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The Origin of the Cocktail

From 1806 comes the earliest known definition.

The Balance and Columbian Repository

There are unfortunately countless stories that report to detail exactly how the term "cocktail" was first coined. None of them are verifiable, and so we will most likely never know the true story. We do however know one important aspect about this term, and that it's earliest known definition. The date was May 6, 1806, and the publication was "The Balance, and Columbian Repository".

Apparently, there was an election in Claverack New York, and as often occurs in an election, somebody lost. The loser in this case presented, tongue in cheek, an itemized accounting of their gains and losses for this race.

Note: in the original content of the below text, a long-s (which looks like an f) was originally used. I've converted all of them to a normal 's' for ease of reading.

No. 18 Vol. V.
HAIL SACRED POLITY, BY FREEDOM REARD!
HAIL SACRED FREEDOM, WHEN BY LAW RESTRAIND !


BEATTIE
HUDSON, (NEW-YORK) Tuesday, MAY 6, 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
17
32
411
25
rum-grogs
brandy do.
gin-slings
glasses bitters
do. cock-tail
My Election
NOTHING.
On the following week, the newspaper published a letter from a reader who was apparently confused by this new term "cock-tail" that they saw, and asked the editor for an explanation.
No. 19 Vol. V.
HAIL SACRED POLITY, BY FREEDOM REARD!
HAIL SACRED FREEDOM, WHEN BY LAW RESTRAIND !


BEATTIE
HUDSON, (NEW-YORK) Tuesday, MAY 13, 1806.
Communication.

To the Editor of the Balance.
Sir,
    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 forum, of phlegm-cutter and fog driver, of wetting the whistle, of 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 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 then he approved; and therefore, he afterward 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 rigidity, it might 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,
    Yours,
        A SUBSCRIBER

    [As I make it a point, never to publish anything (under my editorial head) but which 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 a 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.]

Clearly, the editor took this opportunity to poke a little fun at the political system, but at the same time provided the first insight as to what the cock-tail of that day was considered to be. Specifically describing it as:
Cock tail, then in a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling...
We can see from this that one of the defining ingredients in the cocktail was that of "bitters", whose use continued to be predominate up until the close of Prohibition.

If you would like to see a more detailed facimile of the pages from both the May 6 and May 13 edition, click on the individual thumbnails below to view a larger image of those pages.

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