On Monday or Tuesday of this week, during a spot of cheeky isolation-induced day drinking, a question occurred to me: what is a cocktail? I mean, I know what cocktails are – they’re those things we used to drink on a Friday afternoon back when we were allowed to go out and socialise – but what does the word actually mean? Where does it come from?

With nothing but time on my hands and an insatiable curiosity, I poured myself another stiff drink and turned to my old mate Google for answers. After hitting a few dead ends, I managed to find a pretty convincing explanation that, while fascinating, also may have tainted the very concept of cocktails for me forever. Long story short, it involves a horse’s arse.

According to spirits historian David Wondrich, the word ‘cocktail’ has its origins in the old-fashioned concept of “feaguing”, which means:

“To increase the liveliness of a horse by inserting an irritant, such as a piece of peeled raw ginger or a live eel, in its fundament.”

“Fundament”, it turns out, is a polite way of saying “arsehole”. What this therefore means is that in olden times, people would stick spicy things (or live eels?) in horses’ butts to make them cock their tails and seem more lively.

Ingredients like ginger and pepper were also commonly used in alcoholic beverages circa the 18th century, and these drinks were said to perk people’s spirits up in much the same way as a horse that had just copped a spicy surprise in the derriere. Thus, the phrase cocktail was born.

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I was reeling from this information, so I decided to do some real hard-hitting journalism to find out if this deranged explanation was true, or just a load of horse shit.

Chad Parkhill, author of the book Around The World In 80 Cocktails and owner of the Melbourne bar Trouble In Dreams, is a man who knows a thing or two about drinks. When I asked him about the horse’s arse theory of cocktails, I fully expected him to laugh in my face, but instead, he told me that this version of things is most likely legit.

He reckons there are a few myths about origins of the word ‘cocktail’, and some theories that have been debunked over the years:

“There’s one that we know is real bullshit: the idea that Antoine Peychaud was the first person to mix bitters, sugar and booze together and served in an egg cup (“coquetier” in French). He wasn’t even born by the time the word started being used for drinks. There’s another one that has a similar story about someone mixing these things together at a pub and using a tail feather of a rooster to stir it.”

He went on to say that our “current best guess” for the origin of cocktails involves a horse’s rear end. The word ‘cocktail’ is either “a metonym from ‘cock-tail’ horses being impure breeds (so a cock-tail drink is an impure drink),” or “it comes from the practice of sticking raw ginger root up a horse’s ass to make it perk up.” Either way, it involves butts.

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Perhaps ironically, Parkhill reckons the fact that we’re actually asking questions like this is a sign of maturity. He says there was a point not long ago when bartenders would just make up origin stories for drinks willy nilly, but now there’s “a lot more rigour, and more debate between people about the significance of evidence and what conclusions we can draw from it.”

“So even though we might never be able to say definitively where the word ‘cocktail’ comes from, the fact that we can have this debate shows that the field is growing up.” Yes, growing up. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to day drink and giggle about butts for the remainder of the afternoon.

Image: iStock / Nastasic