You don’t have to be a cocktail expert to enjoy a night out. But it doesn’t hurt to know how to order a few — or make them in the comfort (and affordability) of your own home. Manhattan mixologist Karl Franz Williams recommends both familiarizing yourself with what’s out there, doing research, and being adventurous. “Trying things that you haven’t tried before is not only going to be sexy to whoever is around you, it’s going to make you look all the more sophisticated,” he added.
Cocktails are complex; they all have rituals and rules for their preparation. They have complex histories, mythologies, and origin stories. Their ingredients say as much about their history as their future. And you need to know more than that to be considered an expert. The art of mixology is a precise one, but there are wonderfully classic cocktails you can, and should, master. The barrier to creating a palatable and well-mixed beverage isn’t too high, all you need is a little practice. And for that purpose, here’s our compilation of must-know cocktails and cocktail knowledge.
Your basic cocktail history
The cocktail was first defined as an alcoholic beverage in the May 13, 1806, edition of The Balance and Columbian Repository, a publication based in Hudson, New York, after a reader asked for a description. Editor Harry Croswell answered:
Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.
As for the word itself, the term cocktail may have come from the French who settled in New Orleans, or at least according to one legend. More specifically, it comes from the French word for the jigger, or eggcup, in which French quarter pharmacist Antonine Peychaud created his infamous absinthe and (now) rye whiskey cocktail, the sazerac. The French word for eggcup is coquetier (pronounced “ko-k-tay”), which became cocktay, and finally cocktail.
The Basic 10
The Old Fashioned
The favored cocktail of Mad Men’s Don Draper and Mad Men aficionados, the Old Fashioned was first perverted by candied fruits and club soda, then thrust into obscurity, before its revival. “Twelve years ago, it was nowhere,” the cocktail historian David Wondrich told The New York Times in its 2012 history of the drink. “You could go into an old-man bar, and if you insisted, they would make you one.” The debut of Mad Men coincided with a resurgence of the craft cocktail and increasing interest in old-school drinks among both mixologists and laymen. And the result is a cocktail culture in which gastronomical notions of a true Old Fashioned have swerved into “ideological tenets,” writes Slate’s Tory Patterson. And how you like your Old Fashioned “says something serious about your philosophy of fun,” he adds.
Throughout its history, the Old Fashioned has been both the manliest cocktail order and the drink of grandmothers. But simplicity is the hallmark of the original drink. As The New York Times reports in its historical overview, it was invented in the 19th century as an antidote to the popular cocktails of the day, which were overloaded with flourishes. Patterson notes that the Old Fashioned in its earliest (and arguably most authentic) iteration was a lump of sugar, moistened by the bartender with a Angostura bitters, rounded out by a cube of ice, “neither too large or too small” and a miniature bar soon, and passed to the client with a bottle of good bourbon. The drinker then poured his own measure of liquor at a price of 15 cents. By the 1930s, however, taste was straying from tradition, at least according to one disgruntled writer to the editor of the Times. He signed his 1936 complaint, “Old Timer,” and protested the deviation from the original: liquor simply sweetened and seasoned.
Following is the recipe, adapted from cocktail historian David Wondrich:
- Begin with ½ teaspoon of loose sugar in the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass (not a double Old-Fashioned glass). The sugar gives back what the melting ice will take away, notes Wondrich.
- Add two to three dashes of Angostura bitters and a teaspoon of water. The spice of the bitters “briefly masks the top notes of the liquor,” while the water dilutes the sugar.
- Muddle until the sugar is dissolved, and rotate the glass so that the mixture creates a lining.
- Add a large ice cube, and stir.
- Pour in 2 ounces of straight rye or bourbon whiskey. Whichever whiskey you choose, it should be American and bonded (meaning at least four years old and 100 proof).
- Stir once more.
- Twist a thin twist of lemon (or orange) peel over the top.
- Add stirring implement, and let sit for one minute.
The Manhattan may be as a good as a martini, but a Manhattan is much easier to mess up. This cocktail depends on the balance of all parts.
