History & origin of cocktails

There’s nothing quite like sipping a nice cocktail with your friends. Bright colours, various garnishes, a never-ending surprise of what you might get. Cocktails have come a long way since their conception.

Originally created as a blend of spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. We now have specialist mixologists across our favourite bars to entice us into a new world of cocktail drinking; concoctions and mixes aplenty. There’s no end to what can go into a cocktail now - and no real definition of what it should be. This means cocktail making can only improve as we learn more about spirits, blends, flavours, and mixes. 

  1. What is a cocktail?
  2. History & epistemology of cocktails 
  3. Who invented the cocktail?
  4. What is mixology?
  5. Highland Boundary cocktails

What is a cocktail?

A cocktail is a mixture of spirits, wines,  fruits, juices, cream, and historically bitters prepared by a bartender, which can often come in a non-alcoholic form. You can also create your favorite cocktails at home with the right equipment and ingredients. 

In the early days of alcohol consumption, a cocktail was originally created as a blend of alcohol, sugar, water, and bitters - before that using ginger or pepper. However over the years, cocktails have grown into the classic we know and love including; Mojitos, Margaritas, Manhattans, Spritz, and Old Fashioned to name a few. Step into any bar in the UK and most likely they will have their own creations, there’s no end to the cocktails you can now consume. 

However, the history of cocktails is a long, complex, and very interesting one. 

History & epistemology of cocktails 

There are many highly disputed, unverified, and debunked theories of how the word cocktail came to fruition. Much like the shot, there’s lots of confusion about the epistemology and history of cocktails. The first written mention of the word cocktail was in ‘The Farmers Cabinet’ written in 1806, a US agricultural magazine: 

“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.”

However, the first written description of word cocktail was on 13th May 1806 in ‘The Balance and Columbian Repository’ newspaper as an answer to a reader's question, written by paper editor Harry Croswell. 

“Cock-tail 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, in as much 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 anything else”

By the mid-1800s it was a generally well-known term having featured in several other publications and novels - mostly used as political satire. Including the mention of a cocktail in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel ‘The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground’ in his Betsy Flannagin story written in 1821: 

“the inventor of that beverage which is so well known at the present hour [i.e., 1821], to all the patriots who make a winter’s march between [New York City and Albany], and which is distinguished by the name of ‘cock-tail.'

However, the above story was in reference to events many years prior in the 1700s, which would point to the word cocktail being around several years before its first written form. So how the word came to be as we know it today is another question altogether.

There are several theories you can find online including: 

  1. One of the most common theories, generally used in the Oxford Dictionary, is that it’s in relation to a horse’s tail. In that when a horse’s tail is shorter or clipped it was historically referenced to as being ‘cock-tailed’ - this became a negative association to horses that weren’t thoroughbred and came from a mixed lineage. Many scholars came to believe this led the word to be used to describe blended and mixed drinks. 
  2. During the Colonial period when tavern owners stored their spirits in casks when they were empty they would combine the dregs (or tailings) together into one barrel. These mixes were poured from the spigot, which was often referred to as the cock. Those who wanted a cheaper drink would come in and ask for the ‘cock tailings’. 
  3. In Mexico the drinks were stirred with a root called Cola De Galla, in English, this is translated as a ‘rooster’s tail’ - the English soldiers noticed this and brought the term over to the UK. 

Above are just a few of the widely circulating theories of how we came to know, and love, the cocktail.

However, we get as close to the truth as we will ever get in Dave Whondrich’s work. Whondrich, through years of studying and researching the cocktail for his work Imbibe Magazine, nailed down a working history of the cocktail and its epistemology. 

David argues that the word does in fact stem from horses, however not the variation of the tale that the Oxford Dictionary gives us. In fact, in the less appropriate version, it’s said that during the 1700s ginger and pepper were used as horse suppositories to make them a little bit more ‘perky’. 

Through his research he found, after reading Francs Grose’s 1785 ‘A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue', the definition of ‘to feague’. Grose’s work states that the act of ‘feagueing’ was to put  “ginger up a horse’s fundament, to make him lively and carry his tail well.” Basically, giving the horse a more ‘cocked-tail’ - a sign of a ‘spirited’ horse. Well, something we can all agree on is that we can all become a little more spirited after a cocktail or two. Grose continues with his definition as ‘used figuratively for encouraging or spiriting one up.”

