Veteran bartender, trainer and self-professed cunning linguist Wayne Collins, Mixxit Global Manager for spirits and liqueur distributor Maxxium UK Ltd, is rarely lost for words. In fact, he has something of an obsession for rediscovering the spirituous origins of common phrases, idioms and expressions which are directly linked to or have in this occasional series, he hitches up the skirts of history, challenges convention and tweaks the nose of knowledge.
Usage: To illustrate the genuine origins and authenticity of something, to prove that it is not fake or a copy, as in 'That's the real McCoy'.
The theories: The most common belief of this phrase's origins and its relation to drink has been the tale of Captain William 'Bill' McCoy, an American ship-builder based in the Bahamas who was also a legendary and renowned rum-runner captain during US Prohibition (1920-1933). Many rum-runners and bootleggers of the day would carry illegally produced and watered-down hooch into the US, but Bill McCoy was famous for only selling top quality merchandise and well-known imported whisk(e)y brands, and because of the quality of products he smuggled along with his honest dealings he popularised the phrase 'it's the real McCoy'. With this, McCoy became an enemy of the U.S. Government and organized crime. When the US coast guard discovered McCoy, he established the system of anchoring large ships off the coast in international waters and selling merchandise to smaller ships that transferred it to the shore.
Although the story of Captain Bill McCoy is based in fact, and well-documented in US history, the phrase and its meaning actually also has some earlier usage. Below are some well known examples:
• c.12th-century Scottish Clan of MacKay. An internal dispute between chiefs during the battle for Scottish independence sought to find who the true leader was? Lord Reay headed up the Reay MacKay branch, which could have migrated to 'the real MacKay' before further modification?
• 'The real MacKay' is also an old Scottish drinking phrase that is thought to date back to the 1850s. The Scottish National Dictionary documents the phrase in 1856 as a word used as a marketing slogan to promote G MacKay & Co Ltd's Scotch whisky, 'a drappie (drop) o' the real MacKay!' It's completely plausible that this is the true origin of the expression's link to alcohol.
• Elijah McCoy, a Black Canadian born in Ontario in 1844, whose African-American family fled the troubled plantations of the Southern States some years earlier. He trained as a mechanical engineer in Scotland. On returning to the US, he invented and patented a revolutionary automatic lubricator and oil drip cup for steam engines. It was widely copied all over the world but when railroad men wanted the real thing they asked for 'the real McCoy'. This could be the origins of when the name 'McCoy' changed from 'Mackay'. Elijah is also credited with creating the folding ironing board and lawn sprinkler!
• 'Kid McCoy' was the nickname of American welterweight boxer Norman Selby (AKA Charlie McCoy). During the 1890s he dominated the sport and was known throughout the land that led to many imitators earning money by using his name at boxing booths in fairgrounds all over the States. After retiring, McCoy was having a quite drink one evening in a bar when a drunken boxer challenged him to a fight to prove he was the real McCoy. He floored him with one punch and went back to his whiskey, and when the challenger came round he is believed to have declared: 'Goddammit, that's the real McCoy'! A nice story that adds another twist to the tale but perhaps not its origins.
Other less convincing origins:
• An infamous family feud between the Hatfields & McCoys of West Virginia and Kentucky in the 1860s - common folklore, if you ask me.
• A well-known American cattle baron Joe 'Cowboy' McCoy with his reliability to drive well-reared long horn cattle from Texas to Kansas for market without disease - wishful thinking, I fear.
• The finest heroin from Macau - 'the real Macau' - er, I don't think so!
Wayne's Final Word: You can see how marketing folk the world over have jumped on the band wagon to use this powerful phrase to advertise and sell all kinds of merchandise, but looking at the facts, it seems to me that the term derives from Scotland, was popularised as McCoy by America and is closely connected with the drinks industry with both spellings. Today, it has become a hackneyed term for anything claiming to be the genuine article, even for a packet of crinkle cut crisps - that's potato chips if you're American.