In today's parlance, just about anything served up in a bar containing alcohol--other than wine or beer--has been mistakenly given the label a cocktail. As how the word "martini" now describes anything served in a long-stemmed triangular shaped glass, the cocktail has been broadened by definition to cover the whole range of spirit-infused drinks. By the old school definition, however, a cocktail is anything but, and other terms describing different kinds of alcoholic beverages have fallen out of favor. Now is the time to bring back these descriptive and lost names, if only to impress your evening companion and make one seem like a liquor aficionado.
The first appearance of the word "cocktail" in any publication appeared May 13, 1806 in The Balance and Columbian Repository, a New York newspaper. Described simply as, "a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters--it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. 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 anything else."
One origin tale of the word dates back to colonial times when a cock's tail was used as a decoration in tankards of grog and bumboo, some say to identify those drinks to teetotalers as ones containing alcohol. But ironically, it was not until prohibition that the term "cocktail" came in to popular use as a description of a specific type of beverage.
According to Cocktail, by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead (one of the modern era's best books on drinks and history of classic concoctions) the cocktail is defined as a three to five ounce drink in a long-stemmed glass no larger than six ounces. Imagine a miniature martini glass or a squashed wine glass. Cocktails should be served in smaller portions and contain a spirit, a modifier, an accent and a generous portion of water. Today's 12 ounce martini glasses are right out and not suitable for serving a cocktail.
There are many other types of mixed drinks besides the cocktail. A properly stocked bar should contain a large variety of glasses suitable for serving the myriad of mixed drinks. They can be basically divided into two groups, tall (or long) drinks and short drinks. Tall drinks such as Collinses, fizzes, cobblers, coolers, crustas, highballs, sours, rickeys, juleps, puffs, swizzles, sangarees, tropicanas and bucks are served in, you guessed it, tall glasses. Available in a variety of shapes and sizes, the larger glasses are typically served with iced drinks, while the smaller are usually served sans ice.
Short drinks are served in, logically, short glasses, or glasses which hold less than 6-7 ounces. These include lowballs, neats (straight liquor also known as a shooter) and smashes (a short julep). To professional mixologists, the cocktail is just one type of short drink.
Despite the general bartender rule that a mixed drink, no matter what size, should have a proportional amount of alcohol to mixers (or water in liquid or solid form) whether you order a tall glass or a short glass may determine how intoxicated you may get. A 2005 study published in the British Journal of Medicine found that people, including experienced bartenders, poured 20 to 30 percent more alcohol into short, wide tumblers than in to tall glasses, even if pouring the same drink. Methinks we have the roots of a drinking mnemonic here. Short and fat, you'll go splat. Long and tall ...