What is a Cocktail?

cocktailcub.co: Our take on the history of cocktails through to cocktails today…

A cocktail is a style of mixed drink. Originally a mixture of distilled spirits, sugar, water, and bitters, the word has gradually come to mean almost any mixed drink containing alcohol.

Today most cocktails contain one or more types of alcohol and one or more types of mixer plus usually lemon or lime fruit/juice and sweetener like simple syrup. Alcohols used vary from strong spirits to lower alcohol liqueurs, aperitifs/digestifs to wines and even beer. almost anything including a wide array of mixers from fruit, fruit juice, sodas and milk/cream plus sweeteners such as different sugars, sugar syrup, honey or agave syrup as well as flavoring agents such as bitters, herbs or spices. Most cocktails also use lots of ice which is another long chapter

The History of Cocktails

edited from Wikipedia

The earliest definition of a ‘cocktail’ was in a May 13, 1806, news publication in Hudson, New York, in which an answer was provided to the question,

What is a cocktail?”

It stated that: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters — it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a Democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.”

Citrus fruit

The first “cocktail party” ever thrown was allegedly by Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1917. Mrs. Walsh invited 50 guests to her mansion at noon on a Sunday. The party lasted one hour, until lunch was served at 1pm.

In 1862 the first publication of a bartenders’ guide which included cocktail recipes was: how to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion, by “Professor” Jerry Thomas. In addition to listings of recipes for Punches, Sours, Slings, Cobblers, Shrubs, Toddies, Flips, and a variety of other types of mixed drinks were 10 recipes for drinks referred to as “Cocktails”. A key ingredient which differentiated “cocktails” from other drinks in this compendium was the use of bitters as an ingredient, although it is not used in many modern cocktail recipes.


The sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the U.S during Prohibition (1920–1933), when cocktails were still consumed illegally in establishments known as speakeasies…There was a shift from whiskey to gin, which doesn’t require aging and is therefore easier to produce illicitly.

From: Drinks Focus

The popularity of cocktails at that time was partly due to the need to cover up the bad taste of some of the crudely produced hooch smuggled by the bootleggers. Some cocktail recipes used today were invented in the days of Prohibition as cocktails flourished in the illegal bars, parties and clubs of American cities.

A rule for some but not for all…

1 part sour
2 parts sweet
3 parts strong and
4 parts weak

Traditional Margarita

The Margarita is born: 1934 to 1959

This period was one of great innovation. The margarita is said to have originated in 1948 when a Dallas socialite named Margarita Sames purportedly hosted a poolside Christmas party at her vacation home in Acapulco, Mexico. The party game for Margarita was to mix drinks behind the bar and let her guests rate the results. When she mixed three parts tequila with one part triple sec and one part lime, it was such a success among her guests that it quickly traveled from Texas to Hollywood and the rest of the country, bearing her name.

Cocktails in the 60s and 70s

From Wikipedia: Cocktails became less popular in the late 1960s and 1970s as other recreational drugs became common. In the 1980s cocktails once again became popular, with vodka often substituted for gin in drinks such as the martini.

Cocktail with Tom Cruise

In 1988 the movie ‘Cocktail’ kick started a new generation of bartenders keen to make their mark on the industry and cocktails began to take on a new form of mixology. In the 1990s every hotel bar or established restaurant had a standard cocktail list and cocktail bars continue to gain popularity. The girls of ‘Sex in the City’ drank Cosmopolitans all night long which gave yet another push to cocktail consumption and style. With an extremely large selection of liqueurs and sprits now on the market plus the fact that almost any ingredient you can mix into a drink is considered, the art continues to grow throughout the 2000s with mixologists often using the large resources of a commercial kitchen to come up with new drinks, complex in flavour and design. By Jeremy Thomas

Flair Bartending

Flair bartending came and went from as is it was regarded as overly showy and time wasting and tended to leave you at the bar waiting for a drink. Though for special bars and events flair bartenders still have their place due to their ability to perform high paced engaging acts using mostly general bar equipment whilst making drinks with fire and other amazing elements. Sweet, creamy or blended cocktails have also fallen out of fashion in the top notch cocktail bars but remain a favourite to cocktail novices and resort bars.

