A Retrospective on Cocktail Culture
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a cocktail as "an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients." People have been mixing drinks for centuries but it wasn't until the 17th and 18th centuries that the precursors of the Cocktail (the Slings, Fizzes, Toddies and Juleps) proved popular enough to be documented. It's unclear what went into the creation of the original Cocktail, but it seems to be a specific drink originally, rather than a category of mixed drinks.
Although the history of cocktail culture can be traced back centuries, today's cocktail is typically defined as an alcoholic mixed drink that contains two or more ingredients — at least one of which is typically a spirit.
Cocktails were originally a mixture of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. Over time, the word has come to mean almost any mixed drink that contains alcohol, including wine. A cocktail today usually contains one or more spirits and one or more mixers, such as soda, tonic or fruit juice. Additional ingredients include ice, sugar, honey, milk, cream, and various herbs.
The origin of the word cocktail is not known; but the earliest known printed use of cocktail is said to be in The Farmer's Cabinet on April 28, 1803.
Drank a glass of cocktail—excellent for the head...Call'd at the Doct's. found Burnham—he looked very wise—drank another glass of cocktail.
The earliest definition of the word cocktail was in the May 13, 1806, edition of The Balance and Columbian Repository, a publication in Hudson, New York, in which an answer was provided to the question, "What is a cocktail?". This response was given:
Cocktail is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a Democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.
The New vs. the Old
Compare the ingredients listed (spirits, sugar, water, and bitters) with the ingredients of an Old Fashioned,which originated as a term used by late 19th century bar patrons to distinguish cocktails made the “old-fashioned” way from newer, more complex cocktails.
The first publication of a bartenders' guide which included cocktail recipes was in 1862 — How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant's Companion, by "Professor" Jerry Thomas. In addition to listings of recipes for Punches, Sours, Slings, Cobblers, Shrubs, Toddies, Flips, and a variety of other types of mixed drinks were 10 recipes for drinks referred to as "Cocktails". A key ingredient which originally differentiated "cocktails" from other drinks in this compendium was the use of bitters as an ingredient, although it is not used in many modern cocktail recipes.
The first cocktail party was allegedly thrown by Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1917. Mrs. Walsh invited 50 guests to her home at noon on a Sunday. The party lasted an hour, until lunch was served at 1 pm. The site of this first cocktail party still stands. In 1924, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis bought the Walsh mansion at 4510 Lindell Boulevard, and it has served as the local archbishop's residence ever since.
During Prohibition in the United States (1920–1933), when alcoholic beverages were illegal, cocktails were covertly consumed in establishments known as speakeasies. The quality of liquor available during Prohibition was much worse during this period, so a good cocktail recipe could mask the flavor of an inferior spirit. There was a shift from whiskey to gin, which does not require aging and is therefore easier to produce illicitly.
Cocktails became less popular in the late 1960s and in the 1970s, as recreational drugs became more common. In the 1980s, cocktails again became popular, with vodka often substituted for gin in drinks such as the martini. The rise of the Cosmopolitan has also driven a resurgence in cocktail culture. Traditional cocktails began to surge even further after the year 2000.
For more information on the history of the cocktail, see Wikipedia: