What’s in a name?

The names we use for cocktails can be quite confusing when you first approach the subject.  Most people assume that there must be some complicated cocktail naming conventions known only to master bartenders.  Trade secrets not passed on to those outside the Industry.

I’d like to be able to tell you that all the words used in cocktail names have a set, specific meaning.  That all you have to do is crack the code and it all makes sense.  But I’d be lying.  Like life, cocktails are messy.

Some disciplines have highly regimented naming conventions.  For example, every organism on the planet has a complicated Latin name based upon internationally accepted standards.  But there is no central cocktail authority to enforce standards of cocktail naming conventions.  A good thing too, as this would stifle creativity. The result is that while there are patterns and naming conventions, they are not universally followed.  And often they are outright ignored.

Back in the Day

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

A couple of centuries ago things were much clearer.  A specific word was used to denote a specific type of mixed drink.  For example a Rickey consisted of spirit, lime juice and soda water.  A Flip used a whole raw egg with spirit, sugar and sometimes cream.  While a Cobbler saw wine or sherry mixed with sugar or fruit syrup served over crushed ice.  Highly formulaic, but allowing for slight variants within each class.

At the time the word Cocktail also had a very specific meaning.  It was a drink made with spirit, sugar, bitters, citrus peel and ice and/or water.  Only later did the word’s meaning change into the umbrella term we think of today.  In fact, this is where the name of the classic cocktail the Old Fashioned comes from.  Legend tells us of an old military man walking into a bar and asking for a cocktail – in the Old Fashioned sense of the word.

Some of these names are still in use today.  Most notable is that of the Collins Family.  But the vast majority have fallen by the wayside.  The primary reason for this is expansion.  Back when these terms were first coined, they represented the entire repertoire of mixed drinks.  Now they represent a fraction of a percentage point of all cocktails.

Many have also become irrelevant.  I don’t think I’ve ever been asked for any type of Flip.  And given the vast number of complex variants on the Tom Collins, a change as simple as swapping lemon for lime juice barely registers.  Certainly not enough to give them their own family name – the Rickeys.

The Usual Suspects

Collins Family

Some of the Collins Family

If there are any real naming conventions in the cocktail world they follow the example of the Collins Family.  That is, taking the original cocktail and using it as a sort of family name.  In the same way I think of the Tom Collins as being the Patriarch of the Collins Family.  So, we talk of a Watermelon Collins, a Strawberry Daiquiri or a Blackberry Caipirihna.

This method has the advantage of being descriptive as well as specific.  For example, I have never made a Kiwifruit Collins in my life.  But if you were to ask me for one, I would know exactly how to make one.  All the information I need is in the name.  It is a Collins (gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup, served tall, over cubed ice and topped with soda) made with Kiwifruit.  Simple.

Unfortunately, however, this naming convention is sometimes misused to the point of being confusing and contradictory. Take the Dry Martini.  An absolute classic of a cocktail, comprising only of gin and dry vermouth and father of a thousand variants. Some of these follow the naming conventions, and make sense.  A Vodka Martini is just a Dry Martini made with vodka.  While a Smoky Martini sees the addition of Smoky Scotch Whiskey.  Still very potent.

But then there are newer classics like the French Martini, or Espresso Martini.  Neither of these share a single ingredient with the Dry Martini, and have completely different philosophies and taste profiles.  So why are they granted the title of Martini?  Beats me.

As a counterpoint to this confusing Martini non-family is the question of why the highly logical Alexander Family doesn’t exist.  The Brandy Alexander was the first great chocolate cocktail and spawned a host of variants.  It consists of brandy, chocolate liqueur and cream.  There now exist a group of cocktails with the exact same recipe and taste profile, just swapping out the brandy for another spirit.  According to cocktail naming conventions these should clearly be called a Mint Alexander, or an Almond Alexander, right?



