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Cocktail history - a brief look into the history of cocktails

Official cocktail history starts around the beginning of the 19th century. The first known printed use of the word “cocktail” was in 1803 in an article in the Farmer's Cabinet (Amherst, New Hampshire, April 28, 1803). It refers to a guy with a hangover who “drank a glass of cocktail — excellent for the head ...”.

This obviously refers to the hangover cure whereby you have more alcohol the morning after to releave the symptoms resulting from the night before.

A cocktail is of course a type of mixed drink, commonly containing one or a combination of alcoholic spirits and liqueur and may contain juices, sodas and other flavourants or colourants. It is usually decorated (“garnished”) with edible and/or non-edible items like fruit and plastic swizzle sticks or straws.


The Prohibition that started in 1919 in the USA (a period of the prohibition of the sale of alcohol, believe it or not!) lead to many illegal and informal alcohol factories. In many cases the spirits produced tasted awful and in some case were even poisonous.

The Prohibition led to a huge illegal alcohol industry, ran by organised crime gangs in the USA.

During the same time, “speakeasies” – bars with restaurants and sometimes clubs – became very popular. Often, the bartenders would mix alcohol with a number of other ingredients like creams and juices to both hide it from the police (at least by the looks of it) and disguise the poor taste of the alcohol.

Inevitably, mixed drinks and cocktails soared in popularity.

After the Prohibition ended in 1933, bartenders and mixologists were free to experiment with spirits and liquors and this started the still-continuing cocktail age.

Although there were times in the 1900’s when cocktails were not so popular (during the World Wars for example), cocktails became very popular again in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This was largely the result of an explosion of interesting new kinds of drinks, like flavoured vodkas and schnapps onto the market.

According to David Wondrich, the oldest printed cocktail recipe dates from 1831. A certain Captain J.E. Alexander refers to a mix of gin, brandy or rum one part of which is to be mixed with two parts of water and flavoured with sugar and nutmeg.

The first known published bartender and cocktail guide was Jerry Thomas’ 1862 BAR-TENDER’s GUIDE or HOW TO MIX DRINKS . Interestingly, he distinguished “cocktails” from other mixed drinks as those ones containing bitters. These days, bitters are still used, but is perhaps not so popular in cocktail mixing as in the old days.

bartenders_guide_or_how_to_mix_drinks

Click here to get your copy from Amazon.com.

Cocktail history is filled with colourful legends. No-one is quite sure where the word “cocktail” comes from and there are many theories and interesting (and clearly bogus) stories. One tale has it that the name comes from a drink called the “Coquetel” served to French soldiers during the American War of Independence from 1775 to 1783. Another talks about a female tavern owner who decorated her drinks with the tail feathers of her neighbour’s rooster.

We like to believe that tail feathers of cocks were used in those early days to decorate and stir drinks and hence the name “cocktail”.

Cocktails are for enjoyment, inspiring the senses of both sight and taste. Enjoy!


Have a look at our delicious cocktail and shooter recipes. Our Bartending Guide will tell you everything you need to know about cocktail mixing, from cocktail ingredients and stocking your bar to the cocktail bar equipment your require. Have a look!

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