A “cocktail” is an alcoholic mixed drink, either a combination of spirits, or one or more spirits along with other ingredients such as fruit juice, lemonade, flavored syrup, or cream. Non-alcoholic mixed drinks that resemble cocktails are known as “mocktails” or “virgin cocktails.”
More specifically, “cocktail” means a beverage with at least three flavors, one of which is alcohol. More specifically still, it must contain alcohol, a sugar, and a bitter/citrus. When a mixed drink contains only a distilled spirit and a mixer, such as soda, it is a highball.
The first recorded use of cocktail (not referring to a horse!) is found in The Morning Post and Gazetteer in London, England, March 20, 1798.
The first publication of a bartenders’ guide which included cocktail recipes was in 1862 – How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion, by “Professor” Jerry Thomas. In addition to recipes for punches, sours, slings, cobblers, shrubs, toddies, flips, and a variety of other mixed drinks were 10 recipes for “cocktails.” A key ingredient differentiating cocktails from other drinks in this compendium was the use of bitters.
The first “cocktail party” ever thrown was allegedly by Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1917. Walsh invited 50 guests to her home at noon on a Sunday. The party lasted an hour, until lunch was served at 1 pm.
During Prohibition in the US (1919–1933), illegal alcoholic beverages were consumed in “speakeasies.” There was a shift from whiskey to gin, which does not require aging and is therefore easier to produce illicitly. Honey, fruit juices, and other flavorings served to mask the foul taste of the inferior liquors. Sweet cocktails were easier to drink quickly, an important consideration when the establishment might be raided at any moment.
The US government also intentionally poisoned certain alcohol supplies that they knew Americans would drink, killing at least 10,000 people. At the time, alcohol and those who drank it were commonly blamed for most of the problems with the world.
The Mai Tai, a mix of rum, curacao, and lime juice, was adopted from the South Pacific in the 1940s. Sloe Gin Fizz (sloe gin is brewed from “sloe” berries), showed up in the 1950s. Then came the Whiskey Sour, a combination of whiskey, sour mix and a spritz of soda.
Cocktails weren’t so popular in the 1960s and 1970s, but resurged in the 1980s with vodka often substituting the original gin in drinks such as the Martini. Traditional cocktails began to make a comeback in the 2000s, creating a renaissance of cocktail culture in a style typically referred to as “mixology” that draws on traditional cocktails for inspiration but utilizes novel ingredients and often complex flavors.
The Margarita, which first became popular in the 1980s remains the best-selling cocktail today. Its popularity may be attributable to the simplicity of its recipe — lime juice, orange liqueur and a healthy dose of tequila.
So tequila is healthy? Who knew!