Wrong. An “Alexander” made with Crème de Menthe is called a Grasshopper; with Frangelico a Friar Tuck; and with Crème de Noix (almond) a Pink Squirrel. No, it doesn’t make sense.  Deal with it.

Great Names

So, why are the naming conventions so often ignored? Is it just ignorance?  Because too many bartenders don’t know what they’re doing?  In part that’s probably true.  As with any profession, there are plenty of fools out there who fancy themselves to be masters.  Though in all fairness, without any attempt to enforce cocktail naming conventions, novice bartenders are rarely even taught them, let alone expected to follow them.

But even if there was some attempt to enforce them, there’s a very good reason to ignore cocktail naming conventions anyway.  Though they may result in highly descriptive names for cocktails, they don’t produce great names for cocktails.  And shouldn’t a great cocktail deserve a great name?

Bartenders labour and experiment to create new cocktails which will stand out from the crowd.  Cocktails which grab your attention and don’t let go.  So a lot of attention is given to a new cocktail’s appearance.  With only one chance to make a good first impression, you don’t want to screw it up by appearing boring. But usually it is not how a cocktail looks when presented to you which is its first impression.  Instead, it is its name, the first time you see it on a cocktail menu.

So let’s say you’ve just finished creating your masterpiece.  A cocktail which will be a guaranteed crowd pleaser if only people give it a chance.  Do you give it an accurate but bland, descriptive name?  Or one which jumps off the page at the reader?  Which is more likely to result in it being widely drunk, and your skill as a mixologist praised as a result?

Sloe Sour Bitch

I’m a big believer in this concept, and no cocktail showcases it better than my signature Sloe Sour Bitch.  A brilliant name, allowing for all sorts of jokes and innuendos.  Hilarious rather than offensive, provided they are delivered tastefully.

Sloe Sour Bitch

Sloe Sour Bitch

The Bitch would catch every eye scanning a menu and provoke a reaction.  Usually a positive reaction as cocktails are an adult experience after all.  But even those who disapproved of the name noticed it.  Someone on every table would order one.  And then owing to it being a truly excellent cocktail, quite often more than one for the second round.  The technical term for this process was being bitch slapped.

The Sloe Sour Bitch was on bar menus for two of my bars in its full glory.  And in both bars it was not just popular, but almost legendary.  A cult classic.  People would come to the bars in droves just to enjoy it.  Any number of ladies would claim it as their own, as though I named it for them.  It even had a female drinking society named after it – the Sloe Sour Bitches.

Then I moved to another bar where the owners were too prudish to put the word bitch on their menu.  Kids might read it!  What would your grandma think?  Pathetic!  Was my response.  I reminded them that cocktail bars were, by definition, an adult environment.  But they didn’t listen, and it being their business, their rules applied.

So it instead went on the menu as a Sloe Sour B…. It was still pretty popular.  But compared to the two previous bars I had introduced it to it was nothing special.  It was made the same, garnished the same.  The only difference was it had a pathetic, censored name.  Which makes it an excellent example as to why bartenders often ignore cocktail naming conventions in favour of something eye catching.

The Bastards
Mai Tais

Will the real Mai Tai please stand up

Finally, a word about the bastards of the cocktail world.  These are the drinks whose names are so often appropriated and bastardized that when you order one you have no idea what you’re going to get.

The best example of this is the Mai Tai.  It may surprise you to know this, but the original Mai Tai was short, sweet and very strong.  We’re talking 15 year old rum and orange liqueur mixed with lime juice and rock candy.  No fruit juice at all.  A far cry from the tall, fruity tropical numbers sprouting umbrellas which were called Mai Tais in the 1980’s!

The fact is that over time tastes changed, and the original recipe fell out of fashion.  But for some reason the name stuck.  And after a while anything which was tall, rum based and used tropical fruits was being called a Mai Tai.

I personally know 3 completely different recipes for cocktails all calling themselves a Mai Tai.  And then a few variants on each of those recipes too. So, yeah – cocktail naming conventions are a mess.  Keeps life interesting.