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When used to refer to any generic alcoholic mixed drink, cocktail may mean any beverage that contains two or more ingredients if at least one of those ingredients contains alcohol.

A cocktail more specifically may mean a beverage with at least three flavors, one of which is alcohol. More specifically still, it must contain alcohol, a sugar, and a bitter/citrus. When a mixed drink contains only a distilled spirit and a mixer, such as soda or fruit juice, it is a highball; many of the International Bartenders Association Official Cocktails are highballs. When a mixed drink contains only a distilled spirit and a liqueur, it is a duo and when it adds a mixer, it is a trio. Additional ingredients may be sugar, honey, milk, cream, and various herbs.

There is a lack of clarity on the origins of cocktails. Traditionally cocktails were a mixture of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. But by the 1860s, a cocktail frequently included a liqueur.

The first publication of a bartenders' guide which included cocktail recipes was in 1862 – How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant's Companion, by "Professor" Jerry Thomas. In addition to recipes for punches, sours, slings, cobblers, shrubs, toddies, flips, and a variety of other mixed drinks were 10 recipes for "cocktails". A key ingredient differentiating cocktails from other drinks in this compendium was the use of bitters. Mixed drinks popular today that conform to this original meaning of "cocktail" include the Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail, the Sazerac cocktail, and the Manhattan cocktail.

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