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The history of cocktails

Written by Sam Clark
Team leader at The West Gate Inn, Canterbury
Student of History at the University of Kent

The cocktail is held in high esteem by many, but how did it all start? Why ‘cocktail’? Here, we look at a brief history of the cocktail – and some of the new drinks which you can find in your local Wetherspoon.


The word cocktail itself has several possible origins. It may stem from the practice of cutting a horse’s tail short to indicate that it was not a pure breed. Thus, to drink a cocktail was often associated with attempting to raise yourself above your station, through a drink of higher class than your designation. Thankfully, we live in less prejudiced times, but the association between cocktails and class was present from the start.

An alternative theory is that the word came from the dregs at the end of barrels being known as ‘tailings’ and the spur used to pour them out to drink was called a cock. Humble beginnings either way, but both equally relevant and important to the way in which they are served now.

It is often said that the cocktail originated in America, but recent research has shown that Britain may have had far more impact than previously thought. Faced with a grain surplus, William of Orange reduced tax on distillation – and, with it, came an onslaught of readily available hard alcohol, especially gin. After this, it is harder to determine the exact origin of the cocktail – and it is harder still to find an original definition, but ‘gin and bitters’ appears to have been an increasingly common drink around the turn of the 19th century.

The cocktail grew in popularity from then on; near the beginning of the 20th century, the ‘American bar’ became well known. These ‘American bar’ nights served cocktails, often for high-society events such as charity fundraisers. Eventually, some of these cocktails became immortalised at London hotels, such as the Savoy, and the American origin of the cocktail became accepted. It is clear, however, that the Brits may have been unfairly forced out of the cocktail’s origin story.

The gin fizz

It seems only right to begin with the gin fizz. The very sudden boom in gin in Britain in the 17th century created near-epidemic levels of popularity – and the cocktail clearly has its strongest bond with gin. The gin fizz is our take on a classic, simple gin serve – and you can find it at your local Wetherspoon. Enjoy a piece of British history.

The raspberry mojito

A twist on the classic mojito, this is perfect for enjoying in the sun. A mojito is familiar to most – a mixture of white rum, lime, mint and sparkling water. Originally born in Havana, it has recently been reported that the mojito has become the most popular cocktail in Britain. That many people can’t be wrong – but, if you still need convincing, try our raspberry version.

The Bellini

Originating in Venice, the Bellini is a simple mix of peach and Prosecco. More specifically, the Bellini was created in Harry’s Bar, in Venice – the haunt of many well-known names, from Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock to Truman Capote. While you may not see modern-day celebrities at the local pub, it’s still worth enjoying our version of this classic cocktail.


It’s simple on the face of it: defined as any beverage which contains three or more ingredients (if at least one of those is alcohol), the cocktail defies time and trend to remain one of the most popular and exciting types of drink – with a thoroughly British background.