What is a cocktail?

definition of cocktail

The very first definition of “cocktail” is believed to be published in an answer from the editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806. It said: “Cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” This definition–shown above–is still a helpful guideline for drinkmaking, though it certainly shouldn’t bind you to particular ingredients. For instance, I noticed this definition doesn’t include citrus juice, which is used pretty often.

Let’s describe each element:

Spirit: gin, whiskey, vodka, brandy, tequila, rum, wine, vermouth, even beer.

Sugar: granulated sugar; a liqueur (which is a sweetened liquor); simple syrup; maple syrup; agave syrup.

Water: diluted ice from mixing the cocktail; club soda.

Bitters: cocktail bitters, like Angostura or Bitter End; digestive bitters like Fernet Branca or Campari, which are also considered liqueurs.

So let’s put it all together in a classic simple cocktail, the Manhattan:

  • 2 oz rye whiskey (spirit)
  • 3/4 oz sweet vermouth (let’s call this a spirit and a sugar)
  • 2 dashes bitters
  • stir with ice (water) and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
  • garnish with a cherry

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