Whether your preference is an Old-Fashioned, a Martini, a Long Island Iced Tea or a Moscow Mule, there is no doubt you have a few favorite go-to cocktails when an occasion calls for one. Have you ever wondered how all of these drinks ended up under the umbrella of the odd-sounding label of “cocktail”? Although the drinks above are all relatively modern inventions, the cocktail has been around in one form or another since at least the late 1700s (if not earlier) and the term “cocktail” has a rather intriguing history behind it. While there is still not absolute certainty about its origins, digging into the past of the cocktail proved to be worthwhile.
Connection between cocktails and ginger
The term cocktail was once actually used as a slang expression for a beverage which was officially called a ginger. It seems as though a ginger may have not even originally contained alcohol, judging from its price compared to other drinks made with spirits. So, what’s the connection between a ginger and a cocktail?
According to Francis Grose’s 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the definition of the verb “to feague” is described by Grose as the act of putting “ginger up a horse’s fundament, to make him lively and carry his tail well.” In his day, apparently, when a horse dealer was preparing to show a horse that was for sale, they would give the horse a ginger suppository to encourage a more raised, cocked-up appearance of its tail, which would in turn make the horse seem more spirited. Grose went on to say that the expression was also “used figuratively for encouraging or spiriting one up.”
Interestingly, feaguing and “cock-tail” are mentioned again in a 1790 provincial English newspaper in a piece of political satire in which the author declares that a particular clergyman “hath been guilty of monopolizing all the ginger and pepper in the neighbourhood, to make the asses who vote for Sir Gerald Vanneck cock their tails.” Cayenne pepper was also praised for its “cock-tail virtue” in The Prelateiad, a somewhat vague Dublin verse satire dating to 1789. The practice of feaguing was something that was relatively well-hidden from the general public and knowledge of this use of “cock-tail” would have generally been limited to those among the inner circles of the sporting world.
Therefore, the cocktail was known in England as the stimulant (ginger or hot pepper) that was added to an alcoholic drink. Somewhere along the line in America, though, the name for the spicy component of a drink began to extend to all alcoholic beverages made with liquor, and shelf-stable bitters eventually replaced fresh ginger and cayenne. Thus, the cocktail as we now know it was born. Cheers!