There has been a rise of the celebrity bartender and the use of local fresh ingredients. I think that’s a great thing and offers a chance to have some fun with a cocktail before we head to dinner and wine. Most of these drinks are not designed to pair with food, but rather they are meant to be enjoyed stand alone.
Even with the explosion of cocktails and craft cocktails, they generally follow the structure of one of the drinks listed below. I picked 20 cocktails that can certainly be called classic but it would be easy to argue more onto the list and I wouldn’t object.
If you are feeling a little adventurous, pick one that looks compelling and give it a try the next time you are out. A warning, if you are in a beer and a shot kind of bar, the bartender might not know some of these cocktails, I wouldn’t recommend being their maiden voyage on a drink!
Negroni is a favorite cocktail of the sommelier class and those that spent time in Italy. It packs a punch with a mixture of Gin, Campari bitters and vermouth.
My father loved his Old Fashioned and it is a drink that has lasted through the ages. Rye whiskey or bourbon, bitters, and an orange twist. It’s usually poured over a single large ice cube to limit dilution.
If you want to feel like a grown-up, order a dry martini. I like them up and ice cold to the point of some ice forming on the surface. Gin and vermouth are the primary ingredients, garnished with olives on a toothpick. Upgrade to blue cheese stuffed olives for a treat.
A Manhattan evokes the sophistication of this epic city. The drink is simple and timeless, basically a martini with Rye Whiskey. Rye, sweet vermouth, bitters with a cherry to garnish. There is a whole debate on the best Manhattan, usually debating rye versus bourbon and sweet or dry vermouth.
The traditional daiquiri is a simple combination of white rum, lime juice and sweet simple syrup over lots of ice.
The Margarita is another simple thirst quencher. Blanco Tequila, lime juice and Triple Sec are shaken and poured over ice. It’s perfect for a hot day. The frozen version was invented in Dallas and often comes from a mix with less than pure ingredients – real hangover inducers.
A meal in a cocktail, the Bloody Mary is a brunch favorite and a well-regarded hangover cure. Everyone fools with the recipe, but it involves tomato juice (hey! It’s healthy!), spices like black pepper, Tobasco®, horseradish (my personal favorite) and vodka as the spirit. The garnishes make the meal with everything from celery to olives and even candied bacon, usually at a brunch.
You can’t spell Cuba without Mojito. It’s one of the island’s best contributions to global culture. The drink consists of white rum, cane sugar and lime juice, all muddled with fresh mint. It’s another perfect summer drink.
Originating in New Orleans in the 1800s, this drink gets the party rolling. Rye or Brandy is combined with turbinado sugar syrup, bitters and a lemon twist. If you can get some absinthe, a little makes the drink and gives it that semi-illegal feel (as absinthe was illegal in the US until recently).
Similar to a Negroni, this might be the second most popular drink with sommeliers. Rye Whiskey, amaro and sweet vermouth are combined and garnished with an orange twist. It is elegant and packs a punch.
French 75 is a cocktail made from gin, Champagne, lemon juice, and sugar. The drink dates to World War I and was reputed to make your head pound like you were near a French 75-millimeter cannon. It debuted in 1915 at the New York Bar in Paris.
The Cosmopolitan or Cosmo can thank Sarah Jessica Parker for its popularity when she drank it regularly on Sex in the City. It’s a delicious combination of vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and lime juice. Usually served up, the pink color gets the party started.
Similar to the more popular Dry Gin Martini, the Vodka Martini is simple and strong. A shot of well chilled vodka shaken with a spritz of dry vermouth and garnished with an olive. It’s a strong statement for the start of the evening and popular at business events.
One of my early favorite summer drinks, The Tom Collins combines Gin, lemon and soda water. It makes for a fizzy quencher with a little more interest than its brother the Gin and Tonic.
Long Island Iced Tea
If you want to party like it’s 1985, then jump into a Long Island Iced Tea. This potent concoction masks the punch of multiple spirits with a dose of sweet cola. The bartender combines vodka, tequila, rum, gin and triple sec (sometimes pouring them at the same time), then finished with coke from the fountain. This one really isn’t appropriate in the business setting.
If you can’t decide on a gin or vodka martini, don’t and grab a Vesper. Ian Fleming made this drink famous in his book Casino Royale with vodka, gin and vermouth (preferably Lillet) and garnished with a lemon peel.
Cocktails have their moment and fade and the Aperol Spritz is currently on the rise. It’s a delicious summer quaff. You combine Prosecco (Italian bubbly white wine), Aperol (orange flavor) and soda water. Fizzy and lower alcohol, you can sip a few of these without trouble. A great starter to the evening. Like white shoes, you probably have to move on at Labor Day to another drink.
If you are hankering for tequila and don’t want a margarita, the Paloma is your cocktail. It combines tequila, lime juice, a pinch of salt and finish with grapefruit soda. Tart and a little sweet it is a wonderful drink to wake up our taste buds.
While the Aperol Spritz might be on the rise, the Moscow Mule might be on the wane. There is no denying the cool factor of the traditional copper mugs that are used for this drink and everyone knows what you are tucking into from across the bar. Vodka, lime juice and ginger beer is usually garnished with a lime wedge.
Cocktails are usually before a meal, but I felt I needed to include the Irish coffee, but maybe that’s my heritage speaking. I love to have an Irish coffee at the end of a meal in place of a dessert. Sweet and warm it’s a great way to end the evening. Irish Whiskey is combined with coffee, sugar and cream to make this sticky sweet drink and it’s usually topped with whipped cream, because… why not?
While this list seems long, it is by no means comprehensive, there are hundreds of variants that are worth the try. One of my favorite questions is to ask for the signature cocktail of an elegant place and I am rarely disappointed.
If you haven’t tried some of these, take the plunge and try something different to start the evening.