London Vs. New York: Who Invented The Cocktail?

By Steve Manktelow Last edited 14 months ago
London Vs. New York: Who Invented The Cocktail?

Steve Manktelow, drink expert from Goat Chelsea, explains how the cocktail (possibly) got its name.

For 204 years, everyone believed the cocktail was an American invention. The first time it appeared in print, along with a handy definition, was in the 'Balance & Columbian Repository, New York'. Someone wrote to the paper asking what was a cocktail, and the response was:

Cock-tail 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, in as much 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 anything else.

The ultimate smoking gun regarding origin, then.

So there we were, bartenders all over the world gearing up to celebrate the 200 year anniversary of the cocktail in 2010, when all of a sudden someone found a reference to a cocktail three years earlier. The reference took a jab at then prime minister of Great Britain, Pitt the Younger. A London newspaper referred to a drinks tab the poor man supposedly had at the Axe & Gate Tavern, and on this tab was a 'cocktail — (vulgarly called ginger)'.

So where does the name come from? No one really knows — there are more origin stories for the cocktail than for the Avengers franchise. From a woman who didn’t design the stars and stripes to my favourite from the Savoy cocktail guide: in which Harry Craddock recounts (invents) a wonderful story involving Aztec kings, American generals, Mexican walking fish and a beautiful dancer called Coctel. The tale alone is worth buying the book for.

The Savoy Cocktail Book

My favourite tale, and the most plausible, is one about when mixed breed horses would have their tails cut short. In order to fetch a higher price, unscrupulous horse traders would ensure each horse was a 'cocktailed horse' with a spring in its step, wide eyes and what’s left of its tail held high by the addition of a ginger suppository.

Charles Francatelli, chief cook to Queen Victoria in the 1840s released a cook's guide with a chapter on cocktails. It's in this chapter that we find the following drink, quite different to the American version, and with a generous amount of ginger to ensure a spring in our step, especially on a cold autumnal night.

How to make No. 1016.-COCK-TAIL

  • Put three lumps of sugar into a tumbler with a dessert spoonful of Savory and Moore's essence of Jamaica ginger, and a wineglassful of brandy
  • Fill up with hot water
  • 4 parts (50ml) Cognac
  • One 2cm lump of fresh ginger, crushed
  • 1 part sugar syrup
  • Stir with boiling hot water and strain into a glass

I like to think that the cocktail evolved on both sides of the Atlantic independently. On the American side, it was all about spirits and bitters, whereas on this side, a more European tipple and ginger. Now for 200 years we'd all believed it to be north American invention — I can't help but think that if we'd discovered that newspaper reference 180 years ago everyone would be referring to a cocktail as that most British of drinks.

Last Updated 08 November 2018

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