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I have long suspected that what we know today as a "cocktail" was invented to mask the taste of bad liquor. Indeed I've found several unsupported assertions to this effect online, generally pointing to an alleged Prohibition-era ruse (sweet ingredients, very cold temperature, fancy glass, adornments, etc.) to hide the awful taste of much bootleg gin. (At this point I feel compelled to point out that gin does not need to be bootleg to taste awful.)

I'm interested in locating some researched/documented support for all this.

EDIT: The use of the word "cocktail" to refer to an alcoholic drink is certainly older than the Prohibition. By "modern cocktail", I'm referring to 20-th century concoctions. My question is not about the origin of the word, but rather about the origin of using sweeteners, ice, and decorations to make unpalatable alcoholic drinks easier to swallow, and more precisely, I'm looking for researched/documented support (if such exists) for unsupported claims that during the Prohibition, cocktails became a popular solution to the problem of dealing with foul-tasting liquor. (The simplest support for this I can think of would be evidence of a sharp increase in the number of sweet cocktails whose invention can be dated to the Prohibition era, with all the usual controls for confounders, etc.)

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Gin doesn't have to be bootleg to taste awful; if it didn't adding the bitterness of quinine (gin and tonic) wouldn't be an improvement. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 23 at 2:09
@PieterGeerkens: I have edited my post to make you happy. –  kjo Jan 23 at 2:14
There is really no need to broadcast my terrible jokes so widely. ;-) –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 23 at 2:21
In fact, cocktails seem to have started with Gin and Tonic, with Gin added to mask the taste of the quinine. :-) –  Lennart Regebro Jan 23 at 5:54
The claim is bogus; see my answer and Lennart's comment above. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 23 at 12:21

1 Answer 1

The Oxford English Dictionary attests the use of cock-tail as a mixed drink from 1809 in W. Irving's Knickerbockers:

They lay claim to claim to be the first inventors of those recondite beverages cock-tail, stone-fence, and sherry-cobbler.

and from 1839 cocktail as a more general mixed drink in Marryat's Diary American:

He frequents the bar, calls for gin cocktails, chews tobacco and talks politics.

Not much need for bootlegging that early in the 19th century. Whether the popularity of cocktails in the 1920's arose from the need or desire to hide foul liquor I cannot say; but the word was long established by that time.

The Manhattan is attested to from William Schmidt's "The Flowing Bowl", published in 1891. In it, he details a drink containing:

  • 2 dashes of gum (gomme syrup),
  • 2 dashes of bitters,
  • 1 dash of absinthe,
  • 2/3 portion of whiskey and
  • 1/3 portion of vermouth.

The Martini is attested to from the 1888 Bartender's Manual, where there was a recipe for a drink that consisted of:

  • half a wine glass of Old Tom Gin and
  • half a wine glass of vermouth.

Going further back, we find How To Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant's Companion, published 1862, complete with numerous popular cocktails from the age of Lincoln and the Civil War:

When our country's very first bartender's guide, How to Mix Drinks, was published the year after Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, America entered a golden age of cocktails. As it turns out, a lot of what was available to drink back in the 16th president's day has now come back in fashion

Read More

This wealth of evidence for the popularity of both sweetened liquor drinks, and their appellation as cocktails, predates the the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition by several decades.

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