I have high tolerance for cocktail debate. Reasonable drinkers can differ on whether Campari or Aperol-closely related Italian herbal aperitivos-better serve a certain recipe. There are sound arguments on either side of the shaken-or-stirred, olive-or-twist questions. Impassioned disagreements about whether dashes of Peychaud's Bitters can substitute for Angostura in an Old Fashioned hit home during the global Angostura shortage of 2009-2010.
On the other hand, I have little patience for barkeeps who think they can slosh any ingredients together and call the result a cocktail. Drinks with anise-based flavor agents have a rich history, but in a culture that created the absinthe-laced Sazerac, the devolution to Good & Plenty shooters borders on infantilization. Mudslides and appletinis belong on the dessert menu, not the drinks list. Somebody's got to be the grown-up.
That's no knock on innovation. Even the classics got their start somewhere, mysterious though those origins may be. So perhaps it's fitting that while we can date the first printed appearance of "cock-tail" to an 1806 newspaper in Hudson, N. Y., the word has more than a dozen competing etymologies, by turns bizarre, fanciful, and mundane. (My money's on the theory that it derives from cocquetier-French for egg cup-into which the original Monsieur Peychaud dispensed potions in his old New Orleans apothecary shop, arguably cocktail civilization's ground zero.) Most of these disparate accounts have in common an implied concoction of a whole exceeding the sum of its parts. Which points to this: Cocktails intrinsically involve a bit of alchemy. Bourbon-and-soda is just a mixed drink. A Manhattan transports you someplace else altogether.