To determine who made the first cocktail, or even what the first cocktail was, is a fool’s errand. While many will agree that cocktails are an American invention starting with the Sazerac and Jerry Thomas’ book, How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion in 1862, it’s been heavily written that cocktails could have originated from London in the 1700s when Stoughton Bitters were mixed with wine or brandy as a hangover cure. It should also be noted that the idea of mixing your alcohol with anything can be dated as far back as alcohol itself.
Ancient Greeks and Romans would commonly consume their wine with water. However, the practice was actually introduced as a way to cleanse/purify the water itself. In Homer’s Odyssey, it is mentioned that against twenty parts water, would be one part wine. There are also many indications that the Greeks and Romans would add in lemons, herbs, spices, and resins to dilute the flavor of the wine. The first actual named drink of similar practices was called Muslum, a mixture of honey and wine.
During the Han Dynasty, huangjiu and other varietals of rice wines were often consumed and flavored with different tinctures, herbs, spices, and additives as part of traditional Chinese medicinal methods.
Although, these “mixed drinks” would not even fall under the first definition of the word cocktail. In 1806, The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York defined the word cocktail as “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water, and bitters, vulgarly called a bittered sling.” By that definition Sazeracs and Old Fashioneds could/would be among the first cocktails, but even before bitters had been invented, ‘bitter-less’ mixed drinks were called “slings.” And by the modern definition of the word cocktail, punch could be considered one of the modern pioneers, since punch has been made and consumed back in the British East India Company days.
However, let’s steer away from the technicalities, because honestly, the way we consume cocktails today is actually due to prohibition, thanks to those illicit moonshining, bootlegging, and slinging saints that saved alcohol and helped repeal the 18th amendment. Since whiskey was hard to produce due to aging, un-aged spirits, commonly gin (bathtub gin), were served in speakeasies. Sourcing top-of-the-line ingredients to make these spirits became difficult, not to mention expensive, so the quality of liquor suffered. Bartenders at these speakeasies would add juices, sugars, or bitters to help mask the repugnant flavor of the spirit. Once prohibition was repealed and quality of liquors began to improve again, the popularity of cocktails dropped. Cocktails didn’t fully revive until the early 2000s when traditional cocktails made a comeback, and ultimately sparked a cocktail renaissance.