Seven Essential Cocktails You Should Know
Fancy yourself a cocktail whiz? Test your skills with this classic line-up
Since the beginning of the craft cocktail renaissance, we've been gifted (and occasionally cursed) with a massive creative explosion of new drinks.
Good drinks, bad drinks, a few great drinks. New classics that spread around the globe, and drinks doomed to be forgotten because they were mediocre, or too complicated to catch on, or required ingredients we could source only at the top of a particular mountaintop in Sweden, or simply because - holy gin fizz, Batman! - there are so many drinks now that it's impossible to keep track of all of them unless you're some kind of maniacal bartending robot from space.
I want to be clear: I love the creativity of this industry. As a customer, it's still my favourite thing about going into a new bar: that moment of perusing a menu, reading the ingredients of a drink, assembling it in my mind-palate (to borrow from Sherlock) and thinking, "Wow, that sounds great." And when I order it, about 10 percent of the time it is great. Thirty percent of the time, it's at least pretty good.
Then there's the other 60 per cent of the time, when the drink turns out to be out of balance, unpleasant or muddy, or when all the advertised flavors don't show up in the drink's flavor at all, causing the ingredients list to read as the cocktail equivalent of used-car salesmanship: big talk, nothing under the hood.
But this is not a rant against making new drinks. It's merely a plea to get to know the classics first, to understand the rules before attempting to shatter them. There are bartenders whose weirdness I trust, whose raspberry-dill-sherry fizz, or fat-washed cold-brew and slivovitz Old-Fashioned, or yuzu and pickle juice sour I will try without hesitation. Those bartenders are, without exception, the same bartenders I am utterly confident can make me a perfect daiquiri.
I trust their creativity because I trust their foundations. They have mastered the drinks that have survived for decades - some for centuries - and know them inside and out. These are bartenders whose ambition is tempered by, even defined by, humility, who love exploring good spirits and liqueurs, and who have, on occasion, come up with a drink that deserves to be made and remade and shared widely.
But do they believe that their new drinks are more important than a Manhattan? No, they do not. And neither do I, and neither should you. (I could be wrong, of course, and if your fancy new drink is still on cocktail menus around the world 100 years from now, come visit my floating head in its cryogenic chamber, and I'll revise my opinion accordingly.)
Until then, if you're trying to get into cocktails, start by learning the canon. There are reasons these drinks have survived and become essential: They're good, they're simple to make and they're replicable almost anywhere that has a booze store and access to basic grocery items.
I have favourites that aren't among the top classics, and to guard against my own biases, I surveyed nearly 100 bartenders, beverage writers and drinks enthusiasts about which drinks they consider essential. The martini topped the list, with a solid 84 percent of respondents voting it as core, but every drink on this Top 7 list had at least 50 percent support across those surveyed.
There's not a drink on the list I wouldn't consume with pleasure. And if you're just learning cocktails, making these drinks will provide the added bonus of learning cocktail theory through actual cocktail practice (and consumption).
For example, try making a Manhattan without the bitters, and taste the difference in the results. See what happens when you make a daiquiri with more sweetener or more lime. These drinks will teach you about the basics of cocktail technique: mixing, shaking, the importance of proper dilution, how and why to use bitters, how to achieve the right balance between contrasting flavours.
Of course, I'm sorry for the runner-up quaffs, the ones that just missed the critical (though admittedly random) 50 percent support mark in the survey. Those include the Bloody Mary, the Whiskey Sour, the Sazerac, the Mojito and the Cosmopolitan, all classics in their own right, found on menus all over the world.
And, of course, every social cocktailer should have a punch recipe you can whip out on those evenings when you don't have the time or patience for one-by-one drinks.
Once you've nailed down these first seven giants, there will be plenty more waiting for your exploration, and you'll make them better because of what you learn making these.
Dates to: Late 1800s.
Everyone agrees the martini is an essential drink: Its glass has become the universal sign of the cocktail. And yet for such a canonical beast, the martini is perennially personalized, a drink everyone dials into their own tastes. Gin or vodka? Purists will argue for the former, but vodka has plenty of advocates. Vermouth-to-base-spirit ratio? Debated endlessly, but if you're using good, well-cared-for vermouth, it's not to be feared. Shaken or stirred? The latter is the rule, but shaking has advocates. (They're outliers. Even Bond, James Bond). Add bitters? Garnish with a lemon twist or an olive? Your call. Try this recipe, adjust to your liking, and then be prepared to adjust and argue about it with every new drinker you encounter for the rest of your life.
If you like it, try: Martinez, Bijou
75ml ounces dry gin, such as Plymouth, Beefeater or the citrusy Tanqueray 10
15ml dry vermouth, such as Dolin
1 or 2 dashes orange bitters
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish
1. Chill a cocktail (martini) glass or coupe.
2. Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the gin, vermouth and bitters (to taste). Stir gently for 20 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass.
3. Garnish with the twist of lemon peel.
Dates to: Late 1800s.
A boozy, classic deep dive into whiskey and sweet vermouth. These days, most craft cocktail types opt for rye, which has a spicier profile than bourbon, but the main thing is to pick a whiskey you like and a vermouth that's worthy of it. Small but interesting tweaks can happen via new types of bitters (chocolate or pimento make for a nod toward autumn, Peychaud's or cardamom will bring out other notes), but orange and Angostura are reliably on point.
If you like it: Try Brooklyn, Vieux Carré, Black Manhattan.
