In general, a cocktail is a mix of several substances, usually liquids.
This article describes the cocktail as a mixed drink, usually containing one or more distilled alcoholic beverages and perhaps non-alcoholic drinks, ice and sometimes liqueur, fruit, sauce, honey, milk or cream, spices, etc. The cocktail became popular during Prohibition in the United States; to mask the taste of bootlegged alcohol, the bartenders at a speakeasy would mix it with other liquors and non-alcoholic drinks.
Until the 1970s, cocktails were made predominantly with gin, whiskey, or rum, and rarely vodka. From the 1970s on, the popularity of vodka increased dramatically. By the 1980s it was the predominant base for mixed drinks. Many cocktails traditionally made with gin, such as the gimlet, may now be served by default with vodka.
Non-alcoholic carbonated beverages that are used nearly exclusively in cocktails (or in non-alcoholic soda fountain drinks, such as the egg cream) include soda water, tonic water and seltzer. Liqueurs are also common cocktail ingredients.
The earliest known printed use of the word "cocktail" was in the May 13, 1806 edition of the Balance and Columbian Repository (A Hudson, New York publication), where the paper provided the following answer to what a cocktail was:
- "Cocktail 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 anything else."
The first publication of a bartenders' guide which included cocktail recipes was in 1862: How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant's Companion, by Professor Jerry Thomas. In addition to listings of recipes for Punches, Sours, Slings, Cobblers, Shrubs, Toddies, Flips, and a variety of other types of mixed drinks were 10 recipes for drinks referred to as "Cocktails". A key ingredient which differentiated "cocktails" from other drinks in this compendium, was the use of bitters as an ingredient, although it is not to be seen in very many modern cocktail recipes.
During Prohibition in the United States (1919-1933), when alcohol consumption was illegal, cocktails were still consumed in establishments known as speakeasies. Not only was the quality of the alcohol available far lower than was previously used, but the skill and knowledge of the bartenders would also decline significantly during this time.
There are several plausible theories as to the origin of the term "cocktail". Among them are:
- Some say that it was customary to put a feather (presumably from a cock's tail) in the drink to serve both as decoration and to signal to teetotalers that the drink contained alcohol.
- Another etymology is that the term is derived from coquetier, a French egg-cup which was used to serve the beverage in New Orleans in the early 19th century.
- The word could also be a distortion of Latin [aqua] decocta, meaning "distilled water".
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