 October 2004 on ("The new international community forum for molecular gastronomy"):

Molecular Mixology (October 10, 2004, 11:53:01 PM) Hello all . . . I am doing some research into the possibilities presented for a ‘Molecular’ approach to cocktail production.

Its predecessor, molecular gastronomy, is one of those few words we actually know the exact circumstances of its creation. It was coined by physical chemist Hervé This and physicist Nicholas Kurti in 1988 and is, according to This:

…the scientific exploration of culinary and, more generally, gastronomical transformations and phenomena, as described either by culinary books or by cooks. Of course, Molecular Gastronomy is part of food science, but it focuses on (mainly home or restaurant) culinary transformations and eating phenomena (generally ‘gastronomy’) rather than physical and chemical structure of ingredients or transformations done by the food industry.

This goes on about how they chose the term:

I proposed that we use the name Molecular Gastronomy, but Nicholas resisted my chemical inclination and insisted that we also indicate that some processes are not chemical, but physical: we agreed that it would be an International Workshop on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy. One remark: it has been sometimes asked why we did not call it Molecular and physical cooking, which would have avoided this pompous gastronomy. Nicholas and I knew that it was not appropriate, because we wanted to use science in order to examine culinary processes, certainly, but also some phenomena that arise when we are eating. For example, is there a way to avoid the astringent taste of tea? Which kind of wine is to be drunk as we are eating salad? Which kind of spoon should be used as we are eating oeuf à la coque?

(From Molecular gastronomy: a scientific look to cooking, Hervé This, INRA Group of Molecular Gastronomy, Collège de France, Paris, 2004, .)

The term mixology is much older. I had assumed it was a 20th century coinage and was surprised to find that it dates to the 19th century. The first citation of mixology in the OED3 is from 1891 in the title of W.T. Boothby’s Cocktail Boothby’s American bartender: the only practical treatise on the art of mixology published. It is a backformation of the older mixologist, a bartender, which the OED3 has from 1856 when it appeared in The Knickerbocker magazine:

Who ever heard of a man’s…calling the barkeeper a mixologist of tipicular fixins?

Of course mixology, molecular or ordinary, is all about cocktails, a word whose origin is not nearly as clear the one’s we’ve been discussing. Earlier this year, David Barnhart posted the earliest known use of cocktail to the American Dialect Society’s email discussion list. It’s from The Farmer’s Cabinet, 28 April 1803:

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

In response to Barnhart’s posting, Fred Shapiro followed up with a citation from around 1789 in The Prelateiad; or, the Rape of the Holy Bottle:

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 probably a reference to cayenne pepper). The use of cocktail in this passage, however, may not be a direct reference to a drink. Instead, it is likely that it is an adjectival sense of cocktail that dates to at least 1600 and is used to denote something stimulating, something that cocks the tail. If so, it still provides a clue to the origin of cocktail, hinting that the modern noun sense may come from this earlier adjectival usage.

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