When it comes to cocktails, the classics are time-honored for a reason. Take, for instance, the gin martini, or the Old Fashioned—not to mention margaritas, mojitos, and real, classic daiquiris (not the strawberry slushy kind, delicious though those might be). There’s a reason millions of people search for these recipes a month: They just work.
It helps, then, to have at least a handful of staple cocktail recipes up your sleeve, not just for when you have friends over for dinner, but also for yourself. Because is there anything better than mixing yourself up a cocktail from scratch? Whether they’re IBA “official” or not, these are the classic cocktails we think everyone should know how to make (or at least try!).
In order to compile this list of need-to-know classic cocktails, I relied on advice from four of my more knowledgeable colleagues. (Perhaps that should have been a warning sign that I was not authorized to write this.) Here is a transcript of part of the ensuing converation:
Sarah: by “martinez” do you mean martini?
Marian: no they’re distinct
Sarah: i can’t tell if you’re kidding
I may not have known much about cocktails before this, but I did my research and below have let the experts do most of the talking (especially Erik Lombardo and Erika Kotite). Together, let’s promise to study these 30 classic cocktail recipes and stock up on the spirits we’ll need to practice making them. Soon, we’ll be the life of the party (or at least we’ll be significantly more knowledgable and freed up at the bar to order a wide variety of drinks, our horizons opened up like never before…).
The point of this, anyway, is to find which “classics” are for you. And to the veterans out there, even you might learn a thing or two about your favorites. So without further ado…
“The true sour is a study in simplicity—of whiskey, sugar, and citrus,” writes recipe author Erik Lombardo. “Lemon is most common for the latter, but juice with any kind of noticeable acidity will work well. Traditional sours nearly always called for egg white, an ingredient that added a light, frothy, textural element to the cocktail. And believe it or not, the egg white provided a much-needed boost of protein after a night out on the town, something that was very popular with the early morning drinkers in the sporting set who made the cocktail so popular in the 19th century.”
“Originally created at the Detroit athletic club in the 1920s, a Last Word—equal parts gin, lime, maraschino liqueur, and chartreuse—is perfectly suited for rotgut bathtub gin, which is almost certainly what was used in the original cocktail,” Lombardo says. “Bold, spicy, vegetal and tart, the Last Word has become a favorite amongst cocktail enthusiasts and is appropriately named for both its relatively high alcohol content and the intensity of its flavor. This cocktail is a closer.”
“The Singapore Sling has a lengthy list of ingredients,” Lombardo warns. “But if you take the time to assemble what you need, you’ll be rewarded with an herbal, sweet-tart, and refreshing cooler with a seductive red color. Enjoy one on those sultry summer nights when the humidity is so high that even sunset brings no relief. Linen pants and literati optional, but highly recommended.”
“A lot of cocktails come and go,” Erika Kotite writes. “This one has hung around—for at least 200 years. What’s with all the staying power? That depends on who you ask. Rye or bourbon lovers stand by its side for the clear breakthrough of flavor. It’s a smart drink, offering enough complexity in taste without obliterating the very spirit that makes it good in the first place. Others appreciate its simplicity; they admire its marbled color and its timelessness. This is the cocktail holy trinity of spirit, sugar, and bitters, people. Which means that we should venerate Old Fashioneds—and drink lots of them.”
Vodka, ginger beer, and lime—what more could you want? Don’t forget lots and lots of ice. Like one reviewer, Judy, comments: “nuff said.”
I don’t know if this is one of your classics, but it’s certainly one of ours. As Lombardo claims, “The Southside is a fantastic cocktail to exhibit the transformative power of mint. At its heart, it’s basically a fresh gin gimlet with some mint in the shaker. Its origins can most likely be traced to the Southside Sportsman’s club, a toney gentlemen’s club operating on Long Island in the 1860s. The club was famous for its juleps and soon started turning out variations, including its now eponymous cocktail.”
