Where did cocktails get their name?


It's hard to believe that just a few years ago it was difficult to find cocktail ingredients like genever gin or absinthe. Today the options for drink enthusiasts are overwhelming, and much of the credit for this renaissance can be attributed to David Wondrich. In 2007 he published the James Beard-award winning Imbibe, which helped to spark the craft cocktail revival.

The first section of Imbibe focused on bartending superstar Jerry Thomas. Thomas is the author of one of the first comprehensive cocktail guides, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant's Companion. Thomas was a flamboyant character, and it proved difficult for Wondrich to separate fact from fiction regarding the legendary bartender's exploits as many sources were impossible to verify. Other challenges Wondrich faced, mainly due to a paucity of contemporaneous literature, including determining the origins of several drinks and the genesis of the word cocktail itself.

Not content to rest on his laurels, and spurred by the nagging questions he still faced, Wondrich decided to update Imbibe, and a revised edition has just been released. Grub Street caught up with Wondrich on the eve of the book's launch to find out what we can expect to learn from the new and improved version. For starters, it contains much more information on Jerry Thomas and other early bartenders.

In addition, we now know more about the mint julep. Wondrich discovered that it was a much older drink than he originally thought. "In 1770, in Virginia, there are two solid references to the julep being a recreational drink. That's a big deal, I think. I had looked at the part on the julep in the original edition and I was shocked and disappointed. I wrote almost nothing about it."

Wondrich also believes he has finally nailed down the origins of the term cocktail. It comes from the days of horse trading when sellers would use tricks to make an aging horse appear lively: "If you had an old horse you were trying to sell, you would put some ginger up its butt, and it would cock its tail up and be frisky. That was known as "cock-tail." It comes from that. It became this morning thing. Something to cock your tail up, like an eye-opener. I'm almost positive that's where it's from."

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