Have you ever felt self-conscious about ordering a negroni? It’s okay, most of us have. But at the very least, you don’t ever have to feel self-conscious about ordering a beer in another language, or ordering a cocktail with a fancy foreign name because you don’t understand what it means. And you won’t once you’re done reading this article about where your favorite international cocktails get their names.
Read on and drink up, comrades!
Shaken, not stirred, this Cuban classic got its start as a functional solution to making rum more gulp-able (by adding mint, sugar cane and lime juice). There are a couple of theories about what the word mojito actually refers to. In Spanish, mojar means “to moisten,” which comes from a Latin word that had to do with “softening by soaking.” This could very well be a reference to the muddling of the mint leaves, a key part of making a mojito. In Cuban Spanish, mojo also refers to a specific kind of sauce. And finally, some say the drink was invented by African slaves working in the sugar cane fields and is actually named after the West African word mojo, which means “magic” or “little spell.”
The caipirinha is the quintessential cocktail of Brazil, and its origin story is also somewhat contested. Some say it was a remedy for cholera in the 1800s; others say it came from Santos, the location of the first cachaça distilleries — cachaça is a type of fermented sugar cane rum that gives the caipirinha its characteristic flavor (other ingredients include muddled limes and sugar). The word caipirinha means “little peasant girl” in Portuguese, which is probably a good indication that it originated somewhere in the countryside before it became fashionable enough to be Brazil’s national drink.
You might be tempted to guess that this classic Italian cocktail is a reference to the color black (which is nero in Italian), but it’s actually named after a person. Count Camillo Negroni, who had a taste for strong liquor due to his experiences working as a rodeo clown in the American Wild West, was hanging around Florence in 1919, looking for a stiff drink. He asked his Italian bartender for a more potent swill than the Americano cocktail on offer, and the barkeep responded by swapping out the club soda for gin. Thanks, Count Negroni.
When people think “Mexican cocktail,” they think of the margarita. But the paloma is probably more properly the country’s favorite representative drink, featuring an elegant and refreshing combination of tequila, grapefruit juice or soda, lime and salt. Paloma basically just means “dove” in Spanish, but it’s likely that no one really knows who dubbed it so sweetly, or where it came from.
Okay, so technically, this may not belong on a list of international cocktails because it was actually invented in California. A man known as Trader Vic, owner of an eponymous tiki bar in Oakland, came up with the concoction in 1944. However, the name “mai tai” comes from the Tahitian word maitaʻi, which means “good.” According to legend, the first people to try the drink were Vic’s two friends from Tahiti. One of them exclaimed this word in approval, and the rest was history.