“On the surface, the Boulevardier appears to be nothing more than a Negroni with the gin swapped for bourbon, and indeed it’s a great gateway cocktail for a bourbon drinker to get into the genre of aperitif-driven cocktails,” Lombardo says. “But rather than the similarities, it’s the differences from the Negroni that make the Boulevardier special. First off, there is a higher proportion of base spirit: Rather than the familiar 1:1:1 Negroni ratio, the Boulevardier uses a 2:1:1 ratio, allowing the richness and natural sweetness of the bourbon to tame the bitterness of Campari. Round it out with a substantial vermouth (like Carpano Antica) and there is no denying that the Boulevardier punches above its weight.”
“The classic Manhattan has to be one of the most satisfying of all cocktails,” Kotite claims (brave claim, Kotite!). “It’s like a liquid layer cake—each ingredient is immensely flavorful and satisfying. Credited to The Manhattan Club, the place where it was prepared for Winston Churchill’s Brooklyn-born mum in the 1870s, appreciation for the Manhattan crosses genders, generations, and palates. This drink is a true treat, whether you’re bellying up to the humblest of backwoods bars, networking at a fancy party in Los Feliz, or simply wowing your father-in-law (something I recently did) by stirring one up.”
Of course, this is on the list. Though this particular martini recipe calls for a 2:1 gin to vermouth ratio, the classic cocktail couldn’t be more rife with personal preference. Some prefer a 5:1 ratio, others a 1:1. Whatever you go for (heck, even vodka in place of the gin!), make sure there’s a twist or an olive for garnish.
“Though they seem made for each other, the margarita came to be long before the Super Bowl,” Kotite writes. “Rumor has it that an enlightened bartender mixed up the first margarita in Rosarita Beach, Mexico, for a showgirl named Marjorie King who was allergic to all liquor except tequila. ‘Margarita’ is the Spanish equivalent of Marjorie. Whether or not liquor allergies like Marjorie’s exist remains to be seen, but until we manage to get drinks named after ourselves, we’re drinking to her.”
Confirmed: Not a martini! Rather, in Lombardo’s words, a “deceptively simple, cocktail for before dinner, after work, and during any cocktail party you’ll ever throw.” The ingredients? Gin, sweet vermouth, marschino liqueur, and orange bitters. (Sounds good to us!) Some parting advice from Lombardo: “For the sweet vermouth, stick with something simple like Cinzano or Dolin Rouge are. Stock your bar with Luxardo for the maraschino, which is the most popular and readily available, and really shines in a cocktail when used with restraint, like in the Martinez. Lastly, the orange bitters: If you can get your hands on some Regan’s Orange Bitters, your Martinez, and anyone you serve them to, will thank you.”
A gimlet is the perfect gateway cocktail for people who are just getting into gin. The ingredients are pared down here, too: gin, lime juice, and simple syrup.
“The Negroni a storied drink layered completely with alcoholic ingredients,” Kotite admires. “It has nothing to hide behind, and when made right, it shows. Some history: When General Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni (yes, he was real!) walked into a Florence bar back in the 1920s, he ordered an Americano with some important changes. ‘No soda—gin instead,’ he said. He was a bright man. Bitter and herbal from Campari, warm from the gin, and smooth from the vermouth, this is one of the best before-dinner drinks ever invented, plain and simple.”
Kotite, take it away: “Despite its spring break affiliations, the daiquiri’s origins nod to the working stiff. This simple drink of rum, lime, and sugar was first enjoyed by Cuban sailors in the 19th century and introduced to Americans after the Spanish American War. Limes and rum are the major players in many classic cocktails—it’s a partnership of sweet and tart that works well for quenching thirst (and staving off scurvy). This refreshing drink with paisano roots developed a cult following after Ernest Hemingway reportedly adopted it as his cocktail of choice. According to Jim Meehan in The PDT Cocktail Book, Hemingway was a diabetic, so his mix had maraschino liqueur and grapefruit juice instead of sugar. Sweet cocktails reached a zenith in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and that’s when daiquiri recipes changed drastically. Their descendants are the ones you drink in Bermuda, Palm Springs, and Vegas. Tasty for sure, but the rum and lime are completely obscured.”
