I love that cocktails spark conversations.
Where did the name cocktail come from? My boyfriend recently asked me that question as we were making plans to visit Milk & Honey, the speakeasy-inspired cocktail bar and members club, which has locations in London and New York.
I didn’t know the answer to that question, but thought a simple Google search would produce one easily enough.
I thought wrong.
It turns out there are a number of theories as to where the name cocktail came from. (In 1806, the editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository defined a cocktail as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits and any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”)
Some say that the word originated in the 1800s when a tavern keeper north of New York City served mixed alcohol drinks garnished with feathers from a cock’s tail. Another reference to the tail feather of a rooster has been published in a British publication, Bartender, which says in 1936 English soldiers in Mexico were served drinks stirred with a Cola de Gallo (cock’s tail). Other references include horse tails. The word could have stemmed from a horse breeder’s term for a mixed breed—cock-tails.
Another thought is that the word cocktail came from cock tailings, what was found at the bottom of a cask of ale. The cock tailings from spirits would be mixed together and then sold at a lower price.
Among the more interesting explanations of how cocktail came about is in George Bishop’s “The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of Man in His Cups,” which says that the word comes from the term cock-tail used in the mid 1800s to describe a woman who was “of easy virtue desirable but impure…and applied to the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice.”
Well, at the Milk & Honey in London, some of the cocktails did come with ice—large cubes so as to not dilute the drinks—(no feathers though) and were mixed with great detail.
The cocktail has been around for a long time and bars like Milk & Honey are paying homage to the classics, but with a twist. The El Diablo, for example, used fresh ginger and soda as opposed to ginger ale. Other “restorative” drinks on the menu included a Prescription Julep (cognac, rye, sugar, mint), an Aviation No. 1 (calvados, cassis, absinthe, lime) and a Moscow Mule (vodka, ginger, lime, sugar, soda).
The downstairs bar had a speakeasy vibe—small booths and tables, dark wood and leather furniture, candle light, embossed metal detailing around the bar and 1920s-style music playing in the background. It could have been a scene out of “Boardwalk Empire” with waiters and bartenders dressed in pinstriped collared shirts and suspenders.
As the trend of reinventing or revisiting classic cocktails of the past continues, bars like Milk & Honey are taking a fresh approach—literally. The quality of ingredients used to mix with the alcohol is just as important as the quality of the spirit itself. Milk & Honey makes fresh mixers daily and says it doesn’t use any juice or extract they didn’t make themselves.
The quality is noticeably reflected in the cocktails.