The cocktail: Making life better since circa 1806. By Elysia Bagley. 

On today, May 13 – World Cocktail Day – we celebrate a category of drink that’s lived in both fame and infamy for over 200 years. But why?

Easy: on May 13, 1806, a New York tabloid published the first definition of a cocktail!

The now historic, illustrative description appeared in The Balance and Columbian Repository, where editor Harry Croswell replied to a reader who wrote in to ask what a cocktail was:

“A cock tail [sic], then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Croswell goes on to joke about it also being called a “bittered sling” that makes the heart stout and bold, thus being perfect for electioneering – because a person who swallows a cocktail “is ready to swallow anything else”. Touché. 

An original copy of the paper still exists at The Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, which was founded by cocktail legend Dale DeGroff. But was it the first time the word cocktail was seen in print? No. 

Prominent drinks historian David Wondrich found the word previously been cited on April 28, 1803 in a New Hampshire publication called The Farmer’s Cabinet, where the author recounts his activity for the day: “Drank a glass of cocktail – excellent for the head.” Going back even further, in Spiritous Journey: A History of Drink, Book 2, spirits and drinks historians Jared Brown and Anastasia Miller identify a 1798 case of the word appearing as a point of satire in a London publication.  

All that in mind, there are thousands of print publications, letters, journals, diaries and the like that eyes haven’t seen (and may no longer exist). Historians such as Wondrich believe that earlier examples of the word probably did appear – we just haven’t found them yet.

The reason that Harry Croswell’s definition is so important – and the reason we mark it with this day of recognition – is that it truly brought the word into the public eye, solidifying its existence in the world of booze and social drinking and laying the foundation for further inquiry, interest and everyday use. And for that, Croswell, we thank you. 

So today, raise your favourite libation and toast to Croswell and the cocktail – for we all might be much less without them.