The Slightly Strange Origin Of The Cocktail

The Slightly Strange Origin Of The Cocktail

Here at The Joker and the Thief, we take a lot of joy in making a perfectly balanced cocktail. Everything from sourcing the highest quality ingredients, to getting the saltiness, sourness, the body and the bitterness dancing well together, to the perfect temperature and finally getting them dressed, ready for the grand ball. We love it all.

Having a good cocktail list in Australia is now a must for any bar. But this wasn’t always the case. Alcohol has been around probably as long as humans have needed to take a rest at the end of a hard day’s work. The cocktail, however, is not quite so old.

The history of the cocktail (and its name) is ambiguous at best, which makes for all kinds of stories and mythologies surrounding it to make discovering the truth of its origin kind of hazy. It feels kind of fitting: not only is there no one way to blend the perfect cocktail, after you’ve had two or three, you might be familiar with the kind of haze that surrounds her history.

What Is A Cocktail?

Before we have a sneak peek at where it came from, what is it that technically makes a cocktail, a cocktail?

Officially, it’s a drink made of liquor, water, sugar and bitters, but in the modern world almost anything can be called a cocktail: so long as it’s alcoholic, is mixed in some form, and has a sense of fun and inventiveness, it will probably pass as a cocktail.

The first record of these mixed drinks ever being named a cocktail appeared in a New York newspaper in 1806. They described it as:

 “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind of sugar, water, and bitters…” 

However, if you were ordering one back in that time you most likely would’ve asked for a “bittered sling” – the vulgar term for the drink when it first started to become popular.

It was the element of bitters that really set this drink apart. The bittered or peppered element is what gave the “bittered sling”/cocktail it’s extra kick. We don’t necessarily associate the cocktail with hot pepper anymore, but that’s where it all began!

The Popularization Of The Cocktail

It would be too easy to talk about New York as the birthplace of this phenomenon, but (like most of history), a range of ‘coincidences’ seemed to form it. Which makes us think of the

classic philosophical dilemma: the chicken or the egg? Or in this case: The bar scene or the drink?

In Britain and Western Europe around the 1800’s, a drinking culture was developing that was all about drinking and socialising. Suddenly drinking was not just about drinking, it was about meeting people and mingling. This saw the emergence of what was known as “punch houses”, and this is where some of the earliest bartending began.

The spread of these ideas was helped along thanks to industrialization and globalization. As the world became “smaller” and information was able to be spread easier, the literature of bartending began to spread. This saw what we now know as “the classics” spread all across the world.

The Manhattan, for example, is not just a clever name – it originated (you guessed it) in Manhattan New York. But as the drinking culture changed, and information was easily able to be spread, a Manhattan could be ordered in London! And so, bit by bit, standardized cocktails could be drunk all around the world.


The infamous prohibition had the opposite effect of its intention, it actually aided the popularisation and spread of cocktail drinking. Forced to drink in illegal spaces (known as speakeasies ), people found that drinking and mingling were even more tightly interwoven than ever, and the cocktail became even further standardized and thus easier to be spread even further internationally.

The Modern Era

Nowadays in the west, lots of the originally popular drinks are out of fashion. There are, of course, the classics that you expect to be served in any establishment with liquor on their walls. but the best bars are always experimenting and creating new spectacular drinks to titillate all your senses. 

We hope here, at The Joker and the Thief, to be doing the strange, ambiguous, and ultimately inventive history of the cocktail proud, by bringing you well cared for classics, as well as our experimental new creations! See you at the bar for a bittered sling!