We who like to mix drinks at home do it for many reasons: First, it’s cheaper than drinking out. Second, it’s fun to mix your own drinks at home. Third, it’s even more fun to mix drinks for other people at home. Any self-respecting home bartender should have a mental
Rolodex Excel spreadsheet of favorite classic cocktail recipes. Even if these aren’t fully memorized, you should be able to find the recipe in your home library at quick notice to serve them to your friends.
Today, I present the 25 essential drinks that I think everyone should be able to make. I’m not including any highballs here. If you can’t mix up a gin and tonic or a whiskey and soda without a recipe, you may want to do some remedial reading (and drinking!) first. But if you get to the end of this list and feel thirsty for more, we’ve got you covered.
The origins of the word “cocktail” are lost to history, but the first definition we find in print comes from an 1806 newspaper from upstate New York. A cocktail is called “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters…” Over the course of the 19th century, the cocktail picked up a number of additions and refinements: liqueurs, fortified wines, various bits of garnish, et cetera. Eventually, some drinkers came to prefer a simpler form of cocktail, the type their grandfathers might have enjoyed, and so they’d ask the bartender to make them an “old-fashioned” cocktail, of booze, sugar muddled into water to form a syrup, and bitters.
If you want to experience the ur-cocktail, or if you just enjoy deliciousness, the Old Fashioned is the drink for you.
Note that the original definition called for spirits of any kind. You can make a tasty Old Fashioned from whiskey, of course, but also from tequila, mezcal, brandy, rum, genever, and to a lesser extent, aquavit or gin. I have even been desperate enough to attempt a vodka old fashioned, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. Stick with more robustly flavored spirits.
Grandfather to the modern martini, the Martinez is a drink of gin (Old Tom, if you can; try Ransom or Hayman’s), sweet vermouth, maraschino or curaçao, and bitters. It’s a sweeter drink than the typical dry martini, but the flavor is complex and refreshing. Assembling the ingredients requires some outlay of funds, but if you’re within spitting distance of a respectable craft-cocktail bar, you should be able to sample one there.
I wouldn’t say a Martinez is on my list of weekly cocktail treats, but I do enjoy one every few months or so. I consider the drink important not just from a historical standpoint, but also as a glimpse of how diverse the world of cocktails can be.
And here’s the grandbaby, though now venerable in its own right. Within reason, you can mix this one up however you want, and it’s still a martini. Make it extra wet with equal parts gin and vermouth. Make it ultradry with merely a wisp of vermouth. Shake. Stir. (Blend? Now that’s just crazy.) Garnish with an olive, a lemon twist, an onion, a slice of cucumber. Going gin shopping? Here are our favorite gins to use in a martini.
If there were no other reason to include this drink on this list, I’d still put the Manhattan here for the best reason of all: your grandmother drinks them.
Now, I’m pretty flexible on the Old Fashioned and the Martini. Mix an OF with mezcal or rhum agricole and I’ll shake your hand; shake up an ultra-dry martini, and I’ll drink it happily. But please, no weak bourbons in my Manhattan. Give me a bourbon with a muscular rye-heavy mashbill, or just give me rye to begin with.
Mix it sweet or mix it perfect (half sweet vermouth, half dry), but don’t bother with a dry Manhattan, seriously.
A Manhattan variation that launched a cocktail family of its own. The Brooklyn adapts the formula for a perfect Manhattan, which is rye or bourbon, dry vermouth, and sweet vermouth. The Brooklyn swaps the sweet for a blend of maraschino liqueur and amaro. Historically, it called for Amer Picon, which is very hard to find in the United States. You can use Ramazotti in place of Picon.
In fact, you can use lots of things in place of Picon. If you use Punt e Mes, you have a Red Hook cocktail, named after the Brooklyn neighborhood. Other Brooklyn nabes lend their names to other Brooklyn variations. The Greenpoint uses Chartreuse (yellow, though, strangely); the Bensonhurst calls for Cynar; and the Bushwick requires Carpano Antica vermouth in addition to the Amer Picon and maraschino.
My current Brooklyn haunts are Kensington and Ditmas Park, and a quick search doesn’t turn up any Brooklyn variants named for those neighborhoods. I should work on that.
Here, with the daiquiri, you have what I call a perfect litmus-test cocktail. Whenever I get a new rum, I almost always want to try it two different ways—sipped with a little ice, and mixed into a daiquiri. I find that the lime and sugar in a daiquiri complement the rum and highlight its flavors. I learn more about a rum mixed into a daiquiri than I do by just sipping it on its own. The only exception, I find, are rich, funky rums, such as rhums agricole. These tend to overpower the other ingredients.
