Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Origin of the Cocktail

I started this as part of the blogs about lime-juice and punch but it seemed a little out of place, so I am giving it a page for itself.

Organic Seville or bitter oranges (Citrus aurantium) from Mairena del Alcor, Province of Sevilla. Being sold in Unicorn Grocery on the 8th of March 2019. Probably the last of this season. Earlier consignments were bigger, darker orange and more perfect.

Apart from all the variations of punch, other popular alcoholic concoctions of the 17th century included sangaree (sangría), rosa solis and flip. Along with punch, these were the precursors to the rum toddy, rum shrub (though shrub could be used to make punch), rum sour, brandy fix, gin twist, sling, cobbler, julep, rattle-snake, stone-fence, swizzle and cocktail of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

There are many theories about the origin of the word cocktail for a mixed alcoholic drink. This meaning of the word cocktail was first recorded in 1798. I have my own theory from reading about far too many variations of the descendants of punch.





First a warning, do not mistake a cocktail for a Cock Ale. Cock Ale was first recorded in 1665 and was made with ale, wine, raisins, dates, nutmegs, mace and stock made from a whole chicken boiled to a jelly - which were then fermented together. In 1788, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose simply defined Cock Ale as "a provocative drink".



The defining difference of cocktails from the drinks that preceded them was the inclusion of bitters. Bitters were a class of medicines that stimulated the digestion. The most familiar today is Angostura Bitters, first produced in 1824 as a medicine for the army of El Liberador, Simón Bolívar.

Yellow Gentian (Gentiana lutea) growing in the German Allgäuer Alps
From Wikimedia Commons, photographed by Bernd Haynold.
The most common species of Gentian used in British herbalism.

The most popular bitters for medicine and adding to drink in the 18th century were Stoughton's Bitters. They were particularly used for stimulating the appetite. I have tried gentian on its own and I can recommend it if you ever enter an eating competition. I would also recommend that you don't enter an eating competition, though I have never competed in one.

The original patent for the invention had been granted on the 3rd of April 1712. Richard Stoughton was an apothecary at the Unicorn in Southwark in Surrey, now a London Borough. He claimed he had been selling the bitters for over 20 years. In January 1708 Stoughton claimed in an advert in the newspaper The Post-Man: and The Historical Account &c. that his bitters enjoyed considerable sales at one shilling per bottle, retail.

Stoughton advised the bitters could be taken in everything from spring water or ale to brandy. The inscription on Stoughton's grave stated that the Cordial Elixir was world-famous by the time of his death on the 10th of December 1716 at the age of 52. Others seem to think he died in 1726. The dispute between three manufacturers of Stoughton's Bitters who all claimed to have inherited the true recipe was raging in full in the newspapers in June 1726. The confusion may have arisen by the son also being called Richard Stoughton. The son and daughter-in-law had been in partnership before their very public falling-out, perhaps for nine years.

The bitters were very popular and were soon exported to the colonies. John Goddard had died in the service of the East India Company. A sale of his personal effects was held at Fort St George on the 7th of January 1744. Among the items sold were 17 bottles of Stoughton's Bitters. The price was 21 fanams, which was half of a pagoda.

While we don't know the ingredients of Stoughton's Elixir Magnum Stomachicum we do have other herbalists giving recipes once the patent had run out. Stoughton had claimed to have used 22 herbs in his recipe. The 4th edition of The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion by Eliza Smith was published in 1730. Smith's simple recipe "To make Stoughton's Elixir" just contained the best brandy, gentian root, Seville orange peel and cochineal insects. Smith suggested it could be taken in wine or tea.

Polish cochineal on the roots of perennial knawel (Scleranthus perennis).
Historia naturalis cocci radicum tinctorii, quod Polonicum vulgo audit;... 
by Joannes Philippus Breynius (Gdansk, 1731).
See the original book for the key in Latin.

The cochineal used for the bitters was almost certainly the Mexican variety that grows on prickly pear cacti. The invasion of the Americas led to both the import of cochineal as a commodity and cultivation in Spain and North Africa of the Mexican cochineal (Dactylopius coccus). Mexican cochineal was easy to farm, larger than the European varieties and parasitic on the green pads of the cacti. Polish cochineal (Porphyrophora polonica) and Armenian cochineal (Porphyrophora hamelii) are found on the roots of various small plants. The plant illustrated above can grow up to 4 inches (10cm) tall. The Polish and Armenian dyes were more fiddly to produce and soon became nothing but a small footnote in the international trade.