- 2 ounces bourbon
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 2 dash angostura bitters
- Twist of lemon peel
- 1 maraschino cherry
Directions: Combine all ingredients, save for the garnishes, in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail or coupe glass. Express the oils from the lemon peel over the top of the drink, and add cherry.
Classic Gin Martini
Much has been written about the martini — a drink that pre-dates prohibition by a good half century. It has mystique and simplicity, and those two characteristics mean that everyone who drinks martinis has a preference for the cocktail’s ratio of gin to vermouth. Yes, it must be gin; the classic martini was created as a gin cocktail. The New York Times’ Eric Asimov writes:
Gin and vodka have as much in common hierarchically as a president and a vice president. Vodka can fill in for gin from time to time and might even be given certain ceremonial duties of its own, but at important moments you need the real thing. Vodka generally makes a poor substitute for gin in a martini or any other gin cocktail.
Gin is more of a thinking person’s spirit. Vodka is neutral in aroma and flavor, which is also how gin begins life. But where vodka stays neutral, gin is infused with botanicals — a witch’s pantry of roots, berries, herbs, dried fruits and spices — dominated by the piney, breezy aroma of juniper berries. Other common botanicals include angelica, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, lemon peel, licorice, fennel and ginger. It is the closely guarded combination of botanicals that makes each gin distinctive.
And yes, a martini is not a martini without vermouth. (Simply gin is known as the Churchill, after the famous British prime minister.) All other variations — like the Third Degree with its dash of absinthe and the Hoffman House with its orange bitters — do not qualify. They are martini-like cocktails, by virtue of being served in a martini glass.
Following is the recipe for a classic gin martini:
- Fill a long-stemmed martini glass with ice and water; let chill.
- Pour 1 ounce dry vermouth* and 4 ounces gin into a cocktail shaker with ice and stir or shake for 20 seconds, depending on your preference. According to Asimov, “while great martinis require great gins, great gins don’t necessarily make great martinis.”
- Remove ice water from glass, and pour in cocktail.
*A typical dry martini will only have a drizzle of vermouth, while a wet martini has a heavier pour. Originally, martinis were almost equal parts gin and vermouth.
Ramos Gin Fizz
Also known as the New Orleans Fizz, this cocktail was to ragtime what the sidecar was to jazz. True, the Ramos Gin Fizz may seem dated, has too many ingredients, and can’t really be ordered in a bar. But this cocktail — created in 1888 by Henry C. Ramos’s — is “a matter of poise, of balance, of delicacy,” writes Esquire’s Lara Robby. “This isn’t a drink to throw together from whatever you’ve got lying around; every part of the formula is crucial.”
- 2 ounces London dry gin
- 1 ounce heavy cream*
- 1 egg white
- ½ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce lime juice
- 2 teaspoons superfine sugar
- 2 to 3 drops orange flower water
Directions: Combine all ingredients in a chilled cocktail shaker with a heavy measure of cracked ice. Next shake for a full minute, preferably two, and strain into a chilled Collins glass. Top with chilled seltzer water or club soda.
* Do not use half-and-half instead of heavy cream.
** Do not substitute orange juice or orange liquor for the flower water, you will lose the fragrance.
The Mint Julep is the drink of the Kentucky Derby. It is served in silver mugs, moist with dew.
- Dump 2 teaspoons of superfine sugar in the bottom of a pre-chilled, dry 12-ounce glass or silver beaker. Add a dash of soda water and swirl until a course simple syrup is formed.
- Place 15 or so mint leaves at the bottom of the vessel, reserving the top of the mint sprig for garnish. Crush mint slightly with a muddler, and pour in 3 ounces of bourbon.
- Fill glass with crushed ice, and stir briskly until the glass frosts. Add more ice, and stir once more before adding mint garnish so the drinker will get the herb’s aroma.
The best thing about the Bloody Mary is that it — unlike so many cocktails on this list — begs for innovation. Most recipes begin with vodka and tomato juice, but there are an endless number of variations that double as a hangover cure or a “nutritious” breakfast. The internet is littered with recipes for this drink, but unlike with the martini, this is a good thing.
First, however, there are some rules.