I would love to say that everyone remembers their first Margarita, but we all know that’s not true. I think it’s even possible that no one remembers their first Margarita.
I admit, sometimes when I’m out to dinner at a Mexican or Tex-Mex place and I want a margarita, I don’t always care whether it’s made with fresh ingrdients or from pre-mix. But I will never buy pre-mix for my home bar, and neither should you. The margarita is a simple recipe, just three ingredients, so there’s no excuse for pre-mix. Get a good tequila (100% agave), a decent triple sec, and fresh limes, and you’re almost guaranteed a great drink.
An unlikely cousin to the Margarita, the Sidecar falls into the same Sour family as the tequila classic. In fact, once you know how to make a Margarita by heart, you pretty much know how to make a Sidecar: they’re basically the same drink. One uses tequila and lime, whereas the other calls for cognac and lemon, but the template is spirit, orange liqueur, and citrus.
What always amazes me, though, is how the character of the base spirit changes the feel of the drink. A Margarita feels like summer to me, drinking al fresco on a bright, warm day. A Sidecar, though, because of the warmth and mellowness of cognac, feels like a drink to sip, if not by a fire, then definitely in a dark bar on a cool fall night.
These drinks may have a common pedigree, but they’re as individual as feuding sisters.
If you’re a cocktail geek, and you don’t have the French 75 in your repertoire for parties, I’m sorry, but you’re not a cocktail geek. I took the makings for French 75s to the home of some new friends a few years ago, and although my wife and I started the night as the only gin fans in the house, I wound up converting everyone else to the cause that night. You can’t count on much in life, but you can always expect that sparkling cocktails will play well at parties.
I’m breaking my highball rule here, but that’s okay because I don’t think of the Bloody Mary as a highball. Though nearly every cocktail manual I own lists it as such, I take a different view. A highball just means pouring a shot or so of booze and topping it off with a non-alcoholic mixer, usually from a gun or a bottle. Fine, you can make Bloody Marys that way if you’re lazy and buy a bottled mix. But a good Bloody Mary mix is prepared in-house or at home from high-quality tomato juice and whatever other juices and spices you like. For home drinking, I mix mine à la minute. I juice lemons; I dash in bitters. I go to at least as much work as I do when mixing a cocktail. So screw it, it’s a cocktail, not a highball.
Regrettably, perhaps, we’ve gotten away from the breakfast/brunch cocktail. If anyone tells you that Irish Coffee is a sweet drink, scald them with your coffee. You only need a little sugar, your Irish, your coffee, and a dollop of lightly whipped cream atop.
A deceptively simple looking recipe, the Jack Rose calls for applejack, lime juice, and grenadine. The way these flavors blend together is simply delicious. Make the grenadine yourself; it’s easy and it’s quick. (Although bottled pomegranate juice will do; no need to make your own juice.) Take the time and spend the money to track down Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy for this, too. It has a rich, fresh apple flavor that’s much more satisfying than the blended applejack Laird’s also sells. (The blended product mixes apple brandy with neutral grain spirit. It’s more flavorful than an apple vodka, but nowhere near as tasty as the bonded.)
I don’t think I understand people who don’t love Negronis. The blend of bitter and sweet, the herbal complexity, the refreshing pleasure—you gotta be nuts not to like this. Like the Martini, the Negroni is a drink that’s open to tinkering. Start with the classic 1:1:1 ratio and go from there. It’s fun. Try blending vermouths, too. Right now, I like a Negroni that’s 2 parts gin, 1 part Campari, and 1/2 part each of Carpano Antica vermouth and Martini & Rossi. Want more ideas? Here are 11 more!
Now, some might say this only qualifies as a Negroni variation. I don’t think so. I think it’s a fine cocktail in its own right, and delicious enough to belong on this list. In fact, I even know a person or two who prefers the Boulevardier to the Negroni. Since my favorite spirit is rye, I sympathize.
Now for a few New Orleans classics. We’ll start with the Sazerac. Nothing beats sipping one while spinning around the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, but making them at home certainly comes close. The Sazerac would be among my desert-island cocktails, except for the unfortunate fact that it’s very hard to find ice on a desert island.
