Pick Your Poison
Country Life UK|August 07, 2019

As far as Tom Parker Bowles is concerned, there are only five true cocktails– and none of them come with umbrellas, sparklers or a sugar overdose

Tom Parker Bowles

THERE are, as any fool knows, only five true cocktails. Five, I say— no more. The rest are also-rans and imposters, sticky mountebanks and frothy fools, little more than alcoholic window dressing, a sickly sweet salve for the easily impressed.

There’s nothing funny about a proper cocktail. If I want to laugh, I read Wodehouse, the Grossmith brothers or Chris Packham’s views on pretty much anything. When it comes to the barman’s art, things get serious. No comedy vessels or paper umbrellas, no puns, sparklers or pre-made mixes.

A cocktail should sharpen the senses, pique the soul and stimulate the mind. That first sip, in the words of Lawrence Durrell, should ‘fairly whistle through the rigging’. As to the cocktail’s origins and etymology, the stories are as endless as they are legion. Everything starts, I suppose, with that early American definition, in the May 6, 1806 edition of The Balance and Columbian Repository, of ‘a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters’.

The Oxford English Dictionary—a source to be trusted in matters like this—lists its first recorded use three years earlier, however, appearing in The Farmers’ Cabinet: ‘Drank a glass of cocktail… excellent for the head.’

As for why it wears its name, there are as many tales as there are W. C. Fields witticisms on booze. Was it that mixed drinks were once garnished with a rooster’s tail feather? That the recipes were influenced by its bright colours? Or that they were stirred with a Mexican cola de gallo, a long root shaped like a cock’s tail?

One tale tells of the leftovers of an ale cask, called ‘cock tailings’, which were mixed with the dregs from other drinks and sold as a cheap kick. Mixed-breed horses were called cock tails and people who liked racing liked booze, so the term slipped over—or so they say.

Maybe it’s the fact that docking horses’ tails caused them to stick up, thus a strong drink made one ‘cock up one’s tail’ or… well, you get the general idea. But enough chat. You must be thirsty—time for a drink.

Martini

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