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Etymology of Cocktails and Spirits

Here’s to Friday, and to making it on the Lexiophile’s list of the Top 100 Language Blogs of 2009! Thanks to everyone who voted. Since it’s customary to raise a glass and toast in celebration, here is a language lovers list of the origins of common cocktails and spirits:


Cocktail is an interesting word with an obscure origin. The first recorded use was in 1803’s The Farmers Cabinet, and the first definition appeared in print in May of 1806 in a New York newspaper. The word is of American origin, and there are several competing theories about it’s etymology. Here are just a few of the interesting ones:

In the 18th century, it was a common practice for bartenders to drain the dregs of all the barrels and mix them together, serving the result (the equivalent of a bar-mat’s end of night remnants) at a reduced price. “Cock” was another name for spigot, and “tailings” is the last bit of alcohol, so this drink was called “cock-tailings,” shortened to “cocktail.”

Another story places the word’s origin squarely in 18th century New Orleans, where an apothecary named Peychaud (of bitters fame) served his guests a mix of brandy, sugar, water and bitters in an egg-cup. The drink eventually acquired the name of the egg-cup–“cocquetier” in French–which his guests shortened to “cocktay” and then “cocktail.” The French word “Coquetel” may also have had something to do with “cocktail”; it was the name of a mixed drink from Bordeaux served to French officers during the American Revolution.

What we know for sure is that cocktails are made from mixing liquor with some kind of juice or bitters, and that when mixed properly with great ingredients, they are delicious. So, here are the etymologies of the common spirits used in cocktails, followed by the story of some of our most popular mixes:

Vodka is an unaged, colorless, distilled liquor, originally made from fermented wheat mash, but currently made from rye, corn, and potatoes, as well. Originating in the 14th century in Russia, the production of vodka has a long-standing tradition in Slavic and Scandinavian countries. The term “vodka” comes from the Russian voda (вода), meaning “water”, and the diminutive suffix “-ka.” An added dimension to the etymology of “vodka” is diluted alcohol’s centuries-old usage as an additive in medicines and pharmaceuticals. Beginning in the early 15th century, medicines contained ingredients like “vodka in half of bread wine” (водка полу хлебного вина), tying in the word razvodit (разводить), or “to dilute with water,” with the origins of the alcohol’s name.

Whiskey (Irish and American) or whisky (Scottish and Canadian) is a liquor distilled from a variety of fermented grain mashes, including barley, rye, wheat, and corn, and aged in wooden casks. The name comes from the 18th-century Gaelic uisge beatha, or “water of life.” Centuries before the Gaelic usage, the Romans referred to their intoxicating beverages as aqua vitae, also meaning “water of life.” American bourbon whiskey, made from corn, originates in the mid-19th century in Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it gained its name from the centuries-old ruling royal family of France.

Rum is a liquor made from sugarcane or molasses. Its origins date back to mid-17th century sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and on other European-dominated islands such as Barbados. The name is of English origin and shortened from “rumbullion” or “rombostion,” although during colonial times it was more frequently – and perhaps more appropriately – referred to as Kill-Devil.

Gin is a liquor made from grain mash and distilled with juniper berries and other flavoring agents like orange peel and angelica root. “Gin” is a shortening of the name of the Swiss city Geneva, where the method of distillation originated, and from the Dutch genever (or Old French genevre), meaning “juniper.”

Tequila is a liquor distilled from the fermented mash of the agave cactus, Agave tequilana. In the mid-19th century, the town of Tequila in the region of Jalisco, Mexico became known as the center of tequila production.

Common Cocktails:

A beloved cocktail of discerning drinkers from world leaders to literary heroes, the martini has two plausible origins. The first dates the drink to 1894, with the founding of the Martini and Rossi liquor company, known for the dry, white vermouth used sparingly in the cocktail. Another theory places the martini in Martinez, California, the town where the drink may have originated in the 19th century.

The origins of the name of this rye and sweet vermouth concoction are far from dubious, having been first mixed in a New York bar. The etymology of the city name, however, has a more extensive history, drawn from the native Algonquin or Munsee munahan, meaning “island” or “where one gathers bows,” respectively.

One of the most oft-claimed concoctions, this tequila-based cocktail was most likely invented in the mid-1940s in Texas. While most stories attribute the appellation to a woman named Margarita (perhaps even Rita Hayworth, whose real name was Margarita Cansino), whether this namesake was a singer, a dancer, an actress, or an unrequited love has never been determined.

Mai Tai
This highly-alcoholic, rum-based drink was most likely first made in Trader Vic’s California restaurant in the mid 1940s. The name is a corruption of the Tahitian maita’i, meaning “good.” As legend has it, Trader Vic mixed this potent brew for friends visiting from Tahiti; upon tasting it, one exclaimed “Maita’i roa,” or “very good!”

This rum, lime, and mint cocktail has origins that trace back to 19th-century Cuba and the African slaves that worked in the Cuban sugar fields. Many historians believe that sugar cane juice was a popular beverage of the time and eventually became a flavoring for the mojito. The actual name is derived from the Spanish mojado, or wet, because the mint used in the drink is “wetted” with rum.

Mint Julep
This brandy or bourbon beverage, although fairly new in its popular form, takes its etymology from a 14th-century Arabic (julab) or Persian (gulab) word meaning “rosewater.” The original flavoring for juleps was sweetened rose syrup.

Photo by Ignissa

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