As you swirl that swizzle stick around your next cocktail, ponder this: there is no consensus on how to capitalize names of cocktails. Usually, the best writers or editors can hope to achieve is consistency, but sometimes local context needs to be considered too, and variation permitted.
The tricky thing is that some cocktail names are categories or generic descriptions that are treated like common nouns and thus styled lowercase:
gin and tonic
Others, on the other hand, are believed to be derived from a proper noun but have taken on a generic meaning:
Still others are unique coinages—effectively, recipe names—composed of words that would otherwise be treated as common nouns:
Cocktail names can be wholly composed of proper nouns—namely, places, people, and events:
But perhaps the most vexing category combines a common noun or adjective and a proper noun:
In the last set of examples, do you lowercase the proper noun or capitalize the common noun?
In a summary of variant practices, Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl) advises writers and editors to “pick a style and be consistent.” She notes a preference for lowercase in style guides that is based on a recommendation in The Chicago Manual of Style (8.61): lowercase words derived from proper nouns when references to the person or place are not intended literally. For example:
cheddar (a style of cheese, not cheese from England)
french fries (a style of potato, not potatoes from France)
Thus, she notes, cocktails are often styled lowercase unless a literal reference is clearly intended:
In contrast to this rule of thumb, Merriam-Webster considers capitalization on a case-by-case basis.
The problem is that sometimes consistency can be jarring. A consistent practice of lowercasing proper nouns in drink names unless a literal reference is intended works, perhaps, for well-known drinks. But it seems ill suited for a category of drink names Fogarty does not consider: names that don’t necessarily refer to proper nouns but would be ambiguous if lowercase. Consider these formulations, which seem to be written by someone who’s had one too many:
I feel like a king bee.
The one on the left is the bee’s knees.
I’ve been working myself to the bone—I need a corpse reviver!
After finishing my budgets, I knew that a much deserved judgment day was in my future.
There’s nothing like a rattlesnake to make you feel queasy.
At the same time, unless you are styling terms in a book of cocktail recipes, consistent capitalization is often also overkill—Highball and Gimlet would be odd.
One problem is that it’s difficult to tell when literal references are intended for cocktail names, since cocktail origins are often murky or apocryphal—if not created in a haze of vermouth-rinsed cocktail shakers.
This might be a case where we have to live with inconsistency and apply judgment in context: some drink names should be capitalized, some lowercased, and others could be styled either way, depending on context.
Capitalize drink names that are unique coinages or recipe names:
I recommend the Fog Cutter or Clover Club.
Lowercase categories of drinks and common nouns (e.g., highball, gimlet, toddy), regardless of context:
We ordered a Clover Club, a King Bee, and a gimlet.
Style according to Context
If the drink name is a possible reference to a proper noun (like manhattan/Manhattan), style it according to local context:
I ordered a martini and a manhattan.
The Bronx, Manhattan, and Algonquin cocktails are all named after places in New York City.
In short, context, sense, and readability matter more than following a general principle or deferring to a single authority.
Cocktail names are drawn from The PDT Cocktail Book, by Jim Meehan (Sterling Epicure, 2011) and Mr. Boston (Warner Books, 1994).
The Chicago Manual of Style. 17th ed., U of Chicago P, 2017.
Fogarty, Mignon. “When Should You Capitalize Cocktail and Food Names?” Quick and Dirty Tips, 11 Mar. 2011, www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/