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The Cocktail, A Piece Of New Orleans History

Aug 17, 2007
The most popular alcoholic beverage in the world today is that high-powered mixture known as the cocktail.

For a century and beyond this stimulating drink has served to elevate dejected spirits. Born, nurtured, and christened on this side of the Atlantic, it has overflowed its original boundaries, especially since the World War, and today even staid British taste, long wedded to historic brandy and soda, is beginning to find satisfaction - and something else - in the Yankee mixed drink.

Why is a cocktail called a cocktail? Why should the rear adornment of a chanticleer be identified with so robust a libation?

The origin of the cocktail and its singular naming have long been veiled in mystery. One legend sets forth that the French-speaking people of Old New Orleans had a word for a favorite drink, and that word eventually was corrupted into "cocktail." Other and more fanciful legends have found circulation from time to time but here are the facts concerning the birth of the cocktail and how it received its name.

In the year 1793, at the time of the uprising of the blacks on the portion of the island of San Domingo then belonging to France, wealthy white plantation owners were forced to flee that favored spot in the sun-lit Caribbean. With them went their precious belongings and heirlooms. Some of the expelled Dominguais who flocked to what was then Spanish Louisiana brought gold to New Orleans. Others brought slaves along with their household goods. Some brought nothing but the clothes they wore upon their backs. One refugee succeeded in salvaging, among other scanty possessions, a recipe for the compounding of a liquid tonic, called bitters, a recipe that had been a secret family formula for years.

This particular young Creole refugee was of a distinguished French family and had been educated as an apothecary. His name was Antoine Amedee Peychaud. In the turmoil of the insurrection and the hurried exodus from San Domingo, Amedee and his young sister, Lasthenie, became separated. It was not until years later when he had established himself in New Orleans, that the sister was located in Paris and Peychaud had her join him in his new home where subsequently she married into the well-known Maurin family.

A. A. Peychaud's bid for fame and popularity in the city of his adoption was founded not so much upon the quality or profusion of the drugs he dispensed over the counter of his shop (located in a building still standing at 437 Royal street) as upon his bitters, a tonic and stomachic compounded according to his secret family formula. These bitters, good for what ailed one irrespective of malady, gave an added zest to the potions of cognac brandy he served friends and others who came into his pharmacy - especially those in need of a little brandy, as well as bitters, for their stomach's sake.

The fame of Peychaud's highly flavored dram of brandy spread rapidly. Consequently the bitters found a ready market in the numerous coffee houses (as liquid dispensing establishments were then called) that stood cheek by jowl in almost every street in old New Orleans. Cognac had long been a popular drink among the city's experienced bibbers, but presently customers began demanding their French brandy spiked with a dash or so of the marvelous bitters compounded by M. Peychaud.

So, while we have New Orleans to thank for the cocktail, we Peychaud for coming up with bitters, which is a delightful addition to many cocktails.
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