I have chosen an illustration of the Polish cochineal (czerwiec polski in Polish) for several reasons:

1. It was the right century.
2. The Polish and Armenian ones are just cooler.
3. Harvested around St John the Baptist's day, the Polish dye was called St John's Blood.
4. The dye was used in Poland as medicine and to colour vodka.
5. Porphyrophora means "wearing purple" from the Ancient Greek.
6. This illustration may well be coloured by ink made from cochineal.

Cochineal was regarded as a medicine in its own right, as well as a colouring material. The Dispensatory of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh was published in 1727. The Confection of Alkermes included two red insects, the kermes found on Mediterranean oak and cochineal. The commentary on this medicine includes a touch of rivalry with the English:

The Cochineal and Saffron are here very properly added, to enrich the medicine, and increase its cordial virtues; wherein it much exceeds that of the London Dispensatory...
By the 1789 edition, the Edinburgh Dispensatory had decided that cochineal showed little medicinal effect and was only useful for colouring medicines.

Seville oranges, gentian, cochineal and brandy.
The four ingredients of Eliza Smith's version of Stoughton's Elixir.
Gentian and cochineal as attributed elsewhere on this page.
Oranges and brandy - my own photos.

In 1747 The New English Dispensatory had a recipe with the same ingredients s Eliza Smith's bitters, named the Elixir Stomachium. The author noted the similarity and did not approve of an alcoholic tincture for whetting the appetite:
This seems intended to imitate Stoughton's Elixir, and may be very proper for the Bar of a Tavern, where Profit only is consider'd. But, in the salutary Art of Physic, Distempers may be cur'd without laying in the Patient's Way Temptations to do himself a Mischief, or leading him into a Habit, that will infallibly destroy him, if persisted in, that is, of whetting in a Morning.


Simon Fraser, 11th Lord of Lovat was sentenced to death in 1747 for his part in the Jacobite attempt to regain the throne of the United Kingdom in 1745. He seemed unperturbed leading up to the beheading, perhaps because he was 80 years of age and suffering from various infirmities. The writer of  a description of his last days insisted His Lordship was not a drunkard, as he only ever drank two pints of wine a day and a little burnt brandy and bitters when he was indisposed.

The day before the execution His Lordship sent a man out from the Tower of London with a shilling to procure a bottle of Stoughton's Elixir. After the man had left on this errand, His Lordship was reminded that he still had some burnt brandy and bitters left in a bottle.

On the morning of the execution a scaffold for spectators of the beheading collapsed under the weight of about a thousand people. About 18 to 20 died, including the scaffold-maker and his wife who were selling beer under the structure.

On his way to meet the axeman, His Lordship "took a little burnt Brandy and Bitters". The excuse that the alcohol was purely for medicinal reasons was very comforting to many of the drinkers.



The mixture of spirits with bitters became very common as the 18th century progressed. In 1752 Young Scarron by Thomas Mozeen was published. The fictional tale of theatrical life included the occasional alcoholic drink.
Soon as we were clear of the People, the Mayor propos'd a Gill and Bitters, which rais'd Grammar's Spirits. This being agreed to, we put it into Execution at the first Tavern we came at-- -
One gill is a quarter-pint, about 140ml. It was used as a measure of alcoholic drink. Like a dram but 40 times the volume. Though it was not specified, in this case it is likely to have been a spirit, either gin or brandy.





In 1784, it was said that the price of a vote in the Parliamentary elections in some parts of London was a "quart of gin and bitters, hot with nutmeg".



Some authors made the recipe for Stoughton's Bitters much more complicated, adding other herbs that possibly had more side-effects.

For example, snakeroot was used in a recipe published in New York in 1832 and another derided in 1891 by John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that one, the father of the Corn Flake). Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria) is an American plant previously very popular with American herbalists. The plant contains aristolochic acid, which can cause lethal kidney failure and genitourinary cancers even with small doses. This connection was only discovered in 1993. The UK banned all medicines containing Aristolochia species in 1999. Some Chinese traditional medicines imported to Britain are still found to contain aristolochic acid. Obviously snakeroot should never be used in modern bitters. Unfortunately many modern bitter producers follow the old tradition of keeping their recipes secret.

A French recipe for Stoughton's Elixir published in 1814 had purgatives (rhubarb root, aloe resin), a liver toxin (germander), a Caribbean bitter called cascarilla and the notorious wormwood on top of the original two herbs. Some recipes used the reasonably innocuous African camwood, safflower or Indian red sanders for the intense red colouring rather than cochineal.

