Elizabeth Flanagan & "cocktail"

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Sun Jan 16 09:08:30 UTC 2000

Several stories assert that the word is a pairing of the words "cock" and
"ale" or "tail."  One version insists that it's named after the fortified ale
given to fighting cocks before a contest.  Another insists that Betsy
Flannigan, a Pennsylvania innkeeper, used cock tail feathers as swizzle
sticks when serving drinks during the American Revolution.
---VINTAGE COCKTAILS (1999) by Susan Waggoner and Robert Markel, pg. 7.

The most credible explanations are:
1. _Coquetier_ is the French name for an egg-cup, in which a Frenchman in New
Orleans is said to have served mixed drinks to his guests.  In time they came
to ask for his _coquetiers_ and the name was corrupted to cocktails.
2.  An old French recipe containing mixed wines, called _coquetel_, was
perhaps carried to America by General Lafayette in 1777.
3.  One Betsy Flanagan of Virginia is believed to have served a handsome
soldier a mixed drink containing all the colours of a cock's tail.  He named
it a "cock tail."
4.  In 1769 the term "cock-tailed" appeared, a racing term used to describe a
non-thoroughbred horse.  It was the usual practice to dock the tails of such
animals, causing the tail to look like that of a cockerel.  According to the
journals of the time, a "cock-tailed" horse was one of mixed blood.  It is a
short step to accept that cock-tail(ed) would soon become accepted as a term
to describe anything containing mixed fluids.
5.  The centuries-old expression "cocked tail" describes a horse or person
displaying high spirits.  It naturally follows that a beverage seen to raise
people's spirits would be called a cocktail.
--THE CLASSIC 1000 COCKTAILS (1996) by Robert Cross, pp. 6-7.

In revolutionary days there was a famous roadhouse in what is now known as
Westchester County, called "Betsy's Tavern," which later became known as "The
Bracer Tavern."  Here the American and French officers came for their liquor,
ale, lager and rum, not to mention fine fowl.
     One day the American officers raided a British Commissary and stole
several male birds.  Then as now, this fowl was known as a "cock."  At the
wild boisterous party which followed, Betsy poured many kinds of liquor into
wine glasses and stirred it with the tail of a cock pheasant.  The drinks
were delicious.
     A toast to Betsy and the new mixed drink was: "Here's to the divine
liquor which is as delicious to the palate, as the cock's tails are beautiful
to the eye."
     Hardly had the toast ended, when one of the French officers cried out:
"Vive le cocktail!"
     And that's how "cocktail" came into the world's vocabulary.
--THE ULTIMATE COCKTAIL BOOK II (1998) by Raymond Peter Foley, pp. 68-69,
quoting from WHAT'LL YOU HAVE (1933), more on Betsy Flanagan's Inn.

     "Cocktail" is from 1806 in the OED, with the next cite from Washington
Irving's KNICKERBOCKER (1809), and the other cites decades away.  The DA has
the 1806 cite, with the next cite from 1882!
     This is from THE BALANCE (Hudson, NY), 13 May 1806, pg. 146:

     _Cock tail_, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of _spirits_ of any
kind, _sugar_, _water_, and _bitters_--it is vulgarly called _bittered
sling_....It is said, also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate:
because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any
thing else.

     Let's leave the Democratic "party" out of this.
     The earliest hit on Literature Online is surprisingly not in OED or DA.
James Fenimore Cooper's THE SPY is set in Westchester County (NY) of the
Revolutionary War.  This is from THE SPY (1821), volume 1, chapter xvi, pg.

     On a rough board suspended from the gallows looking post that had
supported the ancient sign was, however, written in red chalk "Elizabeth
Flanagan, her hotel," an ebullition of wit from some of the idle wags of the
corps.  The matron, whose name had thus been exalted to an office of such
unexpected dignity, ordinarily discharged the duties of a female sutler,
washerwoman, and, to use the language of Katy Haynes, bitch-doctor to the
troops; she was the widow of a soldier who had been killed in the service,
and who, like herself, was a native of a distant island, that had early tried
his fortune in the colonies of North America.  She constantly migrated with
the troops, and it was seldom that they became stationary for two days at a
time, (Pg. 237--ed.) but the little cart of the bustling woman was seen
driving into their encampment, loaded with such articles, as she conceived
would make her presence most welcome.  With a celerity that seemed almost
supernatural, Betty took up her ground and commenced her occupation;
sometimes the cart itself was her shop; at others, the soldiers made her a
rude shelter of such materials as offered; but on the present occasion she
had seized on a vacant building, and by dint of stuffing the dirty breeches
and half dried linen of the troopers in the broken windows, to exclude the
cold which had now become severe, she formed what she herself had pronounced
to be "most iligant lodgings."
     The men were quartered in the adjacent barns, and the officers collected
in the "Hotel Flanagan," which they facetiously called headquarters.  Betty
was well known to every trooper in the corps, could call each by his
christian or nick-name, as best suited her fancy; and, although absolutely
intolerable to all whom habit had not made familiar with her virtues, was a
general favorite with these partizan warriors.  Her faults were, a trifling
love of liquor, excessive filthiness, and a total disregard to all decencies
of language; her virtues, an unbounded love for her adopted country, perfect
honesty when dealing on certain known principles with the soldiery, and great
good nature: added to these, Betty had the merit of being the inventor of
that beverage which is so well known at the present hour, to all the patriots
who make a winter's march between the commercial and political capitals of
this great state, and which is distinguished by the name of "cock-tail."
Elizabeth Flanagan was peculiarly well qualified by education and
circumstances to perfect this improvement in liquors, having been literally
brought up on its principal ingredient, (Pg. 238--ed.) and having acquired
from her Virginia customers the use of mint, from its flavour in a julep, to
its height of renown in the article in question.  Such, then, was the
mistress of the mansion...

     Curiously, the DA's cite for "mint sling" is THE BALANCE of 15 March
1804, and for "mint julep" is Washington Irving's KNICKERBOCKER (1809).
     THE ULTIMATE COCKTAIL BOOK II also has this story on pages 64-67, taken
from THE COCKTAIL BOOK (1913):

     In a famous old tavern not far from the Philipse Manor House, the site
of what is now Yonkers on the Hudson, and the very centre of the most popular
sport of the times, was blended the first delightful cocktail.  If the
descendants of William Van Eyck, its jolly host, may be believed...  (From
his champion game-cock--ed.)  Thus was the drink named.  And, in after days,
when Master Appleton kept the tavern, its sign was the sign of the Cock's
Tail, which ever proved an emblem of good fortune to him and his good wife,
their children and their children's children.

    While Betty Flanagan (not Betsy, not Flannigan) appears to have been from
Virginia (not Westchester County, not Pennsylvania), there are three early
"cock tail" connections with upstate New York--THE BALANCE of Hudson, James
Fenimore Cooper of Westchester, and William Van Eyck of Westchester.
    I'll check again when NYU resumes regular hours this week, but I do NOT
recall "cock tail" in the Pennsylvania Gazette CD-roms covering about
1706-1800.  This is very troubling for a Revolutionary War in Virginia
origin.  I'll also scour the early New York periodicals on microfilm this

MOCKTAIL (continued)


     ...John Doxat, Mixologist and Author (who found the word "mocktail," a
non-alcoholic drink)...

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