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Cocktails, Ales and Horses' Tails

Updated on November 30, 2010


Here is another hub on one of my favourite topics, cocktails.  Apart from the pleasure of drinking them, I also enjoy reading and researching the stories behind the drinks or what I consider to be cocktail folklore and now that I’ve joined Hubpages I’m enjoying writing about them too.  This hub covers some more of theories which compete with each other to explain how cocktails came to be called cocktails.  In my previous hub I wrote about theories based on cocks’ tails, this hub will deal will deal with theories which involve mixed drinks or horses tails.

Cock’s ale was a drink which was often drunk at cock fights, the recipe for which added raisins, various herbs and spices including mace and cloves, and a dead rooster to the base ale. This mixture was then allowed to ferment for slightly over a week before being ready to drink. The thought of adding a dead animal to a drink might seem a little revolting but it is not such an unusual practice as one might think as raw meat is an ingredient frequently used when making cider. For the 1996 Great American Beer Festival the Boston Beer Company brewed a Cock Ale to mark the 50th anniversary of one of their company investors. Brewer Dave Grinnell obtained two small roosters which he plucked, gutted and boiled before massaging them with 11 herbs and spices. The birds were tied up in a cloth sack filled with dates and currants that was then steeped in the brew. It is easy to see how the jump could have been made from a drink made from a variety of different ingredients called Cock’s ale to the cocktail.

 Another story where it is easy to see how the connection could have been made involves the dregs in the bottom of a barrel which were commonly referred to as tailings   Tavern keepers would often mix the tailings of many different barrels together and sell them at a reduced price.  These drinks became known as cock-tailings, the cock coming from the common name for the barrel spigot or tap.

The next three theories involve horses and their tails. The first two theories originate from England where horses of good quality but not of pure breeding had their tails bobbed or cocked to mark them out. It is alleged that Samuel Johnson, a famous English writer from 18th century mixed together a drink of wine and gin for a friend and described the drink as a veritable cocktail drawing comparison between the drink and the cock-tailed horses. They were both of good quality but of mixed breeding. The term cock-tail also became used to describe a man who had the appearance of a gentleman but who didn’t have the breeding or a woman of easy virtue who was desirable but impure. This latter use of cock-tail as being desirable but impure was alleged to have been given by the English to the newly acquired American habit of mixing good British Gin with any foreign matter, including ice! The third horse tail theory owes its origins to the way in which an excited or stimulated horse raises or cocks its tail. Given that the earliest published definition of a cocktail in the Balance and Columbian Repository from 1806 describes a cocktail as a “stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters” it is again easy to see how the association was made.


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    • Amber Allen profile image

      Amber Allen 7 years ago

      Hi katie

      I'm quite partial to the odd Martini and can't wait to read your hub on the subject. The wonderful thing about cocktails is that there is one to fit your every mood.



    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 7 years ago from I'm outta here

      I noticed this while browsing through your hubs, I just finished a hub on Martini's I love a good cocktail. Your Cocktails caught my eye. I'm now really tempted to publish my martini hub but I just finished it earlier this morning and I let it set to raise my hub score before I release it. but soon it'll be out soon. I love your cocktail hubs, ale is a very interesting drink and this was fascinating, Cheers :)

    • Amber Allen profile image

      Amber Allen 7 years ago

      Hi Sally

      The nearest match I can make to your description would be to a "Flip". You can find details in Wikipedia. Hope this helps.


    • profile image

      Sally 7 years ago

      Hi Amber,

      I'm trying to find info on a drink I vaguely recall with Spitit, spices and ale. I've seen it made with the involvement of a hot poker once and am trying to trace it for a comp, but I can't remember the name or specific process.. can you help..??


    • Amber Allen profile image

      Amber Allen 8 years ago

      Hi JayJay

      Some might consider it a waste of a dead rooster too! Thank you for reading my hub and leaving your comments.


    • jayjay40 profile image

      jayjay40 8 years ago from Bristol England

      Very interesting, though adding a dead rooster to ale seems a waste of ale. still they must have known what they were doing. Lovely hub well written

    • Amber Allen profile image

      Amber Allen 8 years ago

      Hi James

      Thanks for popping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.


    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for this informative article. I enjoy reading it and it's nice to see Dr. Johnson, one of my favorite writers, earn a mention.