Technically Saturday: The Cocktail vs The Mixed Drink

You know what today is – it’s time for another addition of Technically Saturday. Today’s topic of discussion is what is actually the correct term for the drinks we are making: are they “cocktails” or “mixed drinks”?

This debate has been one of the central arguments within mixology for years. The first documented use of the term cocktail was in 1803 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the cocktail as:

OED Cocktail

This is clearly not what we think of as a cocktail today. Originally, cocktails were indeed comprised of just three ingredients – alcohol, bitters, and sugar. Cocktails were savory and strong in nature, not the sweet drinks we often associate with the term today. Merriam-Webster defines the term cocktail as “an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients.” Now that seems to better describe the type of drink you would find in any bar or restaurant.

The issue of which term is appropriate gets more confusing when the phrase mixed drink is examined. According again to the OED, “mixed drink” was first used in 1703 – exactly 100 hundred years before the term cocktail was used. They define mixed drink as “a drink consisting of a mixture of different beverages, usually of one or more spirits with a non-alcoholic mixer.” Webster defines the phrase similarly as “an alcoholic beverage prepared from two or more ingredients.

Today, these terms are used almost interchangeably. Mixed drink is usually used to describe a simple drink containing alcohol and a single pre-made mixer. Such drinks are quick to make and require little preparation and are usually consumed in an equally fast manner. The term cocktail is associated with a drink that requires a fair amount of preparation and uses fresh ingredients wherever possible. Cocktails are meant to be sipped and savored, not quickly consumed en mass. They also usually contain three or more ingredients.

In the end, there may not be a single “right” answer to this question. For the purposes of this blog, the term cocktail will be used to signify spirit based drinks that require care and time in preparation, whereas mixed drink will be used for wine, beer, and spirit based drinks such as spritzers and punches.

Which term do you think is best? Which do you use? Comment below and add your two cents to this debate.

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Posted in Technically Saturday
One comment on “Technically Saturday: The Cocktail vs The Mixed Drink
  1. Bill Rowland says:

    This has been a question that I’ve been pondering for some time and I guess it’s totally subjective…. I’ve always thought that the difference is primarily based on the effort involved in mixing the drink. So a simple Gin & Tonic might be a mixed drink, but the use of an infused gin or fresh herb could push it into “cocktail status.”

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Nick McAfee
Nick McAfee is a student of Princeton University and is passionate about mixology. As a student with a low monthly income, he has developed ways to create simple cocktails with complex flavors from inexpensive ingredients. Learn more about Nick and Broke & Thirsty.
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