What is a Cocktail?

Written By Alexandra Vaughn 

Very simply put, a cocktail is one or more spirits mixed with flavoring ingredients.  

Certainly you've enjoyed a cocktail or two in your life time. But how much do you actually know about the drink? There are many different forms of alcohol like beer, wine and liquor, but what exactly constitutes a cocktail? In this article, we'll explore the definition, history and some interesting theories. 

Cocktail vs Mixed Drink

There are so many debates in the world of cocktails. Are martinis vodka or gin, for instance. A big one is what's the difference between a cocktail and a mixed drink? Well, a mixed drink is a combination of 2 or more ingredients. Some may say a highball is a mixed drink as it contains only 2 ingredients. A cocktail will have 3 or more. Therefore, all cocktail are mixed drinks but not all mixed drinks are cocktails. 


As we warned, there are many things that are up for debate concerning cocktails. Not surprisingly, its origins are right up there.

Some say the first noted publication was in Amhurst, NH circa 1803 where the editor describes a "lounger" who "drank a glass of cocktail" to cure a hangover. 

Others argue the first known published definition was on May 13, 1806 when Editor Harry Croswell from the The Balance and Columbian Repository (Hudson, New York) responded to a question. What is a cocktail? His answer 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 any thing else.”  

By the 1800s the definition added liqueurs and by 1907 the term “cocktail party” was born.  

Origins of the Word "Cocktail"

For fun, let's also look at the origin of the word. As you may have guessed, also remains highly disputed. In 1786 the term appeared in Racing Calendar: A Full Account of the Plates, Matches, Etc. where a horse in a competition was referred to as a “cocktail goat.” Some say the term came from “gingering” a horse. This is a procedure where a ginger suppository would be used to make the horse “cock its tail.” Horse dealers would often do this before a showing to make the horse lively and perk up his tail. Ginger became synonomys for cocktail perhaps for the similar lively effects it had on the drinker.  

Another theory states it originated in New Orleans and was named after an egg cup.

Yet another claimes to be from Mexico after an Aaztec princess. In colonial time, villagers kept their spirits in casks. When the barrels become almost empty, the remains or taillings get mixed together for sale at a discount rate. These dregs were poured from a spigot nicknamed a cock. Hence, when patrons ordered this drink they’d ask for a cock-tail.  No one really knows the exact origin, but the legends are amusing to say the least.