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The Etymology of Mixology

By Devin D. O'Leary

AUGUST 2, 1999:  The origin of alcoholic beverages dates back far longer than recorded history can recall. Not long after they crawled out of their caves, our ancient ancestors probably discovered that those rotting fruits in the field give them a pretty good buzz if they ate 'em. Fermented grain products (beer) and fermented fruit products (wine) soon followed and are noted elements in the history of basically every civilization on Earth. Sophisticated distilling equipment (capable of producing more potent "hard" liquor) has been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, but our modern distilling practices trace back to 10th century Arab alchemists who were able to distill pure alcohol from wine (our word "alcohol," in fact, is derived from the Arabic "al-kuhl").

But what was the first actual cocktail (mixed drink) ever quaffed? Where did the name even derive from? Hard to say on both counts, but rumors are as interesting as truths when spoken over the rim of a Martini glass.

Read a dozen books and you'll hear a dozen different explanations as to the origin of the modern cocktail. The Bartender's Book, published in 1951 by the Bartender's Union of New York, quotes a rather fanciful tale of "a Mexican Indian maiden named Xochtil, who served a mixed drink to an American general. The bluff military man was thankful, but being inclined to anglicize such heathen names, bestowed the name 'Cocktail' upon his now-favored tipple." Unlikely, but a fine cocktail party story nonetheless.

According to several sources, including the "History of Mixed Drinks and How to Make 42 Great Ones" pamphlet put out by the Southern Comfort Corp. throughout the 1960s and '70s, the cocktail got its start during the Revolutionary War. Southern Comfort's oft-repeated tale tells of a barmaid in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., by the name of Betsy Flannagan who served Washington's officers a special drink make from rum, rye and fruit, and decorated with tail feathers from a Tory neighbor's rooster. Inspired, a French soldier in the group declared a toast: "Vive le coq's tail!" There are various legends concerning the origins of cocktails involving an actual cock's tail. I think it's fairly safe to label such stories as apocryphal.

Several other tales attempt to trace the cocktail's origins through French roots. Some believe that the word can be followed back to a famous beverage at the legendary Chapon Fin, an old Bordeaux restaurant where the coquetel, or "little cock," was served. Unfortunately, "little cocks" in French are actually coquelets. Another New Orleans-based story tells of a waterfront apothecary which served medicinal liquors in coquetiers or "eggcups." While vaguely plausible, these stories have yet to find a realistic connection between chicken feathers and thirsty drunkards.

According to other Southern drink scholars, the first cocktail originated in Revolutionary-era Culpepper Court House, Va., at an inn named the Cock and Bottle. Run by one Colonel Carter, the public house's sign displayed a cock and a bottle, indicating that both draft and bottled ale could be had within. Since "cock" is another word for the wooden tap on a draft beer barrel, this much of the story is likely. If the keg was nearly empty, the muddy dregs were allegedly called the "cock tail." Dregs, lees or tails are all interchangeable words for this barrel-bottom phenomenon. According to drunken historians in Virginia, Colonel Carter was once served the "cock tail" and became so angry with the poor quality that he said, "Hereafter, I will drink cocktails of my own brewing." Right away, Carter poured together various ingredients to make his new drink more palatable, and the first cocktail was born.

While it seems likely that the word "cocktail" originated sometime around the Revolutionary War, the actual practice of mixing liquors has probably been around far longer.

Shortly after disgorging from the Mayflower, the Pilgrims began swilling all the beer, cider and rum they could produce. Since early storage and preservation techniques were somewhat poor, our Puritan predecessors often had to disguise their slightly spoiled swill by mixing it with other ingredients. Alice Morse Earle, in her book Customs and Fashions of Old New England, describes an everyday tipple in Salem, Mass., known as Whistle Belly Vengeance. The drink consisted of soured beer, sweetened with molasses, simmered in a kettle and filled with brown bread crumbs. Yum. Fairfax Downey, in Our Lusty Forefathers, reports a favorite of early landlords called the Colonial Flip: Fill a mug two-thirds full of beer, put four spoonfuls of mixed eggs, sugar and cream, thrust in a red-hot poker and add a gill of rum. Yet another early concoction of questionable merit consisted of rum, hot cider, sugar, eggs and spices. This drink -- known as the Rumfustian -- was apparently a staple swig of early settlers. Other unpalatable-sounding early American concoctions included Killdevil, Switchell, Rambullion, Metheglin, Blackstrap, Stonewall and Calibogus.

Most of the cocktails we know and love today (Martinis, Manhattans, Daiquiris, Singapore Slings) originated between the turn of the century and Prohibition (when poor quality liquor, again, needed to be disguised in a swirl of ingredients). It is to the early American settlers (and maybe -- just maybe -- to an Indian maiden named Xochtil) that we owe a toast of gratitude, however. So next time you're down at the local pub, why not hoist a tankard of Calibogus (cold unsweetened rum and beer, if you must know) for old time's sake?


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