If you want a traditional bitter, it is very simple to produce for yourself.  G Baldwin & Co are a London herb shop serving Brixton since 1844. They have gentian root powder, which dissolves into the alcohol much faster and more completely than the coarsely chopped root. They also have a very concentrated ready-made tincture in 45% alcohol.

Fresh Seville bitter oranges are available at any good grocers in season, from about December to March. Usually recommended for marmalade. Make sure they are untreated or organic if you are using the peel. Give them a good wash first, in any case.

Food-grade natural cochineal without additives may be more difficult to find. It can also cause allergies in a small number of people. Radicchio, a type of red chicory would make an excellent purplish-red and chicory is a traditional medicinal bitter. It does change colour according to pH. If your result is too purple add a few drops of the very acidic Seville orange juice and it should go more red.

Brandy and other alcoholic spirits are available in a wide range of shops, I believe.



A clue to the possible origin of the name cocktail is found in the earliest written record we have for cock-tail. Some political background will help. The first mention we have of a cock-tail was in the fifth year of Britain's war against the Haitian ex-slaves. Britain intended to re-impose slavery on them under British rule, set an example to their own slaves to put them off starting their own revolution and to win the rich colony from the French. The excuse was to protect the French plantation owners from their former slaves. Toussaint L'Ouverture had defeated Napoleon, the British did not fare any better.

A humorous satire was printed in the Morning Post and Gazetteer of the 20th of March 1798. The premise was that the publican at the Axe and Gate pub in Downing Street on the corner of King Street had won a lottery and wiped the slates clean of the debts of his patrons. The drinkers were, of course, the politicians living close by. We read that George Rose MP had a debt of 11 shillings and 7 pence for gin and bitters. George's friend the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger had his slate wiped clean of:
Mr Pitt, two petit vers of "L'huile de Venus"    0 1 0
      Ditto, one of "perfeit amour"                      0 0 7
      Ditto, "cock-tail" (vulgarly called ginger)   0 0 0¾
The first two drinks are mentioned in Traité du négociant de vins et eaux-de-vie, suivi de l'art de faire les liqueurs by C.-C. Dornat, published in 1854. They are found in the section for hygienic dessert liqueurs, which probably sounds better in French.

Parfait amour (perfect love) consisted of spirits with orange zest, lemon (or lime?) zest and cloves. This was distilled then mixed with rosewater and vanilla spirit.

Another recipe for Parfait amour (couleur rouge) had spirits with cloves and zests of citron and lemon. This was simply distilled and nothing added except colouring. The red colour would come from either cochineal, brasilwood or litmus.

Huile de Vénus (Venus oil) consisted of spirits with caraway, skirret, green aniseed, mace (the spice that covered nutmeg) and orange zest. These were left to infuse then filtered. Vanilla spirit was then added.

We can see that the cock-tail was a lot cheaper than the foreign distilled drinks at three farthings (¾ of a penny) compared to 6 or 7 pence for the liqueurs. As you would expect when it was simply spirits, water, sugar and a dash of bitters. I don't believe there was any ginger involved in the ingredients of the original cocktail.

It has been suggested that the word cock-tail must be of French origin, as the other two drinks on Mr Pitt's tab were French. Most of the drinks for other politicians on the list had English names. However, a French origin is not necessary for a French connection. The cock has been a symbol of France since ancient Roman times when gallus in Latin signified a cock and Gallus an inhabitant of Gaul. The cock-tail was on the list, perhaps, to accuse Pitt of being the tail on the Gallic cock, dependant on following France without choice.

Sketch, I could not identify the artist. Presumably C.E.F.
No. 10, Downing Street, Whitehall: its History and Associations.
by Charles Eyre Pascoe (London, 1908)



It has also been suggested that the cocktail referenced the practice of giving horses a ginger suppository to liven them up for racing or selling. The practice of "feaguing", "figging" or "gingering" a horse in this way was first recorded in 1785, according to the OED. I could only find the second edition of 1788 of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose. The stimulating effects of the ginger kicked in "to make him lively and carry his tail well".

A cocktail horse was just one whose tail had been cut short to the point where it would stand up fully like a cock's tail feathers, with evidence in the OED from 1769. This was not associated with horse-racing, being usually done to hunters and stagecoach horses. In 1825, John Badcock wrote that the term was used in horse-racing to denote an inferior horse that was not a thoroughbred. Implying that they were only good for pulling a coach and not in anyway lively and spirited. In that same entry we see the statement that "Cock-tail - is ginger". Unfortunately this phrase is rather ambiguous. It may simply mean that cock-tail is the same a frisky. Ginger meant frisky as well as feagued.

