The history of the cocktail is a contested story whose truth may never fully come to light. All over the western world people have been experimenting with different combinations of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic for centuries. The origin of the name cocktail itself is not certain. Some of the more common (and amusing!) explanations are. . .
An Englishman’s Misfortune
In 1779, after her husband was killed in the American War of Independence, innkeeper Betsy Flanagan opened an inn near Yorktown that was frequented by American and French soldiers. An English chicken farmer lived nearby prompting Betsy to promise her American and French customers that she would serve them a meal of roast chicken. Her guests mocked her boasts saying she would never go through with it. One evening, an unusual number of officers gathered at her inn, so Betsy served a lavish meal of chicken, stolen from her English neighbour. When the meal was over, Betsy moved her guests to the bar, where she served up drinks decorated with a tail-feather from the chickens, amid rowdy calls for more “cock tails.”
A Ceramic Rooster
The owner of an American bar had a large ceramic container in the form of a rooster. The container was filled with the leftovers from drinks. The less affluent could get a drink from this container, served from a tap at the tail. Hence, the name cocktail became associated with a mix of drinks. Some say the quality was always high after English sailors had been in, as there was a good mixture of rum, gin and brandy in the cocktail.
In nineteenth century America, a cock was a tap, while its tail was the last, muddy dregs of the tap. One Colonel Carter, of Culpepper Court House, Virginia, was served the tail at his local tavern. Seeing it as a disgrace, he threw it to the floor and said from then on he would only drink “cock tails” of his own design. His concoction was a mix of gin, lemon peel, bitters and sugar, and is possibly the ancestor of modern cocktails.
A "cocktailed horse" was a term for one whose tail has been bobbed, giving it a flamboyant and jolly appearance. As the mixed drinks served in the bars and inns had a very high alcoholic content, the name "cocktail" possibly came from its ability to "cock the tail", or get an careless customer drunk very quickly!