Seriously, what’s up with the word cocktail? Where does it come from? And why on earth would our favorite pre-dinner sips have such an animalistic name? Perhaps that’s that last thing on your mind when you’re cradling a Crantini.

It probably has something to do with horses — but there’s a bunch of theories that all seem plausible. Keep reading for cocktail clarification.

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Despite the name, the real root of the word cocktail doesn’t have anything to do with chickens but does involve horses. The term cock-tailed originally described a horse with a docked (or clipped-short) tail.

There are plenty of other theories on the word — all pretty convincing. But it took alcohol expert David Wondrich to trot out the truth, after extensive research.

The sanitized version

From its tail-clipping origins, “cock-tailed” became a sort of insult for nonpedigree racehorses with mixed lineage — Hogwarts-level elitism, quite frankly.

So people in days of yore may have given the name to alcoholic drinks that were similarly blended (rather than pure spirits). But is that the full story?

The more likely (and pretty gross) version

Wondrich distills the story like this: A perky, cocked (or raised-up) tail on a horse is a sign of vim and vigor. Unscrupulous horse traders in the 18th century would put ginger and/or pepper up their butts to make them look a little more frisky.

Ginger and pepper were also common ingredients that barkeeps used to liven up alcoholic drinks (and by extension, those who consumed them). The theory goes that they applied the term “cock-tail” to those invigorating drinks, after the practice of unpleasantly surprising horses with spicy suppositories.

You asked.

But that doesn’t sound much like a Long Island Iced Tea?

At some point, folks replaced the plain old ginger or pepper component of drinkable “cocktails” with bitters. According to Wondrich, a doctor named Richard Stoughton gets credit for adding those aromatic, complex flavor boosters to sweetened booze. Right on, Stoughton!

The good doctor sold his own blends of distilled roots, citrus peels, and bark as a tonic (and, erm, hangover cure) in his London apothecary shop. By then, the common name had become inseparable from the drink.

Even later on, “cocktail” came to encompass all the many variations of the shaken and stirred boozy tipples we enjoy today, and the origin of the word itself faded into obscurity (until now).

We may never know precisely when the first cocktail was made or who invented it. (But oh, thank goodness they did!) But a few theories have circulated that seem pretty convincing.

We do know that the term cocktail originated in America, showing up in publications around the early 19th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest definition appeared in the May 13, 1806 edition of Balance and Columbian Repository, a federalist newspaper in Hudson, New York:

“Cock tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

This old-timey definition is surprisingly accurate for modern-day cocktails — with the caveat that “cocktail” originally referred only to a specific blend of alcohol, sugar, water, and bitters (that’s right — an old-fashioned), not to a wide range of mixed drinks as it does now.

Possible historical roots of the word cocktail

There’s a lot of speculation about the actual etymology of the word cocktail, but none of the theories have been verified.

During the Colonial period, tavern keepers stored their spirits in casks. When the casks got near empty, the dregs, or tailings, would be mixed together into one barrel and sold at a reduced price. The keepers then poured these mixtures from the spigot (also known as the cock — yes, we know).

Patrons wanting this cheaper alcohol would come in asking for “cock tailings.” We’re pretty sure they’d have balked at the price of a modern Manhattan.

Another popular story comes from New Orleans, where an apothecary by the name of Peychaud (of Peychaud bitters fame) served a mixed brandy drink in a French eggcup.

Eventually, Peychaud named the drink a coquetier, the French term for an eggcup. Peychaud’s guests shortened the name to “cocktay,” and eventually it became “cocktail.”

Those both sound totally legit, right? Or you could even entertain other popular theories, like those involving the mythical Aztec maiden Xochitl, or the one mentioning Betsy Flanagan, the enterprising (but fictional) tavern-keeper who garnished her drinks with feathers.

Give guests something to sip on while they digest their newfound knowledge.


This one’s pretty much the OG cocktail formula! Spirits (in this case, whiskey, whether rye or bourbon), sugar, bitters, and ice mix with club soda in place of regular water for a little extra lift.

How to make an old-fashioned

What you need

  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar (this type helps you avoid graininess in the drink)
  • 2 dashes angostura bitters
  • 1 teaspoon club soda or water
  • 2 ounces rye or bourbon whiskey
  • Ice, preferably a single large cube
  • Orange twist, for garnish

How to mix it

Measure the sugar into a chilled old-fashioned glass and add the bitters. Splash in the club soda or water.

