The word cocktail is a bit of an etymological puzzle: originally only used as a nickname for an animal that rears up when irritated, by the late 1700s it had become another word for a horse with a “cocked” or shortened tail. How it then made the leap to alcoholic mixed drinks in the 1800s is, however, a mystery.
One theory claims it’s to do with the drinks making you feel energised and sprightly, like an energetic horse, while another suggests it’s to do with cocktails being popular at the races. Alternatively, the two meanings could be entirely unrelated—one very plausible explanation is that cocktail might actually an anglicized version of the French coquetier, meaning “egg-cup”, which was perhaps once used to measure out quantities of spirits.
The names of individual cocktails are often just as problematic, and often it’s difficult to track down the histories of individual names. The margarita, for instance, is various credited to Marjorie King, a former Broadway dancer; the singer Peggy (i.e. Margaret) Lee; and Margarita Henkel, the daughter of a former German ambassador to Mexico. Even then, margarita is the Spanish word for “daisy”, and so it might instead take its name from an earlier drink known as the “tequila daisy”.
Equally, no one is quite sure why a sidecar is called a sidecar (although one story claims that it was invented in Paris just after World War I by an American Army captain who could often be seen being driven around the city in a motorcycle sidecar). The highball is another mystery: originally a straightforward mixture of Scotch and soda water, it’s thought that its name it refers to the drinks’ popularity in the bars on early steam locomotives. The train’s coal-powered boiler would be fitted with a pressure gauge with a floating ball inside it, so that when the train was going at its fastest speed, the pressure gauge would be “highballing”.
Some cocktails famously take their names from the places where they were invented. So while a sling is a general American name for any sweetened and flavoured drink made from a spirit base, the Singapore sling was invented in the early 1900s at the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore. A classic daiquiri cocktail—essentially a mojito without the mint—is named after the village of Daiquirí on the southeast coast of the island; legend has it that the drink was invented by local American mining engineers in the early 1900s when they ran out of gin and had to use the local rum instead. (Mojito, incidentally, is thought to derive from mojo, the Cuban Spanish name of a type of sauce or marinade made with citrus fruit—so a mojito is literally a little mojo.)
But what about a Manhattan? Well, although accounts of the event are debatable, legend has it that the Manhattan cocktail was specially invented for a banquet hosted by Lady Randolf (mother of Winston) Churchill at the trendy Manhattan Club in New York in the late 1800s. The name Manhattan was, however, already in use long before then as the name of a different drink from the modern Manhattan cocktail—so, if the story is true, it was probably the success of Lady Randolf’s banquet that popularised the recipe used today.
A Manhattan made with Scotch rather than Canadian whisky, incidentally, is a Rob Roy. It was originally invented at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1894 to celebrate the Broadway premiere of an operetta loosely based on the life of the Scottish folk hero Rob Roy.
Other more straightforward etymologies like this one include julep, which was borrowed into English from French as far back as the 1400s to refer to a sweet-tasting or sweetened drink, but has its earliest origins in the Arabic word for rose-water, julab. The mimosa takes its name from the mimosa plant, Acacia dealbata, which produces bright orange-yellow flowers the same colour as mixed champagne and orange juice.
Piña colada means “strained pineapple” in Spanish, a reference to the drink’s fruity base, and maitai means “good” or “nice” in Tahitian. The pale orange-red colour of a classic Bellini cocktail reportedly reminded its inventor—Giuseppe Cipriani, the founder of Venice’s famous Harry’s Bar—of a similar colour often used in paintings by the Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini.
And when it became popular in the late 1800s to introduce liqueurs into cocktail recipes, the older more basic recipes that omitted them—and in particular this classic mix of whiskey and bitters—became known as “old fashioned” cocktails. Hence an old fashioned is a straightforward mix of Bourbon or rye whiskey, Angostura bitters, sugar.