A couple weeks ago on Mad Men, Peggy and her team are experimenting with various concoctions involving Mountain Dew.  Peggy responds to Joey’s drink with, “You need three ingredients for a cocktail. Mountain Dew and vodka is an emergency.”

So, Peggy’s definition of a cocktail is that it must have three ingredients.  Is that true?  What is a cocktail really? First of all, it is an American invention whose golden age was 1880-1912, according to Dale DeGroff.

The first published definition of the cocktail appeared in May 1806 in The Balance and Columbian Repository. A reader includes his question, “What is a cock-tail?” in a letter to the editor.  The answer:  “Cock-tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling…”

Jerry Thomas’ bartenders’ guide of 1862 first publishes “cocktail” recipes and what differentials them from the punches, slings, sours, and flips is the inclusion of bitters.  Ted Haigh further explains the distinction in drink types, “Nowadays, we think of practically any beverage made with hard liquor as a cocktail. In those early days [19th century], though, that would have been equivalent to proclaiming that all breeds of dog were the same.” (from Vintage Cocktails and Forgotten Spirits)

David Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks says a cocktail must include 1. a base (the fundamental ingredient); 2. a modifying, smoothing or aromatizing agent, such as bitters, fruit juice or miscellaneous things like cream, eggs, sugar.  He further describes “the modifier should add that elusive je ne sais quoi which makes the cocktail a smooth fragrant, inspirational delight and not a mere drink of gin or whiskey.”  Can you see why I love this book? A third ingredient, a special flavoring or coloring agent, may be added, but is not necessary.  These special other ingredients include cordials, liqueurs, and non-alcoholic fruit syrups.  Embury goes on to share his wisdom in the hopes of helping his readers make good cocktails, a need he believes exists.  “Anyone can make good cocktails…Yet actually few people do make good cocktails.”

Peggy was on to something. Mountain Dew and vodka do not a cocktail make. It’s a lot more complicated, and simple, than that. Cheers!

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