Behind the Bar: The Intriguing History of Cocktails

Let's embark on a spirited journey, tracing the fascinating lineage of our beloved cocktails. From the clandestine speakeasies of the Prohibition era to the sophisticated lounges of the 21st century, cocktails have been the lifeblood of many social gatherings. 


But have you ever paused to ponder the origins of your favourite tipple? How did the cocktail come to be, and how did it earn its quirky nickname? 


In this post, we'll stir up the past, shake off the dust, and pour out a riveting tale of the cocktail's evolution. 


The History of Cocktails


The story of cocktails is as intoxicating as the drinks themselves, steeped in centuries of social, cultural, and political change. It was a time when bitters were a common household remedy, and the addition of liqueurs to these medicinal concoctions gave birth to the earliest cocktails.


As the years rolled on, the cocktail culture began to flourish. The early to mid-2000s saw a resurgence of interest in classic cocktails, with bartenders reviving old recipes and adding their unique twists.


Cocktails have evolved from simple mixtures of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters to complex creations involving a myriad of ingredients and intricate preparation methods. They have transcended their humble beginnings to become a symbol of sophistication, creativity, and social enjoyment.


Where the Name "Cocktail" Comes From & Theories


The term "cocktail" has a rich and somewhat disputed history, with multiple speculations and hypotheses about where it originated. 


Cocktail, as a term, was first found in "The Morning Post and Gazetteer" in London in March 1978. This was the first record of it not referring to a horse. However, the Oxford English Dictionary cites the word originating in the U.S., appearing in The Farmer's Cabinet in 1803, referring to a possibly non-alcoholic beverage.


The first known definition of a cocktail as an alcoholic beverage appeared in "The Balance and Columbian Repository" in 1806. The editor, Harry Croswell, answered the question, "What is a cocktail?" with ", Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion...".


There are several theories where the word "cocktail" was derived. 


One hypothesis is that the word evolved from the French "coque tier" - an eggcup - allegedly used to serve guests a mix of cognac.


Another theory suggests that the term "cocktail" was applied to a vulgar, ill-bred person raised above his station, assuming the position of a gentleman but deficient in gentlemanly breeding. By extension, a cocktail was an acceptable alcoholic drink but diluted, not a purebred, a thing raised above its station.


Yet another speculation is that "cocktail" is a reference to "gingering", a practice for perking up an old horse by means of a ginger suppository so that the animal would cock its tail up and be frisky.


Origins of Bartending


Bartending has risen from its roots in taverns and inns into becoming a household hobby for some. Yet, in the past, the role of a bartender was crucial as both servers of alcohol and as a confidant, mediator and, sometimes, entertainer. 


The 19th century saw the rise of the "mixologist" - a bartender who specialised in creating mixed drinks. Here we also saw the invention of the Coffey still by Aeneas Coffey in 1831. This invention revolutionised the distilling process, producing a much purer spirit on a larger scale. 


The improved quality of spirits led to the development of "dry gin", which eventually became known as "London dry gin". This new style of gin was more aromatic and less sweet than its predecessors, making it an ideal base for cocktails.


American and cocktail bars - establishments focused on serving mixed drinks - appeared and were often lavish and elegant. 


They were staffed by professional bartenders who were skilled in the art of mixing drinks. These bartenders were often celebrities, the most famous being Jerry Thomas, also known as "the father of American mixology".


The bartending profession continued to evolve, with the Prohibition era in the U.S. (1920-1933) having a significant impact. Despite the ban on alcohol, the demand for cocktails continued. Instead, it went underground, leading to the rise of speakeasies and new cocktails designed to mask the taste of poor-quality spirits.



The Impact of Cocktails on Modern Culture


Cocktails have left their mark on modern culture, influencing everything from social rituals to pop culture. But what other impacts have they had?


Social Rituals: Drinking cocktails has become a social ritual in many cultures. Whether it's a Martini at a business lunch, a Mojito at a summer barbecue, or a glass of Mulled Wine during the holiday season, cocktails set the mood and mark the occasion.


Pop Culture: Cocktails have also made their mark on pop culture. From James Bond's famous "shaken, not stirred" Martini to The Dude's White Russian in The Big Lebowski, cocktails have been immortalised in films, books, and songs. They've become symbols of certain characters, eras, and lifestyles, adding depth and nuance to our storytelling.


Art and Creativity: Creating a cocktail is an art form in itself. It involves a delicate balance of flavours, a keen understanding of ingredients, and a flair for presentation. Mixologists use their creativity and skill to craft drinks that are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate. This has led to cocktail competitions, mixology classes, and even cocktail-themed art exhibits.


Economic Impact: The cocktail industry has also had a significant economic impact. From distilleries and breweries to bars and restaurants, the production and sale of cocktails contribute to job creation and economic growth. 


The Future of Cocktails


From their humble beginnings in the taverns and inns of yesteryear's to their prominent place in our social rituals and pop culture, cocktails have come a long way. Evolving from simple mixtures of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters to complex creations, mixologists have changed how we know and enjoy our favourite drinks. 


The term "cocktail" itself, shrouded in mystery and folklore, is a testament to these beloved beverages' rich and colourful history. Whether it's derived from the French term "coquetel", the practice of serving drinks in rooster-adorned egg cups, or the tradition of "cock-tails" in colonial America, the origins of the term add an extra layer of intrigue to our enjoyment of these drinks.


And the best part? The story of cocktails is still being written.


With The Cocktail Man's cocktail kits, you can explore the world of cocktails from the comfort of your home. Each kit is crafted with one of our selected liqueurs, providing a balance of flavours that takes the challenge out of preparing a perfect, professional-grade cocktail.


Cheers to that! 🍸