Margaritas: Excellent for the Head

“One sip of this
Will bathe the drooping spirits in delight,
Beyond the bliss of dreams.’

John Milton: Comus (1637),

Cocktails. An effervescent word that is used a great deal in the V&A Waterfront area, and with good reason. With a host of great restaurants, pubs and other establishments that cater for the inner-man (or, more correctly these days, the inner-person), cocktails are in great demand. The word rolls off a tongue thirsty for the uplifting taste of an exotic drink, and very few people actually ask the obvious question: for goodness sake, why is it called a cocktail?

Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.

It’s a bit of a mystery actually. Like a lot of words that have been borrowed from other sources, the origin of the word ‘cocktail’ for a mixed drink is debated. The drink itself is not: the Oxford English Dictionary defines a cocktail as ‘an alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit or spirits mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit juice or cream.’ Although, as an aside, that is just the tip of the ice cube. When a mixed drink contains only a distilled spirit and a mixer, such as soda or fruit juice, it is a highball. When a mixed drink contains only a distilled spirit and a liqueur, it is a duo, and when a mixer is added, it is a trio. These days, cocktails are limited only by the imagination of the ‘mixologist’, another concocted word that is self-explanatory.

Back to ‘cocktail’. The first recorded use of cocktail as a drink is found in The Morning Post and Gazetteer in London, England, March 20, 1798, where it seems to have been used for the ingredient ginger. A more definitive usage comes from America in 1803, where an article in The Farmer’s Cabinet includes the sentence, “Drank a glass of cocktail—excellent for the head…Call’d at the Doctor’s, found Burnham—he looked very wise—drank another glass of cocktail.” Whoever this gentleman was, with his excellent head, he set a great precedent; so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary entry referred to above cites this as the first recorded use of the word cocktail for a mixed drink. It certainly seems to have caught on rapidly. A couple of years later the question was already being posed by curious civilians: in May 13, 1806; editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository, Harry Croswell, answered the written question, “What is a cocktail?” with this erudite passage:
“Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.”

What Harry the cynic didn’t explain was the probable origin of the word itself. For that we need to turn to Russian Professor and famed etymologist Anatoly Liberman, who put it is a nutshell. As he explains it, in earlier centuries it was customary to dock the tails of horses that were not thoroughbred, and they were called cocktailed horses, later simply cocktails. By extension, the word cocktail was applied to a vulgar, ill-bred person raised above his station, one who assuming the position of a gentleman but was ‘deficient in gentlemanly breeding’. Liberman concludes that as a drink, a ‘cocktail’ was an acceptable alcoholic drink, but diluted: therefore not a ‘purebred’, but a drink ‘raised above its station’. Hence the slang word used earlier about inferior horses and sham gentlemen was transferred to delicious drinks that didn’t try to be anything other than tasty.

On the 22nd of February, it’s Happy Margarita Day!

The mid-19th century saw cocktails finally take their rightful place in the drinking lexicon of the world’s cognoscenti. The first publication of a bartenders’ guide which included cocktail recipes was in 1862 – How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion, by “Professor” Jerry Thomas. For lovers of trivia, the first ‘cocktail party’ ever thrown was allegedly by Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1917. Walsh invited 50 guests to her home at noon on a Sunday. The party lasted an hour, until lunch was served at 1 pm. History doesn’t record what type of cocktails were actually served to the flappers and their consorts; what is of interest is that her house is now the residence of the local Archbishop.

What does all this have to do with Waterfront Charters? Actually, quite a lot. We have a wonderful relationship with Bacardi Limited; guests who have sailed aboard our luxurious catamaran Enigma will have seen the ‘Grey Goose’ emblem resplendent on her upper deck, tipping our sailor’s hat to their delicious Vodka. And coming up shortly is…wait for it…Margarita Day on the 22nd of February! Who knew that this delicious cocktail had its own day? With Bacardi’s delicious highest-quality ultra-premium tequila Patrón as the spirit underpinning the Waterfront Charters Margaritas, we will be offering two Margarita Day cruises on the 22nd aboard our elegant sailing catamaran Serenity One. With an expert mixologist onboard, Serenity One will be making two Coastal Cruises – 11h30 to 13h30, and 13h30 to 14h30. Make sure you keep an eye on the website for booking details.

Cocktails in the 21st Century! No longer the preserve of people ‘deficient in gentlemanly breeding’; but there to be enjoyed by all in their delicious glory. Patrón Tequila, Waterfront Charters luxurious Serenity One, Margaritas (or whatever cocktails you choose), Cape Town scenery, the Atlantic Ocean: what a combination of delights! Who knows what Harry Croswell of The Balance and Columbian Repository would have made of that?