The Cocktail’s Origin, the Racecourse, the Ginger, Part II

David Wondrich, in comments made on Twitter yesterday regarding Part I of my postings on the cocktail, directed my attention to this part of the 2016 Saveur article I discussed:

Confirmation that feaguing and “cock-tail” are indeed related is provided by a little piece of political satire printed in 1790 in a provincial English newspaper, in which the writer, deploying the term in (I hope) the figurative sense, claims that a certain clergyman “hath been guilty of monopolizing all the ginger and pepper in the neighbourhood, to make the asses who vote for Sir Gerald Vanneck cock their tails.” That’s also how “cock-tail” seems to be deployed in The Prelateiad, an almost impenetrably obscure Dublin verse satire from 1789, which refers to cayenne pepper’s “cock-tail virtue.”

He points to these as further support for the ginger-figging theory of cocktail origin.

Initially I found these references obscure, which David allows in part for the second one. The first seemed possibly an aphrodisiacal allusion – and may still be a play on words. But I think I see now what he means. The election of Vanneck to public office was assisted by a supporter buying drinks for voters in which ginger or cayenne figured.

This would be consistent with the 1798, and John Badcock’s 1825, cocktail = ginger statements discussed earlier.

The term asses perhaps was meant to make the connection to gingered horses more clear.

(Cayenne is mentioned because it was sometimes used in the 1700s for beer and other drinks instead of ginger).

David points out too that gin and bitters cost more than a penny at the Axe and Gate and the lower price of the “cock-tail (vulgarly called ginger)” suggests it may not have included alcohol. I think some ginger of the time had to though, but it doesn’t really matter as I mentioned yesterday.

I do see that these references lend further support to his horse gingering theory of origin. Still, the matter isn’t free from doubt. The word cocktail was used for a horse as early as 1786 in Racing Calendar: A Full Account of the Plates, Matches, Etc. by James Weatherby, Vol. 14, 1786. A horse in competition was called Cocktail Goat.*

That is 12 years before the first citation for a drink in 1798, and the term had to be in use for some time before 1786.

Even in 1790, people might have given a cast to cocktail the drink that its true origin couldn’t sustain. This is especially given the suggestiveness of both cock and tail in the word.

For example, the Australian news story from 1930 I mentioned yesterday suggested cocktail for the horse came from the similarity of its docked tail to a rooster’s (cock’s) tail. If a rooster tail is at the origin of the horse name, which it could well be, a “ginger cocks the tail” explanation would not fit. Whereas, the mixture theory of origin (Låftman, 1946) sits well with this way to look at it, provided one accepts early ginger/cocktail was itself a mixture, which I think it was, typically.

Also, some cocktail horses had a tail which carried well naturally, the 1849 American Farmer’s Magazine reference I gave yesterday makes that point. This was in distinction to pure breeds whose tail almost always falls low naturally. The cocktail term may have originated as an observation of this trait of many mixed horses – no nicking of the tail, no gingering needed. Again this leaves room for full play of Låftman’s theory.

Still, David may well be right, as I said yesterday.

I want to turn now to an examination of what I think is some post-1798 history of the John Bull cocktail aka ginger.

It’s now 1842, and an issue of the Comic Almanack is released, a multi-year series of comic stories, anecdotes and poems, illustrated by the famed artist George Cruikshank. One of the stories, Up Hill And Down Dalecombines humour and fantasy to recount a strenuous winter climb of Primrose Hill, London, portraying it as part of an alpine quest to mount a series of London’s snowy peaks. In real life, Primrose Hill is a decorous low bump at the north end of Regent Park, London.

The context is entirely English, nothing to do with America. The writers were a group of well-known English writers including star-names like William Makepeace Thackeray and the Mayhew Brothers, but the specific stories were not credited.

The narrator explains that he meets a “child of the mountain”, who proffers him a “ginger cocktail”. No description is given, the climbers buy some and carry on.

Why is, not just cocktail, but a ginger cocktail, referred to in England in 1842, a period when observers were dazzled by the supposed American original? Because, IMO, the writer was remarking on a Georgian oddity, one older readers would have recognized but as something old-fashioned. Mountain people are famous everywhere for holding to practices long abandoned in more up-to-date locales.

Thackeray may have written the piece, and he did visit America – in 1852, 10 years after this story was written. Is it possible the writer nonetheless knew of the American cocktail and inserted it as a fantasy element? Yes, but even so, the only way readers could understand the reference is if the drink had some English signification.

I don’t think this particular cocktail had alcohol. It was something simply to warm the alpine climbers, as ginger is known as a heating and warming agent.

The citation, too, is only 14 years after the 1828 citation of John Badcock –  it’s not that long a time since the drink had some currency. This is like me visiting a small town in Canada and someone saying to me, “a barley sandwich would be neato, eh?.

Consider now this 1861 citation, relating to Australian (Victoria) mining country, from The Ovens and Murray Advertiser, a newpaper in Beechworth, Victoria. The gold rush had started in 1851. A barkeep in the British Hotel makes a gin cocktail in response to the visitors’ request. These visitors appear to be Britannic, there is no reference to Americans.

She says to them, “there is the gin”, “there is the cocktail things”. Clearly the bitters or some ginger extract, and probably sugar, were the “cocktail things”. She exhorts the gentlemen to make their own drink and “cock their tails”. This is a reprise of the 1790 Gerard Vanneck story with the same implications…

The Australian Gold Rush did include some American miners. California’s gold rush was a few years earlier than Australia’s, and some miners from the States came to Australia to lend their expertise.