Cocktails Today

The current trend for many cocktail bars is to have a very contemporary and unique cocktail list, often with reference to cocktails from the past. Diversity is important with new takes on old cocktails or unique creations, cocktails have taken on many new forms. Most cocktail bartenders can make a range of traditional or standard cocktails and are pushing the boundaries of drink consumption to new heights every season using molecular mixology on seasonally updated cocktail lists in niche cocktail bars around the world.

Cocktails can be found almost any where from drinks at home with friends to large corporate events with Cosmopolitans on arrival! Surely its time that you tried something different to an ice cold beer or glass of sauvignon blanc, grab a bottle of vodka or 2, some limes and juices and see what you come up with.

Where to start?

An old cocktail adage is: 1 part sour, 2 parts sweet, 3 parts strong and 4 parts weak. So if you relate that to a cosmopolitan:
1 Part sour – Lime Juice
2 parts sweet – Cointreau or triple sec
3 parts strong – Vodka
4 parts weak – Cranberry Juice

Use this as a guide to inventing your own drinks, research recipes and go out and taste traditional and contemporary cocktails. Each one you drink will educate your palate giving you aspirations to be a true cocktail connoisseur and to one day have an Old Fashioned in a bar once frequented by Ernest Hemingway whilst he travel the world in search of inspiration.

Click here for 2010s cocktail lists and recipes.
The following excerpt from Wikipedia goes over some traditional suggestions for making cocktails that still relate to some modern cocktails today.

From Wikipedia

The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks

The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks is a classic cocktail book by David A. Embury, first published in 1948. The book is noteworthy for its witty, highly opinionated and conversational tone, as well as its categorization of cocktails into two main types: aromatic and sour; its categorization of ingredients into three categories: the base, modifying agents, and special flavorings and coloring agents; and its 1:2:8 ratio (1 part sweet, 2 parts sour, 8 parts base) for sour type cocktails.

Embury basic principles for fashioning a quality cocktail:

  • It should be made from good-quality, high-proof liquors.
  • It should whet rather than dull the appetite. Thus, it should never be sweet or syrupy, or contain too much fruit juice, egg or cream.
  • It should be dry, with sufficient alcoholic flavor, yet smooth and pleasing to the palate.
  • It should be pleasing to the eye.
  • It should be well-iced.

Embury stresses frequently that the drink will never be any better than the quality of the cheapest ingredient in it, and hence he proselytizes constantly for the highest quality spirits, liqueurs, cordials, and modifiers (fresh squeezed lemons, etc.) He also repeatedly stresses that a cocktail, in the classic sense (a before-dinner drink) should have no more than the slightest touch of sweetness to it, and deplores the use of drinks like the Brandy Alexander as pre-prandial cocktails, as they dull rather than sharpen the appetite. He does not denigrate sweet drinks per se, pointing out that they are excellent after dinner or mid-afternoon drinks “in place of a half-pound of chocolate cookies”, but they are anathema as a “cocktail” before a large meal.

Embury makes it very clear that he thinks the idea that a drink must be made according to one exact recipe preposterous, and that the final arbiter is always your taste. He suggests trying different ratios, finding the one that is most pleasing to you.

Once one understands the basic components of each type of drink, new cocktails can be created by substituting a different base or modifying agent or by adding a special flavoring or coloring agent. A daiquiri, for example, is nothing more than a whiskey sour with rum substituted for whiskey as the base and lime juice substituted for lemon juice as a modifying agent.

Three of Embury’s Six basic drinks


7 parts English gin
1 part French (dry) vermouth
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, twist lemon peel over the top and serve garnished with an olive, preferably one stuffed with any kind of nut.

Old Fashioned

12 parts American whiskey
1 part simple syrup
1-3 dashes Angostura bitters to each drink
In an old-fashioned glass, add bitters to simple syrup and stir. Add about 1 ounce of whiskey and stir again. Add two cubes of cracked, but not crushed, ice and top off with the rest of the whiskey. Twist lemon peel over the top and serve garnished with the lemon peel and a maraschino cherry.


8 parts white Cuban rum
2 parts lime juice
1 part simple syrup
Shake with lots of finely crushed ice and strain well into a chilled cocktail glass.


6th August 2009 – Mobile Cocktail Bar, Staff celebration

Just wanted to say thanks again for the cocktail party last night, it was fantastic. It was very chilled out, relaxing and everyone enjoyed themselves and the cocktails.
I will definitely keep you in mind for any future parties/work functions.
Thanks again.
Elise Cullen
Office Manager/Receptionist