Why Are Cocktails Called Cocktails? 4 Popular Theories

Egg cups, horses, and whisky barrels all lay claim to being the inspiration for the word "Cocktail"...

We’d hope most readers are already familiar with what a cocktail is.

It’s something we’re incredibly passionate about at The Cocktail Society and while we’re constantly looking into the best cocktails and their origins (including how they got their name), there’s something we never consider:

Why are cocktails called cocktails? 

It’s a name that sounds more like a soup than an alcoholic drink. Like many things in the drinks industry, there’s a serious debate about where the name comes from.

Read on as we cover the most likely origins of the term cocktail. 

What Is a Cocktail?

A cocktail as we know it is a mix of alcohol and at least one other ingredient.

However, most bartenders will consider a cocktail to be a drink containing three or more ingredients.

This is because a gin & tonic technically is a cocktail but few bartenders would consider it to be one so three ingredients tend to be the accepted baseline. 

The current use of the term cocktail first appeared somewhere in the 18th century but got a clear definition in 1806, it was published in the Balance and Columbian Repository and it was defined as:

“A stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind—sugar, water, and bitters.”

This description still holds to be true but the modern dictionary definition of a cocktail is: 

“An alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit or spirits mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit juice, flavoured syrup or cream.”

While the current definition of a cocktail is widely accepted, this isn’t the meaning that the word originally held. 

Why Are Cocktails Called Cocktails?

There are quite a few debated origins for the term cocktail. 

In honesty, there isn’t a widely accepted meaning so we’ll just outline the common theories below and leave you to decide which you think the likely meaning stems from:

1) Docked Horses Theory

A horse and rider jumping over a jump in a dressage ring

The term cock-tailed comes from the United Kingdom and was used to describe a horse with a docked or clipped tail.

This was an elitism subject at the time as a docked tail was a sign that the racehorse was not a pedigree but was instead of mixed breed. 

The cock-tailed horse was therefore considered to be of mixed blood or mixed breed and the term “mixed” was then believed to have been associated with a mixed drink which could have coined the term cocktail. 

2) Egg Cups Theory

An egg cup, often thought to be the inspiration behind why cocktails are called cocktails

Another commonly believed theory is that of the egg cup. 

In France, egg cup is pronounced coquetier and it’s believed that the English language mispronounced the term and ended up calling it a cocktail.

Believable, but what does an egg cup have to do with an alcoholic beverage? 

Well, in New Orleans in the 1830s, the Apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud (famed creator of Peychaud bitters) was known to mix brandy with bitters.

His drinking vessel of choice was an egg cup (coquetier), and this is where many believe the first origins of cocktails came to be known. 

As this happened in the 1830s and earlier use of the term cocktail was already published, this is one theory that doesn’t seem to hold true when looking at the timelines. 

3) Mixed Dregs Theory

A row of spirit barrels, sometimes thought to be the inspiration behind the question why are cocktails called cocktails

Tavern owners used to mix the dregs of a spirit barrel in order to minimise wastage and this could then be sold at a discounted price to customers.

The dregs of the barrel were otherwise known as tailings so there is some logic to this. 

These were called cocktailings, but the term “cock” was used to describe the tap of the barrel which would be very specific knowledge and not a common phrase.

Again, there is some logic to this when you combine the two phrases but it all seems a little too coincidental and too obscure to have been the true origin. 

4) Spices Theory

Piles of spices on a wooden counter

We saved the strangest (but likely) theory until last, and it once again involves horses.

Back to the racehorse example from earlier, a cocked tail didn’t just mean a horse wasn’t purebred, it was also a sign of vigour and energy. 

Therefore, horse breeders and sellers would insert spices (mainly ginger) up a horse’s bottom – gross, we know – in order to make the horse look more youthful and energetic to fetch a higher price. 

The relation to drinks is that before the invention of bitters, people would add ginger, pepper and other spices to their beverage in order to liven it up and give the drinker more vigour – a bit like the horse.

This is where most believe the true origin of the term cocktail came from, but your guess is as good as ours!

Why Cocktails Are Called Cocktails: In Conclusion

A purple cocktail in a rocks glass

We love a good origin story and some cocktail names truly are unique and interesting.

After reading this far though, you might agree that no cocktail name has a more interesting origin than the actual term “cocktail”.

We still don’t have a 100% confirmed and accepted history and though we’ve outlined four of the most common theories, there are a further 4/5 theories that people around the world also believe to be true.

If we had to bet though, we’d say it has something to do with horses…