Just what makes a cocktail “classic?”

“Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

Just what makes a cocktail “classic?” Each day, bars and restaurants around the globe are inventing new cocktail recipes with exotic ingredients and unique techniques. But one thing is certain. Drinks that originated long before Prohibition take the cake when it comes to simplicity and balanced flavor.

Basically, what makes a cocktail a classic is the fact that it originated centuries ago and that the recipe is incredibly simple. You will notice as you refer to the classic drinks that they typically consist of four ingredients or less.

The first published definition of a “cocktail” appeared in an editorial response in The Balance and Columbian Repository of 1806. It read: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

Origins of the word “cocktail”

To pinpoint the true origin of the word is almost impossible as there are numerous theories. However, there are four specific legends that appear most frequently.

One story behind the word cocktail refers to a rooster’s tail (or cock tail) being used as a Colonial drink garnish. Thankfully, there are no formal references in written recipes to such a garnish.

Another popular theory attributes the origin of the word “cocktail” to a mispronunciation of the French term for an eggcup, “coquetel.” Apparently, during the late 18th century, Antoine Amédée Peychaud (inventor of Paychaud bitters) created a simple drink comprised of brandy and his bitters served in an eggcup. To customers, the simple concoction became known as a coquetel. Over time the reference was mispronounced evolving to its name, “cock-tail.”

A third story links the word “cocktail” to the term “cock tailings,” which was the term 18th century tavern owners used to refer to the leftovers of a cask of spirits. The tavern owners would combine the dregs (tailings) of nearly empty barrels together into one barrel and sell the combination in single glass servings at bargain prices. This story only comes full circle when you know that the spigot of a barrel was typically referred to as a “cock.”

Now for the final tale. During the early 17th century, a horse with a docked (or surgically shortened) tail was said to have a “cock tail.” By the 19th century, thoroughbreds did not have docked tails. So when a regular horse was entered into a race, its cock tail was noted – and became a term synonymous with an adulterated horse. Since horse racing and liquor go together like peaches and cream, this theory holds that the word “cock tail” was soon used to mean an adulterated spirit.

All in all, every story has a unique allusion that examplifies the word “cocktail.” It’s quite facinating that they all point to a plausible orgin of the word, while each legend remains compeltely different. Whatever the true “tail” may be, the term “cocktail” has truly stood the test of time!

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