1806: earliest definition of ‘cocktail’ (mixed drink with a spirit base)





As a noun denoting a drink, cocktail is first recorded in The Morning Post and Gazetteer (London, England) of 20th March 1798. In notes on the earliest mention of a drink called ‘cocktail’, I have:
– reproduced the text published in that newspaper;
– explained the terms used to denote the various drinks listed in that text;
– put forward a hypothesis as to the meaning and origin of the word cocktail as used in that text.

The second-earliest known uses of cocktail as a noun denoting a drink are from a purported diary published in The Farmer’s Cabinet (Amherst, New Hampshire, USA) of 28th April 1803.

This diary does not define the precise meaning of the word cocktail. In notes on the second-earliest mentions of a drink called ‘cocktail’, I have explained that all that can be inferred is that the drink called cocktail is apparently a liquor that the alleged author seems to take as hair of the dog.




The third-earliest known occurrence of cocktail as a noun denoting a drink is from The Balance, and Columbian Repository (Hudson, New York, USA) of 6th May 1806:

Rum! Rum! Rum!

It is conjectured, that the price of this precious liquor will soon rise at Claverack, since a certain candidate has placed in his account of Loss and Gain, the following items:—
Loss.                                                                        Gain.
720 rum grogs
17 brandy do.
32 gin-slings                                                      NOTHING.
411 glasses bitters
25 do. cock-tail
My Election

cocktail’ - The Balance, and Columbian Repository (Hudson, New York, USA) - 6 May 1806




One week later, on 13th May 1806, the same newspaper, The Balance, and Columbian Repository (Hudson, New York, USA), published a letter from a reader who, confused by the new term cocktail, requested an explanation from the Editor; in his response, the latter defined cocktail as denoting “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”, and added that it was “vulgarly called bittered sling”:

To the Editor of the Balance.

I observe in your paper of the 6th instant, in the account of a democratic candidate for a seat in the Legislature, marked under the head of Loss, 25 do. cock-tail. Will you be so obliging as to inform me what is meant by this species of refreshment? Though a stranger to you, I believe, from your general character, you will not suppose this request to be impertinent.
I have heard of a jorum, of phlegm-cutter and fog driver, of wetting the whistle, and moistening the clay, of a fillip, a spur in the head, quenching a spark in the throat, of flip &c. but never in my life, though I have lived a good many years, did I hear of cock tail before. Is it peculiar to a part of this country? Or is it a late invention? Is the name expressive of the effect which the drink has on a particular part of the body? Or does it signify that the democrats who take the potion are turned topsycurvy, and have their heads where their tails should be? I should think the latter to be the real solution; but am unwilling to determine finally until I receive all the information in my power.
At the beginning of the revolution, a physician publicly recommended the moss which grew on a tree as a substitute for tea. He found on experiment, that it had more of a stimulating quality than he approved; and therefore, he afterwards as publicly denounced it. Whatever cock tail is, it may be properly administered only at certain times and to certain constitutions. A few years ago, when the democrats were bawling for Jefferson and Clinton, one of the polls was held in the city of New-York at a place where ice-cream was sold. Their temperament then was remarkably adust and bilious. Something was necessary to cool them. Now, when they are sunk into frigidity, it may be equally necessary, by cock-tail, to warm and rouse them.
I hope you will construe nothing that I have said as disrespectful. I read your paper with great pleasure, and wish it the most extensive circulation. Whether you answer my inquiry or not, I shall still remain,
                                                                                  A SUBSCRIBER.
[As I make it a point, never to publish any thing (under my editorial head) but what I can explain, I shall not hesitate to gratify the curiosity of my inquisitive correspondent:—Cock tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.
                                                                                  Edit. Bal.]

definition of 'cocktail' - The Balance, and Columbian Repository (Hudson, New York, USA) - 13 May 1806




a jorum: a large drinking-bowl or vessel; also, the contents of this, especially a bowl of punch

phlegm-cutter: a strong alcoholic beverage, typically one drunk in the morning (term first recorded in this text)

fog driver: an alcoholic drink taken to counteract the effects of damp or fog

wetting the whistle: having a drink – cf. meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to wet one’s whistle’

moistening the clay: having a drink

a fillip: anything that stimulates or livens up

a spur in the head: this phrase was explained in a glossary of words and phrases denoting drunkenness, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle (London: Printed for D. Henry) of December 1770:

To express the Condition of an Honest Fellow, and no Flincher, under the Effects of good Fellowship, it is said that he is
1 Drunk,
2 Intoxicated,
3 Fuddled,
54 Came home by the Villages; this is provincial; when a man comes home by the fields, he meets nobody, consequently is sober; when he comes home by the Villages, he calls first at one house, then at another, and drinks at all.
55 Got a spur in his head; this is said by brother-jockies of each other.

quenching a spark in the throat: the following explanation is from A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London: S. Hooper, 1785), by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91):

Spark, […] a man that is always thirsty, is said to have a spark in his throat.

flip: a mixture of beer and spirit sweetened with sugar and heated with a hot iron

sling: a drink composed of brandy, rum or other spirit, and water, sweetened and flavoured

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.