The origin of the word “cocktail” is one of those persistent little mysteries that many people would like to solve, but information doesn’t come easily. I’ve looked at this a couple of times, basically putting my spin on previous information. But today, I’ve come across some additional information that I haven’t found referenced elsewhere. The information is from 1788 and doesn’t completely solve the mystery, but might be an important piece. It also has nothing to do with horses, Aztecs, roosters, barrel dregs or war widows.
As usual, I wasn’t looking for an “origin” story, I was actually doing research for my Tales of the Cocktail session called “Drink’s from the 1600s”. Four hundred years ago grammar and spelling we different, and some of the words and terms are not easy to interpret. Luckily, there were a plethora of dictionaries written to help people write, and now help me understand.
I was looking for some cock-ale information and searching through these historical dictionaries for related drink terms. The idea being to find drinks that were common during the 1600s. In the 1788 dictionary “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” (1788) By Francis Grose—a must have for any bartender—I found the term “cockles” with a very interesting definition.
Cockles - a saying in praise of wine, ale and spirituous liquor
This seems to have been a slang toast, or cheer, during the consumption of strong drink. Now, why would they say “cockles”?
First, we’ve all heard of the “cockles of our heart”. This saying originated from the early understanding of the human heart sometime in the 1600s. The cockles are the ventricles, from Latin "cochleae cordis". It’s from "cochlea" meaning snail, which alluded to the shape of the hearts ventricles. The saying means to warm and gratify one’s deepest feelings.
Now, anybody that has had a shot of whisky, rum, brandy—or any strong spirit—will immediately understand the warming effect that follows consumption. It doesn’t seem to be a stretch that toasting one-another with “the warmest of feelings, which makes one’s heart glow with pleasure” would be appropriate among friends with strong drink. If the friends don’t warm you up, the booze certainly will.
Additionally, cockle means “to cause to wrinkle, pucker, or ripple”. For example: “this paper cockles easily” or better yet “when she did the shot of scorpion infused mezcal, her face cockled like a Corvette hitting a telephone post”. Again, the word seems appropriate when used in the context of drinking alcohol. We’ve all had moments where our face “cockled” when we did those youthful introductory “shots”. Hell, Jagermeister still causes frat boy’s to cockle their face.
The story of the “egg cup” or “coquetier” may, or may not, have had something to do with this story. The French word for cockles is “coquille”, and we can see that there might be some confusion between “coquille” and “coquetier”. Personally, the “egg cup” story seems less likely as the origin, instead it may have shaped the word “cocktail” through confusion and mispronunciation.
There are other terms that might have contributed to the word cocktail representing strong mixed drinks. For example:
Cock Ale was described as a provocative drink.
Cock-a-Whoop means elevated, in high spirits, transformed with joy. Drinking seems to have that effect.
Cock and Bull Story means a roundabout story without a head or tail (beginning or end). Ever listen to an intoxicated person tell a story?
This information doesn’t actually answer the origin question, we still have a missing link. Now the only thing left to do is find a link between “cockles” and “cocktail” and the origin story may have an answer.