5 Things You Didn't Know About Cocktails and Bartending

The origins of the word "cocktail" is "quite as dark as the origin of the thing itself," wrote H.L. Mencken. WIN-Initiative/Getty Images

Probably not long after the invention of liquor, people may have started messing around and adding things to their favorite spirit. We know that by the 1600s, people were fond of alcoholic punches. But the cocktail as we know it is a more recent invention. Here are some other facts that should leave you stirred, but not shaken.


1. Yes, the Word 'Cocktail' Sounds a Little Dirty — With Good Reason

The origins of the word "cocktail" are pretty murky — with several competing theories . But spirits historian David Wondrich (nice job, huh?) says the first mention of the word "cocktail" was in a British newspaper in 1798. "Cock-tail" (as the word was styled) was used as a slang term for a ginger drink. Apparently at the time, before a horse sale, a dealer would sometimes put a ginger suppository up the animal's butt, which would cause it to lift its tail, "a raised or cocked-up tail being a sign of a spirited horse," writes Wondrich. Alrighty then.


2. Cocktails Were Invented in America

One of the earliest uses of the word "cocktail" in the way that we think of it now (as a mixed drink) was in the American periodical Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806. In response to a reader's question, the editor explained that a cocktail "is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters." That's a definition that still works today. In fact, the editor just described a drink we would now call an old-fashioned, which could be considered the first cocktail.

Others argue that the first cocktail (or at least, the first one with a name) is the Sazerac, which was developed in New Orleans in 1838 by an apothecary named Antoine Peychaud. It originally consisted of a cognac called Sazerac, a sugar cube, bitters and a dash of absinthe. Nowadays, it's made with whiskey and the other ingredients. Sometimes a second type of bitters is substituted for the absinthe. 


3. The Father of Mixology Was Jerry Thomas

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Jerry Thomas mixes up a blue blazer.
Museum of the American Cocktail/Wikipedia

Jerry Thomas (1830-1885) was not the first barkeep in America, but he was the first to write about it. In 1862, Thomas published "The Bon Vivant's Companion, also known as The Bar-Tender's Guide." In it, Thomas laid down the principles for mixing drinks and listed his own recipes. His book (which was revised several times) included the first recipes for the Tom Collins and the martini. Thomas was also quite a showman — his signature drink was the blue blazer, which involved lighting whiskey and tossing it back and forth between two mixing glasses. His bar guide is still in print.


4. Bartender 'Olympics' Are a Thing

Thomas' creative spirit lives on today. Whether it's bartenders competing to show off their "flairtending" skills — like juggling liquor bottles — or mixologists showing off their creativity by submitting original recipes, there's a competition for everyone. Check out some flairtender tricks in the video below.

There's also an annual cocktail conference held in - where else? - New Orleans.


5. One Bar Has Been Selling Drinks for More Than 1,100 Years

In 2004, Guinness World Records bestowed the title of Ireland's oldest pub on Sean's Bar in Athlone, Ireland, established circa 900 C.E. During renovations in 1970, the owners discovered that the walls were originally made of "wattle and wicker," a style used in the 10th century. Sean's Bar also claims to be the oldest bar in the world; so far none other has stepped up to challenge it. So, unless something is uncovered in, perhaps, Greece or Italy, we'll give Sean's the title. The oldest pub in America is the White Horse Tavern, established in 1673 in Rhode Island and still going strong.