While the modern cocktail scene is filled with great drinks, many of the best cocktails were created over a century ago. These classic drinks have stood up to the tests of time, survived Prohibition, and witnessed amazing changes in the liquor that makes them.
The best classic cocktails include timeless favorites that have tantalized and whetted the palates of generations of drinkers. Perfect beginner cocktails, these recipes showcase the most basic and truest definition of a cocktail. They require just a few ingredients and basic bartending skills and deserve the best your liquor cabinet has to offer.
Follow the recipes in their traditional form, then experiment and tweak them to your own liking. Drinks are not a one-size-fits-all experience, and these are simply a foundation that you can use to build a true appreciation for everything the cocktail world has to offer.
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The martini is often the first cocktail many people think of when it comes to "fancy" drinks. While many up drinks are referred to as "martinis", there is only one original martini.
The dry gin martini is comprised of nothing more than gin and dry vermouth. It often comes with a dash of bitters and either an olive or lemon twist garnish. It really is that simple, yet it is a pure delight and a must-have on any drinker's cocktail journey.
What Are the Six Basic Cocktails?
In his 1948 book, "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," David Embury describes six basic cocktails that everyone should know. Rather than learning a ton of drinks, Embury's point is that if you can focus on perfecting these drinks, you will always be able to mix an excellent cocktail for guests, no matter their personal preference.
- Jack Rose
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What the martini is to gin, the Manhattan is to whiskey. You'll switch from dry to sweet vermouth in this drink, though whiskey is a complicated category of spirits, and each one you pour will create a slightly different drink
Many types of whiskey have been poured into the Manhattan. Rye whiskey was the traditional choice, but that fell out of favor for a large part of the 20th century. For years, Canadian whisky and bourbon found their way into Manhattans, and today's resurgence of rye offers a taste of the original.
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The old-fashioned is another straightforward cocktail and a great way to explore different whiskies. It will also introduce you to the bartending technique of muddling and is more about the process than the ingredients.
One of the great things about the old-fashioned is that the fruits and spirit are open to adaptation. Using the basic formula, you can put a fun, new twist on this old-time favorite.
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Though there are countless variations available today, the classic daiquiri remains a favorite, and it's an excellent drink for any occasion. Its original form requires just three ingredients and is one of the best ways to test a new rum.
The daiquiri is thought to be from the late 1800s. It was likely created in Cuba to "doctor up" the local rum and served as a medicinal drink. It has remained popular gained many dedicated fans, including Ernest Hemingway.Continue to 5 of 27 below.
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A sugar cube soaked in bitters, a shot of whiskey, and an orange peel; creating an old-fashioned cocktail from scratch really is that easy. This classic drink has been served since the mid-1800s and is as popular today as it was back then. There are many ways to adjust this recipe, too. Follow an original, simplified approach, incorporate one of the modern twists, or personalize it to your taste or the whiskey you're pouring at the moment.
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If you browse any number of classic bartending guides, you will notice that sour drinks were trendy back in the day. These were simple mixes that found the perfect balance of sweet and sour.
The sidecar is among the most famous sours. A classic brandy cocktail, some people prefer to pour whiskey instead. This one may have come from the World War I era, and you can think of it as a margarita for brandy.
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It's interesting that Embury included the jack rose in his basic cocktails list. It's certainly not as well-known today as other drinks he could have chosen. He notes that if apple brandy were aged longer, it would be just as popular as grape brandy. Embury's dreams didn't come true because the quality of most apple brandy actually declined in the decades since.
The jack rose is a pink sidecar that uses applejack and grenadine as the sweetener. The key to finding a good apple brandy today is to seek out true brandy distilled from apples. Many of the cheaper options are sweetened and more like liqueurs.
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Everyone has heard of the margarita, and, like the martini, it now comes in nearly every color and flavor imaginable. The classic recipe is far simpler than many of its modern variations, and there's no need to dust off the blender.
The traditional margarita is served up and composed simply of tequila, triple sec, and lime juice. If you really want to appreciate tequila, take a moment to enjoy the original margarita.Continue to 9 of 27 below.
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Whiskey has its own sour recipe, and it's just as easy and invigorating as any other. Like the sidecar, it uses lemon for the tart taste, though this recipe prefers simple syrup over an orange liqueur as the sweetener.
The whiskey sour is the ideal venue for your favorite whiskey and an excellent way to sample new brands. If you want to give it a luscious mouthfeel, shake an egg white into the mix.