The vodka — This liquor does not have a nice rap; the cheap stuff tastes like gasoline and the more expensive versions have no taste. But while experimentation is not frowned upon, and many tasty recipes make use of tequila or bourbon, vodka is traditional. And even if vodka is not your favorite, Bloody Marys have such a range of flavor, the taste of vodka will not dominate the drink. Even your choice of vodka is not as important as you might think.
The tomato juice — Don’t use prepackaged Bloody Mary mixes. Tomato juice is the principle ingredient, so quality is nonnegotiable. Plus, a good tomato juice can add so much depth to your cocktail. If time is no problem and tomatoes are in season, you can even make your own.
Following is a recipe crafted by San Francisco bartender H. Joseph Ehrmann:
- Old Bay Seasoning
- 2 ounces vodka, Ehrmann recommends Square One
- 1 teaspoon dried dill
- 1 teaspoon celery salt
- 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
- 2 dashes Tabasco sauce
- 0.5 ounces “Elixir Juice” (a combination of olive brine, dill pickle brine, and various other pickle brines)
- Lemon wedge/juice
- 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
- 4 ounces tomato juice*
- Kosher dill pickle, cooked thick-cut bacon slice
Directions: Combine all ingredients, except garnishes and Old Bay, in a pint glass, and top with ice. Then roll the cocktail between the glass and shaker three or four times. Do not shake vigerously or drink will become diluted. Make sure the pint glass is fully drained, and rim with Old Bay. Then pour cocktail back into the pint glass and add garnishes.
*Hint: Let spices, Worcestershire, Tabasco, and horseradish infuse with the tomato juice for a week for more depth.
This is the drink to banish winter chills or a lingering cold. Tradition holds that the combination of heat, spice, and sweet and sour flavors ward off the advancement of harmful bacteria or the dampness of winter, while the booze helps you relax. In fact, as Professor Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at the University of Cardiff, told the Telegraph: “A hot toddy is equivalent to any sort of hot drink. The more it promotes salivation, the more it promotes mucus secretion, and mucus is our first line of defence against bacteria and viruses. That’s why it contains honey and lemon – it stimulates both sweet and sour.” Cinnamon, cloves, and ginger promote salivation, which soothes sore throats. Then there are also the untold psychological effects of a steaming warm beverage.
Likely, the drink began as means to hide the taste of raw scotch, which was unpalatable in the 18th century. Spices hid that poor taste. Whiskey is the traditional spirit used in hot toddies, but The New York Times has noted that “once you start digging, you realize it’s not really a drink but more a loose family bonded by heat.”
Following is a recipe from Guardian food and drink writer Felicity Cloake:
- Over low heat, bring 2 ounces of water to a gentle simmer, along with 3 cloves, a cinnamon stick, a ½-inch piece of peeled and sliced ginger, and a grating of nutmeg.
- Meanwhile, warm a heatproof glass.
- Pour 2 ounces of whiskey into warmed glass with spiced hot water mixture. Stir in honey, to taste, and lemon juice. Sprinkle nutmeg on top. Don’t forget to breathe in the steamy aroma deeply.
This Prohibition-era cocktail may look overly frilly, sweet, and less-than serious. But it actually should be part of any mixologist’s repertoire. The sugary rim adds the perfect touch of sweetness to the citrusy drink. Los Angeles Magazine writes: “Like many classic cocktails, the Sidecar has a few different origin stories floating around; one involving an American general in 1930s Paris who would always get wasted at Harry’s Bar and need to be poured into a motorcycle sidecar to be taken home.”
Following are instructions for the perfect Sidecar, adapted from the recipe of cocktail consultant Alex Straus, of Hemingway’s Lounge in Hollywood, via Los Angeles Magazine:
- 1 ounce Cointreau, or as Straus recommends, Mandarine Napoleon
- ¾ ounces lemon juice
- 1¾ ounces cognac, Straus uses Hennessy VS
Directions: First, cut a nickel-sized piece of lemon peel, wipe along the outside rim of the glass, and sightly coat the outer edge of the glass with an even width of sugar. Place glass in the refrigerator for 2 hours. “You want the sugar to dry so it’s not adding so much sugar to each sip,” Straus explains. Combine all three ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for about 10 seconds. “How long depends on how vigorously. I like this drink cold. Your sweetener is also alcohol based. You’re going to want more dilution because you don’t want that strong of a cocktail,” he adds. Then double strain the drink into the chilled glass.