I could find no earlier quotations that equated the cocked tail in horses with "feaguing", "figging" or "gingering". Not even in the 1823 book of sporting jargon Slang. A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-Ton, and the Varieties of Life, another book by John Badcock. That book does have "A colour between red and yellow is cock-like".

Certainly the idea of gingering a horse is vulgar enough to fit with 18th century London drinking culture. However, this origin does not seem to quite fit, in my opinion.


Stoughton's Bitters were coloured red with cochineal. Angostura Bitters are also red and give their colour to pink gin. Presumably the colour is not from cochineal as the manufacturers state Angostura Bitters are suitable for vegans. Other cocktail bitters were coloured red, such as Peychaud's Bitters invented in 1838 by a New Orleans druggist whose family had fled Haiti when the slaves became freedom fighters.
Peychaud's Bitters showing the red colour. 
From Wikipedia, photographed by Cowfish.

Some people, including the Sazerac company who now make Peychaud's Bitters, have claimed that Antoine Amedée Peychaud invented the cocktail in 1838. They also claim the cocktail was named for the eggcups he served it in, called coquetiers in French. This is clearly nonsense as detailed in this article on the Daily Beast by Philip Greene in 2017. When the drink was first recorded as a cock-tail, Antoine Amedée Peychaud was not yet born.

We even know that Stoughton's Bitters were used in New Orleans before 1835 in a brandy cocktail. In New Orleans as I found it, Henry Didimus described his visit to New Orleans in 1835 to 1836. Dining in his hotel with three Americans, one tells a story involving brandy cocktails. Didimus being unfamiliar with the drink they order a round from the slave serving them in the dining room. His companion explained:
...Now the difference between a brandy-cocktail and a brandy-toddy is this: a brandy-toddy is made by adding together a little water, a little sugar, and a great deal of brandy - mix well and drink. A brandy-cocktail is composed of the same ingredients, with the addition of a shade of Stoughton's bitters; so that the bitters draw the line of demarcation.



I could not find any connection with the Welsh word for red - coch. There was also the word cog or cogue in rare use in English and Scottish from the 17th century. A cogue was a small wooden drinking vessel. A cogie was a small cogue. The reader is welcome to make up their own stories for the origin of the word cock-tail. Everyone else has.




Old English Red Rooster photographed by Gary Crossey from Wikipedia. Cropped to the subject.

"Ginger" was used as a name for reddish-brown cocks in 1770, at least forty years before it was recorded as being used of red-haired humans and ninety years before the first mention of a ginger cat. There was a Victorian craze for breeding British chickens with exotic chickens from all over the world to improve the British breeds. The unfortunate consequence of this was that many of the British breeds were lost. Some may have had more red in their tail than the Old English Red cock above. The Lincolnshire Buff is entirely reddish-orange but only started as a breed in the 1850s.

A more fortunate change was the decline and final outlawing of cock-fighting. Cock-fighting was made illegal in England and Wales in 1835. Many old game cock varieties such as the Black-breasted Red Game Cock are now gone because of the lack of employment for psychopathic killer chickens. Those descendants of British fighting cocks that are left are probably very mixed with other breeds.

Traditional British fighting cock breed from The Cyclopædia of
Abraham Rees (London, 1807). The tail was quite clearly not black.
Reproduced in The Poultry Book by Harrison Weir (New York,1903). 


An old American naval officer was quoted in 1902 as thinking a whiskey cocktail should be made with just ice, plain syrup, Stoughton's bitters, rye whiskey and the rind of a fresh lemon. His opinion was:
It should be evenly translucent, its color tinted slightly with red, a trifle lighter than the ray of a pigeon-blood ruby seen in daylight.
The cochineal in bitters would have given the cocktail a distinctive vivid red colour. The gentian would have given a tint of yellowy-brown. The Seville orange peel would have added a hint of orange if fresh and orangey-brown if dried peel was used. If the original cocktail was made with a dark brandy, as the English preferred, altogether it might have had the orangey-red or rust colour of the tail of some classic British breeds of cock.

The OED has that cocktail is "A slang name, of which the real origin appears to be lost." Sometimes the simplest and most obvious explanation can fit the facts and provide the likeliest origin. A cocktail may have been so-called simply because it had the colour of the tail of a ginger cock.