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The language of cocktails

People and places

Biographical details of Colonel Joseph Kyle Rickey are sparse and difficult to track down, but those we have offer a fascinating sketch of an eclectically talented American. Born in 1842 and variously employed as a soldier, politician, and entrepreneur, Rickey’s name stands out in an age of pioneers and frontiers for one particular achievement: at some point in the late 1880s it became associated with a species of highball being served in an unsalubrious Washington saloon. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records this in the etymology of rickey:

Probably < the name of Colonel Joseph K. Rickey (1842–1903), U.S. politician, said to have invented the drink in a bar in Washington, D.C.

The OED’s full entry cites an unusual amount of contemporary evidence linking Rickey to the mixture of bourbon, lime juice, and sparkling water. But the qualifying ‘said to’ here allows for conflicting accounts which suggest that the barman may have been responsible instead, and even contesting the exact ingredients.

It seems the rickey has always been an adaptable concept, and if you ordered one in a bar today it might be mixed with gin, or lemon juice, or without any alcohol at all. The OED’s definition reflects this range of options:

A cocktail typically consisting of whisky or gin, lime juice, carbonated water, and ice. Also: a non-alcoholic drink made with lime juice and carbonated water. (Chiefly with modifying word indicating the type of alcohol or flavour, as gin rickey, lime rickey, etc.)

Colonel Rickey was apparently less than happy to have his name and career reduced to something so insubstantial as the title of a cocktail. But he made the best of it—he went on to become one of America’s first major importers of limes.

His story demonstrates that the creation of cocktails and the terms that attach to them is, by its very nature, a hazy and inexact science. However, cocktail names are traditionally much less exotic and experimental than the drinks themselves, and while few have origins as personal—however legendarily so—as the rickey, many associate plainly with their birthplaces. For example: the manhattan; the Singapore sling; the daiquiri, after a beach in Santiago, Cuba; or the Buck’s Fizz, first made at London’s Bucks Club and marginally more inventively titled than the Clover Club. OED’s entry for Martini informs that it was originally known as a ‘Martinez’, after the city in western California.

The Bellini is a poetic exception, concocted in Venice’s Harry’s Bar and so called because its distinctive peach colour reminded its creator, Giuseppe Cipriani, of the sumptuous tones used by Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini. OED’s etymology at Bellini tells this story and links out to carpaccio—the dish of raw meat also created by Cipriani and named along the same lines, after the scarlet-robed figures that feature in Vittore Carpaccio’s paintings.

The tale of the cockerel’s tail

The origins of cocktail itself remain mysterious. As Jerry Hall discovered during a ‘Balderdash & Piffle’ wordhunt, it is first mentioned in 1803 in a New Hampshire newspaper, The Farmer’s Cabinet, in a diary of a ‘lounger’ containing the record:

Drank a glass of cocktail—excellent for the head… Call’d at the Doct’s…drank another glass of cocktail.

The drink here is unspecified, though it clearly has an appropriately therapeutic effect. OED’s evidence shows it glossed more recognizably three years later as ‘a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters’. Its probable if opaque association with a ‘cockerel’s tail’ led to a slightly later attempt at a more deliberately Americanized equivalent, the rooster tail; a word still current in North America and used to name a number of different types of cocktail.

The prevailing idea that cocktails were mass-popularized in Prohibition-era America – when the creative use of sugars and other ingredients could mask poor quality home-brewed alcohol – is reflected by the amount of terminology dating from the early half of the twentieth century, including many common compounds. The concept of a cocktail party, or a cocktail bar, where it is always cocktail hour, and one might go cocktailing—all originate in the 1920s or 30s.

A blend of good advertising and wishful thinking

It is not until the 1970s and 80s and the success of cocktails characterized by more elaborate combinations of ingredients that their names appear correspondingly more playful and emblematic, describing an effect (as the mai tai, from the Tahitian ‘maita’i’, meaning ‘pleasant, nice, good’), or an aspiration (as the cosmopolitan), or possibly both (the Sex on the Beach). Such terms are curious from a lexicographical perspective because they no longer contain any obvious trace of the origins or contents of the drinks to which they refer, despite their artificiality. They succeed as colourful blends of good advertising and wishful thinking, mixed quickly and deliberately to suit a commercial purpose rather than brewed slowly over time as part of a wider process of language development.

This article originally appeared on OED Online.

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