A {Super Brief} History of the American Cocktail

Cocktail in Hand

Ever wonder how cocktails became a thing or why they’re called cocktails in the first place? So did we, and we looked it up. You’re welcome.

The origin of the cocktail is a bit murky.  What we do know, is that one of the first references to cocktails was in 1798 in The Morning Post, a London newspaper, but the term wasn’t actually defined as we know it today. It was referring to a ginger beverage. It was not until 1803 when cocktail first appeared in an American publication referring to it as an alcoholic drink.

By the mid-1800's, cocktails were more commonplace and many attribute the popularity of the cocktail to Jerry Thomas. Thomas worked as a bartender and bar owner up and down the East Coast, as well as across the country. So prolific was Thomas that he penned the Bar-Tender's Guide in 1862 which has been credited with popularizing cocktails with the first-ever section dedicated to cocktail recipes.

William T. “Cocktail Bill” Boothby is also credited with driving the popularity of cocktails in the U.S. by creating dozens of original cocktail recipes as a bartender in San Francisco in the late 1800’s.

Later, Prohibition pushed innovation in cocktails as only necessity can. Faced with poor quality spirits made under less than ideal circumstances, underground bars began mixing different ingredients to distract drinkers … um, improve the customer experience.  They added juices and sugars to add complexity, interest and taste to their creations.  It worked and they found something that was not only palatable, but actually tasted good!  Whether it takes the form of a cocktail created in a craft cocktail bar or a bottled cocktail enjoyed at home, people’s love of flavorful spirit-based concoctions continues unabated today. 

So, what’s with the name cocktail? Evidently in the 1700's, the term cocktail referred to the practice of horse traders using ginger to perk up a listless horse by sticking a piece of it in the horse’s behind. This made the animal’s tail cock-up in attention, giving it the appearance of vitality and youth. As you can imagine, it must have been quite the wake-up call.  Thankfully, cocktails have improved since then!