“The cocktail’s first mix has been credited to Antoine Peychaud, circa 19th century, in the Big Easy’s French Quarter,” Kotite reports. “Originally a drink made with cognac of the same name, the Sazerac became Americanized with rye whiskey after a grape phylloxera outbreak in the 1870s decimated the Cognac vineyards of France.”
“The Collins is beautiful for so many reasons,” Lombardo waxes. “First, unlike other cocktails, you need very few ingredients, all of which are easily attainable. If you run out of angostura bitters, for example, you’re not making old fashioneds without a trek—pretty much everybody can get their hands on lemons, sugar, and soda water no matter where they are. Second, and very much in keeping with the Mr. Potato Head school of bartending, you can swap out the spirit for pretty much anything and end up with something delicious.”
“Sure, since the mojito became the most popular drink ever, once again, it’s also become popular for bartenders and self-described cocktail geeks to complain about it,” Jeffrey Morgenthaler explains. “It’s pedestrian, it’s the new cosmopolitan, it takes too long to make. But I remember a time when we were all just beginning to rediscover the mojito. And despite the fact that I’ve made literally thousands of them during the course of my career, I still have fond memories of those summers when we’d all gather in the kitchen while we waited for the grill to heat up and discovered the drink together, a new generation of mojito lovers. It’s an amazing drink when it’s made right, and that’s all you really need to know.”
When made well (note: with a frugal pour of cranberry juice), the cosmopolitan cocktail can be a balanced, refreshing drink. Many assume that the classic cocktail—made famous, undoubtedly, by Sex and the City—must be overly sweet due to its color, but that’s not the case. Cranberries are tart, as are limes. Sourness and balance are the name of the game when it comes to a good cosmo. The proportions here are what recipe author Eric Kim believe to be the ideal dance between sour, sweet, and bitter.
Start your morning off with this classic cocktail recipe made with orange juice and sparkling wine or Champagne. Our version calls for fresh oranges, which you should squeeze yourself just before serving for the best and brightest flavor.
The ultimate brunch cocktail is a bellini, which marries sparkling wine with peach juice. Like any good cocktail, there are a few fabulous variations, like this one, which calls for a raspberry simple syrup and homemade peach sorbet sweetened with honey.
Master the art of this spicy, tomatoey vodka cocktail. Our very good, very boozy Bloody Mary gets a serious kick of that peppery, tangy flavor from dill pickle juice, fresh lemon juice, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and, of course, plenty of vodka.
This classic cocktail normally needs only three ingredients—gin, tonic, and lime juice—but this version gets an intoxicating twist from fresh tarragon and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice.
Three types of orange ingredients—an orange wedge and orange zest, plus an orange liqueur like triple sec—are used to make this classic brandy cocktail.
Transport your taste buds to the Italian coast with this bitter, bubbly cocktail. “I like this in a very large wine glass with lots of ice on a hot day (and don’t skip the sunscreen!),” says Marian Bull, who developed this classic Aperol spritz recipe.
Craving the flavor of Bermuda? Who isn’t! This classic two-ingredient cocktail should do the trick. Just be sure to use very flavorful ginger beer and good-quality dark rum to make a Dark & Stormy.
The beauty of this classic cocktail is that you can customize it based on your flavor preferences. Recipe developer Kenzi Wilbur says you can add a couple squeezes of lemon juice to make it a little brighter and zestier, add a splash more gin for an extra-boozy Pimm’s, or add a few berries for even more sweetness.
“The classic mint julep recipe is probably most closely associated with the Kentucky Derby—the iconic annual horse race held the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs—but it makes a great spring and summer cocktail no matter the occasion,” says recipe developer Erik Lombardo.
The secret to this frothy, fizzy cocktail is an egg white, which is shaken with gin, simple syrup, the juice of freshly squeezed lemons and limes, and half-and-half.
A trio of vodka, gin, and Lillet Blanc (a vermouth-style French aperitif) are combined for a speedy classic cocktail.
What is your all-time favorite classic cocktail? Share with us in the comments below!