May 13: The Birth Of The Cocktail

CocktailOh friends, we’ve got an important one today. It was way back on May 13, 1806, that the The Balance and Columbian Repository, a periodical published in Hudson, New York was asked the simple question “What is a cocktail?” and Balance editor Harry Croswell was happy to provide a definition.

Now, although this is the first time the word cocktail had ever been given a printed definition, “cocktail” had appeared in print before. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word was in an April 1803 issue of The Farmer’s Cabinet, although no definition was provided: 

Drank a glass of cocktail—excellent for the head…Call’d at the Doct’s. found Burnham—he looked very wise—drank another glass of cocktail.

So, according to Harry Croswell, what is a cocktail?

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, 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.

Hmm, let’s see…alcohol, sugar, water, bitters? Why, that sounds like an Old Fashioned. The name Old Fashioned became common bartender slang in the late 19th century. You see, as more and more complex cocktails were being invented, some clever bartender coined the term Old Fashioned to refer to drinks made in the “old fashioned” way, as described here by Croswell. Since Prohibition, it’s become common to muddle the sugar with a small orange slice and a cherry, but as we’re making a proper 19th century Old Fashioned, we’ll be leaving those ingredients out.

Old Fashioned

  • 1 sugar cube (or 1/2 teaspoon sugar)
  • 2 dashes Bitters
  • 2 dashes water
  • 2 ounces Whiskey

Place the sugar, water and bitters in an Old Fashioned glass and muddle until the sugar has begun to dissolve. Swirl the glass around once or twice so the sugar will line the interior of the glass. Add ice and whiskey, briefly stir and (optionally) garnish with an orange twist, cherry or cinnamon stick.

Tomorrow: A boy in blue.


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