The Cocktail’s Origin, The Racecourse, The Ginger, Part I


Seven years ago, the U.K.-based drinks historians Jared Brown and Anastasia Miller made a landmark discovery: a citation from 1789 for “cock-tail” in a London newspaper. Brown recounted the finding in this Telegraph article in 2012. The find was landmark since it showed the term had precedence in England in a drinks context.

In Brown’s words:

Until recently, the earliest-known use of the word “cocktail” in print that referenced drink was from 1806 in an upstate New York newspaper. Then, in 2005, it was discovered in a Vermont newspaper from 1803. In 2010 we found the word used in the March 20, 1798, edition of The Morning Post and Gazetteer, a long-defunct London newspaper. The paper had reported on March 16 that the landlord of the Axe & Gate tavern at the corner of Downing and Whitehall, on winning a share of a lottery, returned to his establishment and erased his regulars’ tabs with a mop “in a transport of joy”. Four days later the paper ran a satirical article listing who owed for what drinks in the heart of British politics. A certain Mr Rose (while writing letters upon the reform of public offices) owed for “gin and bitters”. Another owed for 35 nips of “glue”, “commonly called Burton ale, to make the members of the neutrality stick together”. Toward the bottom, William Pitt the younger owed for “L’huile de Venus”, “perfait [sic] amour”, and a less French drink: “‘cock-tail’ (vulgarly called ginger)”.

L’huile de Venus (oil of Venus) was a compounded and distilled drink of brandy and many flavourings, a form of (per Wikipedia) ratafia. Parfait Amour was and is an intense, aromatic liqueur, generally of purple hue. The three drinks can be read with a sexual sub-text and I think it’s fairly certain, given the satirical intent, that the bar tab and lottery award were literary creations.

William Pitt the Younger was then Prime Minister. Numerous sources confirm the existence in 1798 of the Axe and Gate tavern, in fact it was on Downing Street. But why would Pitt, albeit known to like drinking, have had three drinks with an amatory theme?

Pitt’s sexuality was the butt of speculation and ribald humour during his career, he never married and the drinks ascribed to him can be seen as alluding to that fact.

The references to the sticky Burton Ale, and gin and bitters tipple of reformer/agitator “Mr. Rose”, also point to invention for polemical reasons.

But the 1798 find is no less a landmark for that as the drinks had to exist in society, otherwise the readership would not see the play on words; this is the point for present purposes.

The 1806 reference, known for over a century, was in The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, NY, reproduced above.

David Wondrich, the American cocktails historian, found the 1803 reference mentioned by Brown, in a Vermont paper. It doesn’t mention alcohol, but probably did connote an alcohol drink given the context: seemingly to assuage a hangover. Wondrich explains it all in his informative article last year in Saveur magazine. The article gives good general background on the etymology, and summarizes well the current state of knowledge.



The drinks context is important because “cocktail”, or cock-tail in earlier spellings, was also understood, in the early 1800s and probably earlier, in a different context. It meant a non-thoroughbred horse, a mixed breed. English sporting writer John Badcock made a number of references to this equine cocktail in writings in the 1820s. He was one of numerous writers to use the term this way, and American horsing circles also used it in the 1800s.

As Wondrich explains in his book Imbibe, in 1825 Badcock also wrote, seemingly of the drink, “cocktail is ginger”. In 1828, he wrote that a “scratch or two of cocktail” was added by sporting enthusiasts to beer, gin, or a mixture of both. The ginger equation is thus the same as the 1798 citation which states ginger was a popular synonym for cocktail. So, cocktail was a drink of some kind, involving the ginger root.

The tails of non-thoroughbred horses were sometimes shortened or “nicked” to distinguish them from pure breeds, see this 1800s explanation, whence the illustration here is taken. This meant the tails were turned upward, which gave the animals a lively, jaunty look. So, perhaps because a cocktail horse had that look, it occurred to drinkers to call a ginger-based drink a cocktail, for its effect on the drinker. The World’s News in Sydney picked up the idea in a story in November, 1930, which was probably current for some time. (The reference to 1809 can be read as earlier knowledge on the dating issue). In its words:


Cocktail Chatter
The recent International Cocktail Competition, held in London, and which resulted in a win for “Golden Dawn,” the British mixture, serves as a reminder that the word “cocktail” goes back to 1809, when it was used by the American writer Washington Irving, in a sense very like the modern, though it appears that sugar was a common ingredient in the cocktail of that day. The Oxford Dictionary says that the origin of the word is lost; but it gives an older word “cocktail,” meaning a horse whose tail, being docked, sticks up like the tail of a cock. Since drinkers of cocktails believe them to be exhilarating, the recently popular song, “Horsey, keep your tail up,” may, perhaps, hint at a possible connection between the two senses of “cocktail.”

Performances of the song mentioned can be viewed on youtube, a hokey old country tune. It does show that a horse which carried its tail well was well-viewed by the public, but not much more.

The Axe and Gate cocktail seems to have been consumed “straight”, or probably with water or soda. The 1828 one, presumably the same ginger, was added to another drink, beer or gin, but one can see there must have been a practice to use brandy, whisky, rum.

Numerous drinks function taken straight or as an additive today, think of Campari, you can drink it with soda or water and ice, or add it to gin and vermouth, say, to form the Negroni.

