The word cocktail is a bit of an etymological puzzle: Originally only a nickname for an animal that rears up when irritated, by the late 1700s it had become another word for a horse with a “cocked” or shortened tail. But how or why it then made the leap to alcoholic mixed drinks in the early 1800s is a mystery.
One theory claims it’s to do with the drinks making you feel energized and sprightly, like an energetic horse, while another suggests it’s because cocktails were popular at the races. Alternatively, the two meanings could be entirely unrelated—one equally plausible explanation is that cocktail might in fact be an anglicized version of the French coquetier, meaning “egg-cup,” which was perhaps once used to serve the libations.
The origins of the names of individual cocktails are often just as tricky to pin down, with rival explanations and rivaling claims of invention often competing against each other. Here are the stories—and theories—behind 14 of your favorite tipples.
The pale orange-red color of a classic Bellini cocktail reportedly reminded its inventor—Giuseppe Cipriani, the founder of Venice’s famous Harry’s Bar—of a similar color often used in paintings by the Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini.
2. Mint Julep
Although nowadays it refers almost exclusively to a cocktail of bourbon whiskey (or, more controversially, brandy) flavored with sugar and mint, the word julep was originally borrowed into English from French as far back as the 1400s to refer to a sweet-tasting or sweetened drink. Before then, it has its earliest origins in the Arabic word for rose-water, julab.
Although debate rages over the exact origin of the mojito, according to the Oxford English Dictionary it probably takes its name from mojo, the Spanish name of a Cuban sauce or marinade made with citrus fruit—a mojito is literally a "little mojo."
Staying in Cuba, a classic daiquiri cocktail—basically a mojito without the mint—is named after the village of Daiquirí on the far southeast coast of the island. Legend has it that the drink was invented by local American mining engineers around the time of the Spanish-American War when they ran out of gin and had to use the local rum instead.
Marjorie King, a former Broadway dancer, the singer Peggy (i.e. Margaret) Lee, and Margarita Henkel—the daughter of a former German ambassador to Mexico—are all touted as the possible namesake of the margarita cocktail. But in fact the cocktail might not be named in honor of anyone at all—margarita is the Spanish word for “daisy,” and so one theory claims the drink was simply a variation of an earlier Texan cocktail called the “tequila daisy.”
Although accounts of the event are debatable, legend has it that the Manhattan cocktail was specially invented for a banquet hosted by Lady Randolf (mother of Winston) Churchill at the trendy Manhattan Club in New York in the late 1800s. The name Manhattan was already in use long before then, however, as the name of a different drink from the modern Manhattan cocktail. And at the time this supposed party took place, Lady Randolph was very pregnant with Winston, and living in England. So the real origin is probably lost to time.
7. Rob Roy
A Manhattan made with Scotch rather than Canadian whisky is a Rob Roy. It was originally invented at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1894 to celebrate the Broadway premiere of an operetta loosely based on the life of the Scottish folk hero Rob Roy.
8. Old Fashioned
When it became popular in the late 1800s to introduce liqueurs into cocktail recipes, the older, more basic recipes that omitted them—and in particular this classic mix of whiskey and bitters—became known as “old fashioned” cocktails.
9. Tom Collins
A John Collins is a mixture of London dry gin, lemon, sugar, and soda. Replace the London gin with Old Tom gin, and you have a Tom Collins. The Collins part is said to come from a 19th century headwaiter known as John Collins, who worked at Limmer's Hotel and Coffee House and is thought to be the inventor of the drink. The Tom part may also have been influenced by an 1874 hoax often perpetrated at bars.
10. Mai Tai
Invented at a bar in California in the 1940s, maitai means “good” or “nice” in Tahitian …
11. Piña Colada
… while piña colada means “strained pineapple” in Spanish, a reference to the drink’s fruity base.
Although the origins of the sidecar cocktail are hazy, one story claims that it was invented in Paris just after World War I by an American Army captain who could often be seen being driven around the city in a motorcycle sidecar.
13. Singapore Sling
Sling is a general name for any sweetened and flavored drink made from a spirit base. The Singapore sling was invented in the early 1900s at the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore by an acclaimed barman named Ngiam Tong Boon.
The mimosa takes its name from the mimosa plant, Acacia dealbata, which produces bright orange-yellow flowers the same color as mixed champagne and orange juice.
A version of this list first ran in 2015.