Speaking of the Monteleone, the Vieux Carré (or Old Square, another term for the French Quarter) originated at the hotel in 1938. The cocktail blends rye, cognac, Benedictine, and vermouth, along with Peychaud’s and Angostura. I’ve had more than my share of these at the Carousel Bar, too.
Break out your blender for this one. The Ramos Gin Fizz is a complex drink, of gin (naturally), lemon and lime juices, simple syrup, orange flower water, cream, an egg white, and (optionally) vanilla extract. Traditionally, it has the hell shaken out of it, first without ice, so that the ingredients emulsify, and then with ice, so it gets extremely cold and frothy. But Gary Regan, a smarter man than I am, insists that it’s perfectly fine to use your blender for this one, so feel free, unless you’re trying to tone up your arms.
A few years ago, we lived in an apartment with backyard access. In addition to grilling out, smoking cigars, and enjoying cocktails on the veranda, we kept a garden. One year, the mint came in so abundantly we had mint juleps every day for a week. That was a great week.
Another simple-to-make cocktail, the Whiskey Sour calls for bourbon or rye, lemon juice, and sugar. If you want a splash of orange juice in there, too, I won’t stop you. This is a basic drink, of course, but it belongs in your arsenal because you’ll probably have guests over one night, and sometimes your guests prefer basic drinks. As long as you have whiskey, lemons, and sugar on hand, you can always pull this one out.
My tiki-swilling friends are all saying now, “About time you got a tiki drink on here, Dietsch.” It ain’t every bar that does a Mai Tai correctly; in fact, it’s probably still relatively rare to find one that does, unfortunately. Which is all the more reason to learn how to make them at home. The hardest part is finding everything you need: two rums (preferably, though one will do, if it’s a rich-tasting dark rum), orange curaçao, and orgeat (try the one from Small Hand Foods.) Shake everything and strain it over fresh ice. (Heck, you don’t even have to do that; I’ve often just dumped the entire mixing glass into a chilled rocks glass and called it a day.)
A beautiful, and necessary, drink for summer. Dark rum, lime and lemon, grenadine, and simple syrup. Yum. Hell, go crazy and get some umbrellas or fancy straws and be all festive and stuff. Paul Clarke’s recipe leaves out the grenadine, you’ll note. I don’t know whether the grenadine is traditional or one of those later additions that make the geekiest of geeks angry. At any rate, if you’re using it, use the DIY stuff, and replace half of Clarke’s simple syrup: so, half an ounce simple, half an ounce grenadine.
Yes! The Cosmopolitan is on this list! It’s a popular drink, and so if you host parties with any regularity, someone will ask you for one. (I made so many at one party, I should have premade and bottled them.) And you know what? It’s a better drink than you think it is.
The Cosmopolitan is a cultural touchstone because once upon a time, Dale DeGroff got one into the hands of Madonna at the Rainbow Room and it became the drink to be seen with. Then HBO and SJP, of course, made the drink ubiquitous and clichéd. Nevertheless, sours (like Sidecars, Margaritas, and Daiquiris) are fundamental cocktails, and the Cosmopolitan is, simply stated, the best Vodka Sour around.
I don’t know what else I can say about sours that I haven’t already said about the Margarita, the Sidecar, and the Whiskey Sour. All I can say is that the pisco version is excellent; the unaged grape brandy makes for a drink that has a character distinct from its cousins—it’s lightly floral and fresh. The addition of an egg white makes the drink creamy and luscious.
Collinses, historically, are a class of cocktails calling for a spirit, simple syrup, lemon juice, and soda water. The Tom calls for gin, of course. Historically, that would have been Old Tom gin, hence the name, but these days London dry is common. Try it with Old Tom if you have it, though. Or sub in the spirit of your choice; just about anything will work in this formula. This drink is so refreshing and so easy to sip that I think anyone who likes to drink should be able to make one.
Yes, yes, you can skimp and pour gin into a glass and top it off with Sprite. The first time I was ever inebriated was on a Sprite-version Tom Collins, at a cousin’s wedding when I was in high school. I have a soft spot for such Collins knockoffs, but I still urge you not to make it this way. The drink is much more delicious made with fresh, real juice.
What a story this drink has! If this were a story about a forgotten boxer, rediscovered years later by a fight aficionado, Clint Eastwood would have already directed the film by now. The drink arose in Detroit during Prohibition, but fell into neglect for decades until rediscovered by Murray Stenson in Seattle. The Last Word is a complex, herbaceous drink, and like the French 75, it’s one that I think would make a gin lover out of almost anyone.
Want five more? We’ve got five more.
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