Wondrich makes the point that the price for the 1798 cocktail was three quarters of a penny, much less than for the alcohol drinks listed, hence it is doubtful it had alcohol. But gin was sold for a penny a glass into the mid-1800s, as I mentioned recently in connection with George Augustus Sala’s profile of a Victorian gin house. As well, alcohol was often used, at least in the 1800s, to extract ginger’s flavour (I’ll return to this in Part II).

But it doesn’t matter in my view whether the British cocktail had alcohol or not because its key role, alone or with other drinks, was clearly as a zesty tonic, of which ginger was the key. Ginger seems to have been very similar to bitters, also known in England in the 1700s, similar functionally that is. Both are aromatic, sharp, a good foil for alcohol and sweet tastes.

Early U.S. terms like brandy cocktail, gin cocktail, whisky cocktail, and the Hudson, NY 1806 citation, show that cocktail in the U.S. was any spirit, sugar,  water (this may have depended on strength of the spirit), and … not ginger finally but bitters. Bitters, made from the bark of a tree or shrub and featuring many kinds of flavours, became characteristic of the American cocktail. As Wondrich speculates, maybe bitters was simply more available and durable in America than the ginger compounds used in England.

But anyway, it seems obvious now that Britain’s cocktail is the ancestor of the American one. A drink that is British ended up in America in somewhat altered form, via the movement of people surely from Britain to the New World. As the old expression goes, “it came on the Mayflower”. It is impossible in other words that the New England and New York cocktail of the early 1800s is unrelated to the English one. The English settled large parts of these areas after all.

It is true that British visitors to America in the 1800s famously expressed wonder and surprise at its cocktails, from Maryatt to Dickens and Trollope. How could they not know it was British originally?

Frequently, terms, especially of certain trades or limited to certain social circles, fall into disuse rapidly. It was probably a small circle in London who knew the drink meaning of cocktail. After 1800, the term became forgotten but took root in a far-away land, preserved in amber as it were. It’s an old pattern in Anglo-American socio-cultural history. How many millennials know what a barley sandwich is, for example, or a Calgary red eye?

But to return to it, why was an English tavern drink called a cocktail?

Wondrich offers the idea that the term is connected to equine circles but not in the sense of a compounded drink seen as analagous to a mixed blood horse. Rather, he refers to the practice of “gingering” or “figging”, which is applying ginger to a horse’s nether region to make it more lively or showy so to speak, to hold its tail erect. It’s still sometimes done in a modified way today but this is generally banned by racing organizations.

So the idea is, a shot of a ginger-based drink enlivens the drinker for a time, just as gingering or “figging” the cocktail horse did. Gingering was in fact viewed as an alternative to shortening the tails, and cocktail horses (of mixed blood) seem to have been the focus of these treatments, which lends weight to Wondrich’s point. See this American discussion c. 1849 on these practices, from American Farmer’s Magazine.

I should add too Brown and Miller have pointed out that ginger was fed to horses in different nostrums, to maintain them, or cure them from illness. However, not just cocktail horses were fed these. And, even though figging may have been advised for mixed blood horses, thoroughbreds were sometimes figged, numerous sources refer to this.

It is a good theory and Wondrich may be right, but I have my doubts. It gives too much credit to race-goers for invention, who were simply looking for a drink. The simplest answer, still connected to the equine, is the track term inspired the drink cocktail since horse and drink were both mixtures. This theory appears to originate with a Swedish researcher called Låftman in 1946, see the discussion and references in Wikipedia, here.

In summary, the race couse explanation has three limbs (!): i) perky horse due to the shortened tail = perky drinker due to effect of the drink = cocktail the drink (no necessary connection to ginger); ii) cocktail horses were sometimes gingered, short tail or no, and a drink with ginger perks up the drinker (so ginger a necessary part); iii) a cocktail horse has a mixed bloodline, so do mixed drinks figuratively, hence the horse term was applied to the drink, with no necessary connection to ginger.

I find no. iii) most persuasive, considering too bitters ended being the zesty additive to the cocktail, not ginger. Bitters was also known in England in the 1700s, indeed was developed there in commerce, as patented by Stoughton for example. I’d think some British “cocktail” used bitters, not ginger although no documentation is known that supports it.

In my next post, I will focus more on the ginger aspect.

Part II follows.


2 thoughts on “The Cocktail’s Origin, The Racecourse, The Ginger, Part I”

  1. Loved this post. I remember this on the “F” series of QI where they referred to it as feaguing. I just tapped “figging a horse” into Google as I was certain it was known as “eeling” too. It isn’t but eels were sometimes used too! That’s why I remembered the word. Do you think there’s a link to the horse in horseradish too? I imagine if you stuffed it up there peeled it would have the same eye-watering effect!

    • Thanks Alec. It’s a complicated intellectual puzzle all this, and David Wondrich made some good points in our Twitter exchange if you saw that.

      I’m starting to think there is a complex playing on words from a sexual standpoint to all this as well. Figging and feaguing, well, I think a connection to the well known F word is obvious. Even with the cocktail word that plays a role as well I think, but whether it affects the underlying reason for the term is less clear, maybe not.

      I’m starting to think David may be right about the ginger connection to horses, although I need to think further on it.

      Good question about horseradish and gingering horses, I never thought of that, but who knows.


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