Posted by: Bystander PJ20 NOV 2013
When discussing polypharmacy we may refer to a “cocktail” of drugs without realising that the word cocktail — more usually applied to a spirit-based drink — may actually have its origin in pharmacy as a description of an appetite-stimulating tonic.
The cocktail was first defined in print in the US in 1806 as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”.
Although few cocktails now contain bitters, they are still often drunk before meals as aperitifs to stimulate the appetite.
There have been many claims for the origin of the word cocktail, but one of the most intriguing is that it derives from coquetier, a French name for an eggcup, supposedly used as a jigger by early US pharmacists when measuring out draughts of tonic.
It seems that one 19th century US pharmacist who definitely used a coquetier as a measure was Antoine Peychaud (1813–76). At the age of 25, Antoine opened a pharmacy in Royal Street, New Orleans. His father, also Antoine, had arrived in the “Big Easy” in 1795 from the French West Indies, bringing with him a secret family recipe for gentian-based bitters. Antoine Junior adopted this formula to market a brand of bitters under the family name, apparently using a double-ended coquetier as a measure.
In the 1859s, the Sazerac House bar, further along Royal Street, started selling an aperitif made with cognac and Peychaud’s bitters. This “Sazerac Cocktail” became so popular that in 1869 Antoine Peychaud closed his pharmacy and went to work for the bar’s owners.
Many alternative origins have been claimed for the word cocktail, but most are harder to believe than the coquetier theory.
In 1946 the American journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken wrote that he had found 40 supposed etymologies for the word cocktail. Many of them are still widely cited, even though some are decidedly silly.