Classic American Cocktails You Absolutely Need to Try
If you assume there’s no drink more American than a supersized soda, then you’re forgetting all the classic American cocktails invented throughout U.S. history. Some of these drinks are simply vintage, but others are true classics.
According to Death & Co., true “classic” cocktails have been both popular and pervasive since their invention. Vintage cocktails, on the other hand, may have fallen into obscurity since they originally appeared. Below, get the inside story on the classic American drinks you must try, including one cocktail that was nearly killed off in favor of fruity drinks (page 10).
Ingredients: gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice, and crème de violette
Meehan’s Bartender Manual, Jim Meehan reports that the Aviation recipe was first printed in Hugo Ensslin’s 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks, one of the last such books published before Prohibition. Ensslin, head bartender at the Hotel Wallick, described the book as a “complete list of the standard mixed drinks that are in use at present in New York City.”
Next: This cocktail used honey to cover the taste of Prohibition-era liquor.
2. Bee’s Knees
Ingredients: gin, honey, and lemon juice
This twist on the gin sour dates back to the Prohibition era, explains Punch. At the time, “questionable bootlegged spirits needed masking the flavor department,” hence the lemon and honey. The publication adds that the name Bee’s Knees is “an idiom that developed — along with other, less-appetizing phrases such as ‘the flea’s eyebrows,’ and ‘the cat’s whiskers.'”
Next: A brunch drink beloved by many
3. Bloody Mary
Ingredients: tomato juice, vodka, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, lime juice, hot sauce, and a variety of herbs and spices
Fernand Petiot of New York’s King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel served the spice tomato juice cocktail in 1934. Guests from Chicago told him it reminded them of a waitress nicknamed Bloody Mary.
Next: Trace this cocktail’s origins to Hollywood.
4. Brown Derby
Ingredients: bourbon, grapefruit juice, and honey syrup
Reportedly invented at a Hollywood celebrity haunt called the Vendôme Club, this cocktail was named after the Brown Derby restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. The recipe was first published in Hollywood Cocktails by Buzza & Cardozo in 1933, according to Meehan’s Bartender Manual.
Next: Like several other iconic American cocktails, this one is associated with New Orleans.
Ingredients: rye whiskey, absinthe, a sugar cube, and Peychaud’s bitters
One of the most iconic American cocktails was popularized around the turn of the twentieth century at the Sazerac House Bar owned by Thomas H. Handy & Co., which produced Handy’s Bitters from a formula by A.A. Peychaud. Herbsaint was a critical ingredient before absinthe was legalized in 2007.
Next: This drink came about in Washington, D.C.
6. Gin rickey
Ingredients: gin, lime juice, and soda water
Punch reports that this gin fizz variation traces its origins to a whiskey drink created by Missouri lobbyist Joe Rickey, who moved to Washington, D.C., in the late 19th century. He began requesting whiskey cocktails — without sugar — at local bars, and this gin variation became the most famous version.
Next: One of the most iconic American cocktails
Ingredients: bourbon, vermouth, and maraschino liqueur
Meehan’s Bartender Manual theorizes that this classic American cocktail likely hails from New York City’s Manhattan Club. You can find dozens of options for each ingredient, so “the priority should be to find a vermouth whose botanicals complement the character of the whiskey, with the bitters there to integrate the mixture.”
Next: If you have a sweet tooth, this one’s for you.
Ingredients: vanilla ice cream, crème de menthe, and crème de cacao
According to Meehan’s Bartender Manual, the modern version of this sweet after-dinner drink was created by Philibert Guichet of Tujague’s in New Orleans. Guichet began serving the cream-based cocktail at the bar before Prohibition in 1919.
Next: A Kentucky Derby classic
9. Mint julep
Ingredients: bourbon, simple syrup, mint leaves, and lots of ice
No list of classic American cocktails would be complete without the mint julep. Meehan’s Bartender Manual report that this drink dates back to the eighteenth century, when mint was added to the classic Sling (which consisted of spirit, sugar, and water). “Ice transformed this mixture into an institution in the early part of the nineteenth century,” Meehan writes.
Next: This beloved cocktail was nearly killed off in favor of fruity drinks.
Ingredients: bourbon, a sugar cube, Angostura bitters, and a splash of water
First defined in 1806 in The Balance and Columbian Repository, this drink involved “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” It went through many incarnations, with rum, genever, or brandy as the base, but now relies upon rye whiskey. Punch reports that the true old-fashioned was “nearly stomped out of existence by its fruity mid-20th-century counterpart,” but the recent cocktail revival brought the original recipe back.
Next: This drink supposedly included a secret ingredient.
11. Pisco Punch
Ingredients: pisco, pineapple juice, lime juice, and simple syrup
Pisco Punch also makes the list of the most iconic American cocktails, even though it became legendary thanks to Scottish barman Duncan Nicol, according to Meehan’s Bartender Manual. Nicol purchased San Francisco’s historic Bank Exchange Saloon — and its house punch recipe — in 1893. He kept the recipe a secret until his dying day in 1926. People speculated that the punch included a secret ingredient, perhaps even cocaine. But the secret ingredient was simply pineapple gum syrup.
Next: This cocktail takes a lot of work to prepare.
12. Ramos Gin Fizz
Ingredients: gin, lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup, orange flower water, cream, egg white, and soda water
Punch considers the Ramos Gin Fizz a classic, born in New Orleans at Henry Ramos’s Imperial Cabinet Saloon in 1888. The publication explains, “Ramos required the drink so foamy and cloud-like in texture that he employed an extra chain of ‘shaker men’ to, one by one, have a go at emulsifying the drink.” You don’t really need an entire staff to prepare this cocktail, but it’s still quite laborious to make this cross between a milkshake and a gin fizz.
Next: This cocktail is related to the Manhattan.
Ingredients: gin, vermouth, and maraschino liqueur
Shaken, not stirred, this cocktail appears in O.H. Byron’s 1884 The Modern Bartender’s Guide, where it’s described as the “same as Manhattan, only you substitute gin for whiskey.” Meehan writes, “It’s often credited as the predecessor of the dry Martini cocktail, but Byron’s annotation suggests other ancestry.”
Next: This drink dates back to the Revolutionary War.
14. Stone Fence
Ingredients: bourbon and cider
The origin of this cocktail goes back to the battle at Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War in 1775, when it was served as a “savage mixture” of New England rum and hard cider. It appeared a century later in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 The Bar-Tenders Guide with bourbon and unfiltered cider. Punch notes that today, you can make it with bourbon, brandy, or even rum.
Next: This cocktail came from New Orleans.
15. Vieux Carré
Ingredients: rye, cognac, vermouth, Bénédictine, and bitters
The Vieux Carré hails from New Orleans, getting its name from the French Quarter, according to Serious Eats. Stanley Clisby Arthur, author of 1937’s Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, attributed this drink recipe to the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter.
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