The word “cocktail” arose in the early 1600s, originally used as an adjective describing a creature with a tail like that of a cock, specifically a horse with a docked tail.
Back in those good old days, it was customary to dock the tails of horses that were not thoroughbreds, to identify them as inferior. They were called cocktailed horses, later simply cocktails. The word “cocktail” was also applied to a vulgar, ill-bred person raised above his station, assuming the position of a gentleman but deficient in gentlemanly breeding. In 1806, one writer concluded that a cocktail was an acceptable alcoholic drink, but diluted, not a “purebred” but a thing “raised above its station.”
A second theory holds that the name is derived from the term “cock tailings,” the result of tavern owners combining the dregs (tailings) of nearly empty barrels together into a single elixir that was sold at bargain prices. That only makes sense when you know that the spigot of a barrel was sometimes referred to as a “cock.”
A third theory is mentioned in the book Imbibe! (2007), by David Wondrich, where he speculates that “cocktail” is a reference to 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.”
I can think of kinder ways to make a horse frisky. A bucket of oats, perhaps?
The first reference to”cocktail” says it is “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” Later, Charles Dickens wrote in Martin Chuzzlewit in 1844, “He could … smoke more tobacco, drink more rum-toddy, mint-julep, gin-sling, and cocktail, than any private gentleman of his acquaintance.” In 1857, Thomas Hughes wrote, “Here, Bill, drink some cocktail,” in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. These quotes suggest that the original cocktail was a specific drink, not a generic name for a type of drink.
Other written references to cocktails include James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground, set in 1821, and Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, first published in 1809, in which he describes the Marylanders as laying claim to “those recondite beverages, cock-tail, stonefence and sherry-cobbler.”
“Stonefence” sounded interesting. The word doesn’t appear in the Random House Unabridged, but I found a recipe online: 2 ounces dark rum, hard cider, and a pint glass. I’m not a fan of cider, so I’ll pass on the interesting name and stick to whiskey, straight up.