Could the gin cocktails have been requested, and available, due to their influence? Maybe, but it is also possible a separate continuation of Albion’s cocktail is documented. This would be 33 years after the last English mention (1828). People in their 50s in 1861 would have remembered the cocktail of 1828 if they knew it to start with. That “the cocktail things” did not extend to the gin accords too with John Badcock saying cocktail was added to gin or beer. Only later was the resultant drink itself called cocktail.

This is a natural linguistic shift, the beef chile dish is a good example, it’s usually called just chile.

In America in 1874, a reference to “ginger cocktail” appeared in a kind of homily entitled “Unhappy Thoughts”. It was widely circulated, you can read its publication here a newspaper in Opelousas, LA. The line reads:

“That men will drink gin cocktail when they can get ginger cocktail”.

It can’t be clearer that this ginger cocktail had no alcohol. I believe this ginger cocktail is in a direct line of descent from the British original cocktail, not all of which were alcoholic, and containing the old ginger element.

Numerous stories in Australian and American papers, into the 1900s, refer to or give a recipe for “ginger cocktail” and make no reference to the usual, alcohol cocktail. Here is one from Molong, in Australia, 1902, “green ginger cocktail”. It appears in a list of ales and other mostly British-type alcohols. I doubt it is American-influenced, for one thing, I can’t recall a ginger cocktail in Jerry Thomas, or that it was typical of the American cocktail repertoire.

1931, Sydney, ginger cocktail is ginger syrup, lemon, orange, a little salt, water or soda (Sydney Mail, July 22, 1931).

These recipes often combine ginger, sugar, lemon, orange or other fruits. I did see one like these, Australian 1930s, in which gin was advised. Again, these descend IMO from the pre-American British cocktail which favoured ginger.

Of course too, there are many 1800s recipes for ginger cordial, or ginger conjoined with another name, usually a mix as above but with alcohol of some kind, maybe brandy, or sherry. Here is one, also pictured above. It’s from Stuart’s Fancy Drinks (1904), and is followed by a ginger gin which may well descend from Badcock’s 1828 gin-and-cocktail.

“Jamaica Ginger Cocktail” was a common, alcohol-based flavouring, late-1800s-early 1900s. It was often mixed with lemonade to walk around prohibition rules. We see one discussed in this 1917 Philadelphia press account (Evening Ledger, July 18, 1917).

1700s recipes for ginger often combined alcohol, lemon or orange again, loaf sugar, and sometimes spices, and seem quite related to many 1800s examples of ginger-based flavourings and extracts. My point is to show that, occasionally descendants popped up in distant places of English settlement or influence and sometimes under the name ginger cocktail, which IMO is ineluctably linked to the 1798 and John Badcock’s cocktail, Gerard Vanneck’s too (1790).

The 1700s recipes are typically mixtures, often with alcohol of some kind. I do allow that John Badcock’s 1828 “scratch” of ginger may have been the root itself. An item of 1800s commerce was “scraped ginger” which was the white root exposed and shaved. Some Asian cuisines use that type to this day of course. Non-scraped ginger looked more like the original knobby root and wasn’t as aromatic. Maybe the scraped shavings were dipped in beer or spirits, as a lemon zest can be, that is possible.

Still, too many ginger compounds of the 1700s-1800s were mixtures of numerous ingredients for me to doubt that some British cocktail aka ginger was of this type. In the 1808 Publican and Spirit Dealers Daily Companion, a “ginger wine is blended of ginger, sugar, lemon and raisins. This recipe, which reprises similar formulations from the 1700s, is very similar to numerous 1930s recipes that appear in the Australian press, excepted fermented.

Many 1700s recipes are expressed as remedies or medicine – including for horses. But clearly by the end of the century ginger was consumed in various kinds of drinks taken for pleasure. This early 1700s nostrum against the plague advises to use canary wine as the base and blends numerous flavourings including ginger. However, it suggests that use just of one flavouring is sometimes better, and mentions ginger specifically. The 1904 Stuart’s Fancy Drinks recipe for ginger cordial uses sherry as the base, broadly similar to the old Canary of the first recipe (strong white wine from the Canary Islands). Stuart’s version is clearly a descendant of the first one.

I project that the ginger cocktail of the 1790s represented a mid-point. The contemporary ginger wine is not so far off except sugar was used to produce the alcohol through fermentation.

Finally, the former British colonies in the U.S. and Canada continue the old British cocktail in another way, in numerous food contexts: tomato juice cocktail, canned fruit cocktail, and oyster cocktail, the spicy tomato base used to dip oysters or clams.

Why would a childrens’ food like fruit cocktail, or white picket fence tomato juice, be named after the quintessential adult American drink? The answer is, it’s not.


*In fact, cocktail for horse has been dated to 1761, see this discussion by Andrew Willett in his informative Elemental Mixology, 2 ed., 2016. The 1761 reference states the horse was “cut cock-tail”, which is an interesting formulation. To me, it could suggest the tail was cut to look like a rooster’s tail. If so, as I said in the text, that would rule out any connection to ginger. The fact that a mixed blood horse could have a tail altered with surgery vs. ginger application, or even have the look naturally as some did, inclines me once again to view favourably the mixture theory (mixed blood horse likened to mixed-origins drink), and Willett appears to favour that too. But still, Wondrich could be right, as I’ve said a number of times. Ginger does seem to be a link between the c. 1800 cocktail drinks and one way often used to make a horse look lively. Anyway having read all the other theories, including H. L. Mencken’s enumeration, it comes down I think either to the Låftman mixed blood idea or Wondrich’s gingered horse/cock-your-tail one. One has to be correct, I think. The rest of the explanations are more or less fantasy or so-called heroic explanations that have no reasonable foundation including the Bordeaux coquetel one, the Mexican princess one, Elizabeth Flanagan, etc.