  • Add the whiskey and ice.
  • Stir the whole shebang with a barspoon for about 30 seconds, until the cocktail is chilled.
  • Rub the orange twist around the rim of the glass, drop it into the cocktail, and serve.
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Moscow mule

Knowing what we now do about the equine origins of the word cocktail, the “mule” in this ginger-heavy drink’s name packs a double meaning.

Bonus points if you serve this in the iconic copper mug — but it tastes just as good from any other glass.

Making a Moscow mule

What you’ll need

  • 3/4 ounce ginger syrup
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 2 ounces vodka
  • crushed ice
  • 2 ounces club soda
  • Lime wedge or candied ginger

How to mix it

  1. Pour the ginger syrup, lime juice, and vodka into a shaker.
  2. Add a little handful of crushed ice.
  3. Shake that bad boy *hard* until the ingredients have dissolved. You’ll know it’s ready when you no longer hear the ice chips clinking against the metal of the shaker.
  4. Pour the club soda into the shaker right away, then yeet that cocktail into a highball glass.
  5. Garnish the drink with a lime wedge or candied ginger.
  6. Serve with a straw.
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Frozen ginger peach margarita

Here’s another gingery pick, but one that’s far removed from the original cocktail.

Can you imagine Dr. Stoughton’s reaction to a frozen margarita machine and its gloriously slushy, sweet output? Not a trace of bitters in sight, but plenty of tequila.

How to make a frozen ginger peach margarita

What you’ll need

  • 1 1/4 pounds frozen sliced peaches
  • 10 ounces reposado (rested) tequila, such as El Espolòn or Cazadores
  • 4 ounces Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur
  • 3 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 6 medium limes)
  • 2 ounces peach liqueur
  • 2 ounces Simple Syrup
  • 3 cups ice

Reposado tequila spends 2 to 12 months hanging out in oak barrels. This gives it a smoother, slightly oaky flavor than unaged, tequila. You can find Domaine de Canton, a ginger-flavored liqueur, at specialty liquor stores or online.

When it comes to the peach liqueur, it’s best to avoid budget peach schnapps for this recipe.

How to mix it

  1. Throw everything (except the ice) into a blender. Then *brrrrrrrrrr* it up until smoothness abounds.
  2. Add the ice, then whir it up again until smooth.
  3. Serve.
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Chardonnay coverup

Here’s another fantastic historical tidbit: George Washington, while arranging the surrender of New York by the British, hosted a sort of cocktail hour at which he offered wine and bitters.

We still love wine cocktails — and this one combines oaky chardonnay with bittersweet Aperol, which maybe even our first president would’ve enjoyed.

How to make a Chardonnay coverup

What you’ll need

  • Ice
  • 4 ounces dry white wine, chilled
  • 2 ounces Aperol
  • 5 dashes orange bitters
  • 1 lemon or orange twist, for garnish

How to mix it

  1. Mix together the liquidy bits.
  2. Add the lemon or orange twist.
  3. Serve it over the ice.
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Perfect martini

“The name’s Bond. Ja—” Yeah, yeah, we know.

Even more stripped-down than the original cocktail, the martini is a more modern — yet equally timeless — creation, strictly for lovers of gin and vermouth. (And olives, if you’re a dirty martini fan.)

How to make the perfect martini

What you’ll need

  • A chilled glass (ice the martini glass in the freezer for around 10 minutes)
  • 2 ounces gin
  • 1 ounce dry vermouth
  • Ice
  • Lemon twist, for garnish
  • Green olive (optional)

You can switch up the gin: vermouth ratio to 4 parts or even 5 parts gin. This is a 2:1 mixture, but tweak this to your liking.

How to mix it

  1. Measure out your gin:vermouth ratio into a mixing glass.
  2. Add ice and give the mixture a stir until it’s super chilly. This should take around 30 seconds.
  3. Grab your martini glass from the freezer.
  4. Strain the mixture from the mixing glass into the martini glass.
  5. Rub the lemon twist around the rim, then plonk it into the martini.
  6. Serve that sucker. Add a toothpicked olive or two if that’s your swag.

Adding a splash of olive brine into the mix converts your classic martini into a dirty one, if the mood strikes.

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Now, at your next cocktail party you can show off your knowledge of the true origins of this weird word. Just don’t make anyone with a different theory feel like a horse’s ass, and you can all enjoy your drinks and discussions.

Bottoms up!