Brandied cherry, for garnish, such as Luxardo or Amarena Fabbri brand
2 dashes Angostura and/or orange bitters
60ml rye or bourbon whiskey
30ml sweet vermouth
Twist of orange peel (for its oils; optional)
1. Chill a cocktail (martini) glass, adding the brandied cherry garnish.
2. Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the bitters, whiskey and vermouth. Stir for 20 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass.
3. Twist the orange peel, if using, over the surface of the drink to express its oils, then discard it.
Dates to: 1919, most likely.
Supposedly no one likes a Negroni the first time they taste one, and some drinkers never come around on this bright red flag of a drink. It's an Italian liqueur that brings that fiery color and throws down the gauntlet: Campari, the deeply bittersweet, orangy and herbal aperitivo that complements equal portions of dry gin and sweet vermouth. It's boozy, it's strange, it's a high-wire balancing act, and once your palate adjusts to the bitterness, you may come to crave it - and regard it as the gateway to a spectrum of drinks incorporating bitter flavours.
If you like it: Try White Negroni, Boulevardier, Little Italy.
30ml sweet vermouth, such as Cocchi or Dolin
30ml dry gin
Twist of orange peel, for garnish
1. Chill a cocktail (martini) glass.
2. Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. Stir for 20 seconds, then strain into the glass.
3. Twist the orange peel over the surface of the drink to express its oils, then drop it into the drink.
Dates to: Late 1800s.
Perhaps the first and most genre-defining of cocktails, the Old-Fashioned has been carried back into heavy sipping rotation by the craft cocktail renaissance and smart bartenders who stopped treating it as a vehicle for transporting bad fruit salad. Good bars opt to leave out the pile of pineapple and neon cherries that were once all too common. You may want a twist of citrus for its fragrant oils, but that's all the embellishment that's called for. A little sugar, good whiskey (it can be bourbon- or rye-based, depending on your preference) and the spice of bitters to button up the whole thing nice and neat.
If you like it: Try Oaxaca Old Fashioned, Sazerac.
1 tsp sugar (may substitute 1 small sugar cube)
1 tsp warm water
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Strip of orange or lemon peel
Large ice cubes
60ml bourbon or rye
1. Combine the sugar, warm water and bitters in an old-fashioned glass, then add the citrus peel and muddle.
2. Add some ice cubes, then the bourbon or rye, and stir to combine; make sure all the sugar has dissolved.
3. Add a couple more ice cubes and serve.
GIN AND TONIC
Dates to: Early 1800s.
With two ingredients plus a couple of slices of citrus, the gin and tonic seems so simple it barely warrants a recipe. It's gin, it's tonic: Where's the complication? But the flavors of juniper mixed with the tongue-livening bitter bubble of tonic have made this drink the essential highball for centuries. Its simplicity makes the quality of the ingredients and the right proportions critical. Once you can make the classic, branch out into new gins, tonics and garnishes. (Look to Spain for inspiration; there, variations on the "gin-tonic" are infinitely variable.)
If you like it: Try Tom Collins, Pimm's Cup, Moscow Mule.
A few lime wheels
60ml dry gin
90-120ml good tonic water
1. Fill a highball glass with ice, layering in a few lime wheels (to taste).
2. Add the gin and the tonic (to fill), then stir gently.
Dates to: Around 1900.
Crisp, tart and elegantly simple, a good daiquiri is a pale, delicious thing of beauty. The classic version is not frozen, but it is still perfect for drinking beachside, or for bringing the beach to where it ain't. Look for a good Cuban-style light rum (Havana Club, Banks 5 Island) to get you started, and then adjust as you get acquainted with the drink. (Aficionados sometimes graduate to older rums, but the light is classic.) A simple sugar syrup balances out the tartness of the lime and keeps the drink from getting too watered down by its icy shake.
If you like it, try: Mojito, Last Word, Hemingway Daiquiri.
60ml white rum, such as Cana Brava (see headnote)
30ml fresh lime juice
15ml rich Demerara syrup (see headnote and NOTE)
1. Chill a cocktail (martini) glass.
2. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the rum, lime juice and Demerara syrup. Seal; shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass; double-strain only if you want to remove the tiny ice shards from the drink. (Some tipplers enjoy them in a daiquiri.)
Note: To make the rich Demerara syrup, combine 2 cups of Demerara or turbinado sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a brief boil; once the sugar has dissolved, remove the saucepan from the heat. Cool completely before using or storing (in the refrigerator, for up to 2 weeks).
Dates to: Unknown, but likely 1930s-40s.
Like the daiquiri, the margarita is a classic from the cocktail family known as sours, a simple but delicious clan of drinks in which the DNA is made up of spirit, citrus and sweetener. You should taste the tequila (use a good blanco, which is unaged, or reposado, which is lightly aged), the lime and sweetness from the orange liqueur; a touch of agave syrup boosts the sweetness and the flavor of the spirit's origin plant. Salt is optional, of course, but it functions the way it does in cooking, tying the whole package together.
If you like it, try: Mezcal Margarita, Paloma.
Large/coarse-grained salt (for rimming; optional)
Lime half (for rimming; optional), plus 30ml fresh lime juice
7.5ml agave nectar
1. If you are serving the drink straight up, use a cocktail (martini) glass; if you are serving it on ice, a rocks glass will work. Either way: If you are rimming it with salt, make a small pile of salt on a plate. Rub the lime half around the outside rim of the glass, then roll that rim gently over the salt to create a salt edge.
2. Add ice to the glass, if using. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the lime juice, tequila, Cointreau and agave nectar. Seal and shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then strain into the glass.
— The Washington Post.