Before bitters were widely used in cocktails both pepper and ginger were used as spices instead. 



But, who invented the cocktail?

Who made the first cocktail, on the other hand? Well, you could argue that we have been making cocktails since the day we had alcoholic beverages to mix. This is a long-disputed argument as well, with many origins. The cocktail is an elusive drink with the classic punch and gin-and-bitters merging themselves into the birth of the cocktail as we know it. 

Alcohol expert David Whondrich has done extensive research into the conception of the cocktail. Dating it back to Great Britain in the 1700s. A celebrity bartender of the time, James Ashley, created his own punch house in London - he is written as the first notable mixologist. Punch was spirits mixed with other juice and fruit, generally served in larger bowls for sharing. However, around this time bartenders up and down the UK, including Ashley were creating smaller mixes and serving them in individual glasses. 

However, before Ashley, as early as the late 1600s a man named Richard Soughton owned an apothecary in London. He advertised his products (roots, barks, peels) as “Staughton Bitters” and told his customers to add them to brandy and wine. This was specifically relevant for getting over a hangover. So if we were to really nail down an inventor, our man Stoughton would probably be the one. Through the years of adding bitters to our drinks and using spices for ‘perking’ up horses' tails, you can see how the words came to align to mean ‘cocktail’ as we know it now. 

It was actually the Americans who defined the idea of cocktails as we understand them today. They reimagined the British punch and gin-and-bitters. American’s had a larger collection of liquors and other novel ingredients. They were the first to mix wine with spirit, creating classics such as the Manhattan and the Martini. They were also the first to refer to the whole drink as a ‘cocktail’ rather than just the bitter element as of 1806. Professor Jerry Thomas is well admired for his work within the drinks industry in the US, a pioneering mixologist, and bartender who wrote the first bar manual in 1862.

So there we have it, we may not have a clear linear idea of how cocktails came about. However, it is without a doubt we’ve been serving up delicious delicacies and bittered drinks from very early on, not just in the UK but across the globe. 


What is mixology?

Mixology is a relatively new term to drinking culture & scholarship. Once the boom of cocktails finally happened during and after the American prohibition - and once everyone was well versed in the name and what they were - Mixology came into play. Originally there were classic cocktails for example; The Old Fashioned, The Martini, The Moscow Mule & The Manhattan. Over the years we became more creative, artistic, and well-versed in mixing drinks and flavours then along came mixology. 

Mixology now is a skill and is seen across the drinks industry as a highly-distinctive discipline. It requires research, practice, patience, and focus. Not every bartender is a mixologist, however, every mixologist is a bartender. Mixologist’s study and practice for years to learn how to pair flavours, discover and combine new ingredients, and ultimately create new cocktails or create variations of the classics. 


Highland Boundary cocktails 

We have worked with our own mixologist here at Highland Boundary, Jack of Scottish Mixology, to create a range of cocktails. Browse our cocktail collections here. We have worked on a few classic remakes as well as our own collections. 

1. Forest Dry Martini 

A beautiful dry martini with a real difference in taste. Vermouth, Ice & our wild Birch & Elderflower spirit. Our take on a true classic cocktail. One for the history books! 

2. Wild Appletini 

Fresh and fruity flavours to a smooth classic drink. Mix our Birch & Elderflower liqueur with Calvados in a cocktail mixer then add cloudy apple juice. Pour into your favourite martini glass - Delicious! 

3. The Macjito Cocktail 

A modern Scottish whirl on the Mojito. Swap out the white rum for our Birch & Elderflower spirit and then punch up the floral tones using elderflower spirit instead of mint. Lovely stuff. 

4. Wild Negroni 

The Negroni is a long-standing favourite cocktail of the Italians.  We swap out the gin and bring in our Birch and Elderflower spirit for a shift to the wild side. Enjoy this Scottish twist on an Italian favourite. 

The best thing about cocktails is that you can make your own using various spirits, flavours and ingredients. Gone are the days when you need a hint of ginger or pepper to spice up your drink. Have fun and enjoy trying to be your very own mixologist.

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