Drinking holidays are a wonderful thing. For some, they’re a great excuse to have a couple of cocktails after work, and for those of us who are well beyond that sort of pretense, they usually mean that there’ll be a whole new gaggle of friends joining us at the bar. World Cocktail Day is the granddaddy of them all, and while it may seem like just another arbitrary holiday along the lines of World Sandwich Day or National Lost Sock Remembrance Day (no, we didn’t make that up), it actually commemorates a pretty auspicious anniversary in the history of drinking: the first time the word “cocktail” was used in print to describe an alcoholic beverage.
What is World Cocktail Day?
Well, that’s actually only partly true. The event celebrated by World Cocktail Day is the publication of the May 13, 1806 issue of the Balance and Columbian Repository, a Hudson, New York newspaper that is credited with the famous line, “Cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” It was written by editor Harry Croswell in response to a reader’s inquiry, replete with colonial-era long s’s (ſ) and a bit of dry wit about the day’s politicians.
For a long time, the Repository held the relatively undisputed honor of being the first publication to print the word. In recent years, however, enterprising cocktail historians have dug up a few competitors.
The earliest we’ve come across (thanks to Anastatia Miller and Jared Brown’s Spiritous Journey: A History of Drink, Book Two) is an obscure note in a 1798 edition of the London paper Morning Post and Gazetteer, which talks about a bar owner who won the lottery and forgave all of his patrons’ debts in celebration. The paper jokingly imagined a list of bar tabs for several politicians, one of which included an order of “cock-tail.”
David Wondrich (in his seminal Imbibe!) unearthed a slightly later mention in an 1803 issue of Amherst, New Hampshire publication Farmer’s Cabinet that deserves recognition as well. It features a page from the diary of a young “lounger,” accompanied by a fairly judgmental introduction by the person who found it “on the plain, lost probably from the pocket of the careless author.” The entry is a collection of short, hourly accounts of the man’s day, notable for the line, “Drank a glass of cocktail—excellent for the head.”
While both instances were published before the Balance and Columbian Repository column, they lack an important element: the recipe. People played pretty fast and loose with the definition of a “cocktail” throughout the 1800s, but in the end, the simple combination of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters is the one that stuck (we go into this in more detail in our history of the Old-Fashioned). The Balance article is the earliest written record that does more than mention the drink, so it’s appropriate that theirs is the piece we celebrate on World Cocktail Day.
This year, as we all raise our glasses to the vibrant world of cocktails, keep in mind the history that underpins this increasingly popular holiday. We’ve come a long way since 1806—here’s to another 200 years of great drinks.