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Origin of the word cocktail


There are innumerable stories of the origin of the word cocktail. There’s the Mexican Princess who made a cocktail for visitor to her father’s court. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a princess in the history of Mexico with a name remotely like Cocktail. Mexico did however have a long history of rum production when it was under Spanish rule. But that’s a separate historical footnote.

Was it named after a type of race horse? A tavern keeper who stirred drinks with a feather? Was it from the barrel dregs? From cock ale? A garnish of mint? The foam that descended down the side of the glass? (These last two were suggested as drinkers pondered this question in the mid-19th century.)
Looking at the 1806 definition: a drink made with spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters…vulgarly called a bittered sling. Yes, I’m paraphrasing here, just to get to the point.
A bittered sling. So what separated the cocktail from the sling was the bitters? Add bitters to a sling and it becomes a cocktail. So far so good. Now, let’s take a closer look at the bitters bottle.
Some early dasher bottles were made by pushing a short length of feather shaft through a cork. Modern bitters dasher bottles are still made in this shape. The feather would have to be a large one to give a large enough diameter for dashing bitters through. A rooster’s tail feather perhaps?

So, the difference between a sling and a cocktail in that first definition was a dash of bitters through the cock’s tail.
Just what we needed–another birth of the cocktail theory.
In case you’re wondering, that’s Eben Freeman holding one of his beautiful old bitters bottles at Tailor in New York City.

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