This drink is a variation of the traditional American cocktail — liquor, plus more liquor, a touch of sugar, a dash or two of bitters, and maybe some water. In 1838, Antoine Amedie Peychaud, owner of an apothecary in New Orleans‘ French Quarter, invented the Sazerac cocktail for his friends. And what was meant to be a simple brandy toddy was actually the world’s first cocktail, according to legend. At the very least, it was the first so-called branded cocktail. The name comes from the Sazerac de Forge et Fils brand of Cognac brandy that served as its original main liquor. Later, when aphids destroyed the roots of vineyards across Europe in the late 1870s, rye whiskey replaced cognac.
In many ways, the Sazerac is the perfect drink for a cocktail nerd; it features rare and strongly-flavored ingredients, there’s a special process for making it, and it has a great origin story. Following is the official recipe, amended from the Sazerac company:
- ¼ ounce absinthe*
- 1 sugar cube (or simple syrup)
- 1½ ounces (35 milliliters) rye whiskey
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- Lemon peel
Directions: Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice. In a second Old-Fashioned glass, place sugar cube, add bitters, and muddle. Next add whiskey to the sugar mixture. Discard the ice from the first glace, and coat the glass with absinthe, pouring out any extra. Finally, transfer whiskey/sugar/bitters mixture to the absinthe-coated Old-Fashioned glass. Serve straight up, without ice. Garnish with lemon peel.
*Absinthe was part of the original cocktail, but thanks the banning of the high-proof liquor in the United States, a wormwood-free liquor Herbsaint, took its place in this cocktail. Herbsaint is still the popular choice in New Orleans.
The margarita can be — and is often — butchered, served as a neon-colored, slurpee-like beverage. As fun as slurpees can be, the margarita should not be served in that form; crushed ice melts faster, thereby diluting the drink faster. And it goes without saying that you should skip the bottled, just-add-tequila, mixes, and use fresh lime juice instead. But also do not forget to chose your tequila wisely. “You don’t want something that’s too round and fruity,” Greg Seider, author of Alchemy in a Glass: The Essential Guide to Handcrafted Cocktails, told Men’s Journal. “You want something that’s great, green, and vegetal. You want something that pops. If it’s too rounded, it gets lost when you’re mixing it with the other ingredients.”
This cocktail, like so many others, has a long and murky past. Notes Men’s Journal:
Like many historic cocktails, the story behind the Margarita is murky. As one popular tale goes, while visiting a bar in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, a Ziegfeld girl named Marjorie King professed an allergy to all alcohol save for tequila and asked the bartender, Danny Herrera, to make her a drink. He summarily poured tequila over shaved ice, added lemon and triple sec, and served up his new creation. Needing a name for it, he translated Marjorie to the Spanish equivalent, Margarita. Much less poetic (though more likely) origins date back to a nineteenth-century standard, the Gin Daisy. This evolved into the Tequila Daisy, a drink popular with soldiers during WWII, that combined tequila, citrus juice, and grenadine.
Like so many historic cocktails, there are an untold number of variations of the margarita. While this beverage has room for twists by the innovative mixologists, there are some ingredients that must be included: lime, tequila, and salt. Below is a recipe crafted by Greg Seider:
- 2 ounces blanco tequila (like Cabeza blanco, Olmeca Altos plata, or El Tesoro Platinum)
- 1 ounce fresh lime juice
- ¾ ounces agave mix
- 2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters
Directions: Shake all the ingredients; double strain, and pour over fresh ice. Use a bit of lime zest on top for aromatics, and salt the rim if you desire. Seider recommends using a crunchy, flaky slat for the best texture. As an added tip, salt just half the rim in cause your guest doesn’t want it. He uses agave instead of sugar because of its complementary flavor profile. It “is from the same plant, so it’s a natural ingredient, and has that natural terroir quality,” Seider said. “It doesn’t have that sugariness. It has less effect glycemicly. You don’t get that sugar crash you would with a simple syrup.”