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The mint julep is the drink of the Kentucky Derby and one of the best-known bourbon cocktails ever created. Like the old-fashioned, this drink requires muddling—in this case, mint and simple syrup—and features your favorite bourbon.
How long has the mint julep been around? Cocktail historian David Wondrich traced it to the American Revolution. The details are in the second edition of his book, "Imbibe!" and this revelation may make the julep the oldest cocktail.
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If rum is more your style, use your muddler to mix up a refreshing mojito. This classic drink is much like the julep, and it's been enjoyed by rum fans since before Prohibition.
The mojito is easy to make, and everyone puts their own spin on it. However you go about it, it's hard to resist that tempting combination of muddled lime and mint on a hot summer day.
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Straight from the pages of the first bartending guide, the Tom Collins is one of the few highballs among the must-have classics. It's a great way to show off your favorite gin in a refreshing mixed drink.
Traditionally made with an old style of gin like Old Tom, Plymouth, or genever, this drink can be poured with any gin you like. If you prefer, the collins family of drinks includes whiskey, vodka, tequila, and rum options.Continue to 13 of 27 below.
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The Martinez is at the top of the list for great gin cocktails. This classic actually predates the martini and is often thought to be the grandfather of its more famous counterpart.
The Martinez is incredibly simple, and if the martini is too dry for your taste, this is a recipe you'll want to try. It combines a premium gin with sweet vermouth and maraschino liqueur, giving it a deep, semi-sweet flavor with just a hint of cherry.
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The brandy cocktail is a perfect example of the original cocktails. "The Balance and Columbian Repository" of 1806 defined a cocktail as "...a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters."
In the early days of the bar, you would order a "cocktail" by the spirit—for instance, a brandy cocktail, whiskey cocktail, or gin cocktail—using a liquor, orange liqueur, and bitters formula. The brandy version is a nice introduction to this classic mix.
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The daisy family is is another classic cocktail formula in which you can change up the base spirit. While you might enjoy a whiskey or gin daisy, the brandy daisy remains a favorite.
Brandy is, of course, the centerpiece of the recipe, though this one adds a hint of rum. In classic daisy form, you'll also pour curaçao, simple syrup, and lemon juice before topping it with soda.
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Cobblers are late 19th-century cocktails designed to show off the best fruits of the season, and the alcohol can be anything you like. While brandy and whiskey are good choices, there's something magical about the sherry cobbler.
For this classic, you'll shake a few orange slices with simple syrup and a four-ounce pour of sherry. That double shot might be too strong with liquors, but it's an excellent amount of the lighter fortified wine. Serve it with crushed ice, and go all out on the garnishes. You'll also need a straw; in fact, cobblers were among the first drinks to use the now-essential drink accessory.Continue to 17 of 27 below.
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The Sazerac is a drink that everyone should try at least once because it is an enthralling drink. It is one of the famous cocktails created in New Orleans and became the city's official cocktail in 2008.
This classic has been scrutinized and perfected, and you'll find several tips for improving the cocktail. The best Sazerac experiences happen when the drink finds a balance between the spicy rye whiskey and absinthe.
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New Orleans Fizz
The New Orleans fizz (or Ramos gin fizz) dates back to the "Golden Age" of cocktails. It was so popular that during the 1915 Mardi Gras celebration, 35 shaker boys worked at one time to fill orders at the creator's bar.
The fizz is a popular style of drink, and this recipe is a great introduction to the rich, creamy, frothy qualities that eggs bring to cocktails. The goal with this one is to shake it to a thickness that makes a straw stand up straight.
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One fizz that is often overlooked—but definitely shouldn't be—is the Chicago fizz. It's a fascinating pre-Prohibition cocktail with a ton of character and style, and it can easily become a favorite for any drinker.
The dark rum and ruby port foundation is enhanced with fresh lemon juice, sugar, egg white, and soda. As with most egg cocktails, it's best to dry shake it, then add ice and shake again as long as you can.
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Corpse Reviver No. 2
The early bar had a series of cocktails that came to be known as corpse revivers. Crafty bartenders designed them to help their ailing patrons come back to life after a night of too much revelry.
Many of those original recipes are largely forgotten, but a few have held on through the years, and the corpse reviver no. 2 is the most popular survivor. It's ideal when you want a complex and exquisite gin cocktail.Continue to 21 of 27 below.
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Hints of sour drinks make an appearance in one of the best-known Champagne cocktails. This recipe was inspired by the French military and brought home by American servicemen after World War I.
The French 75 is as delightful as it is simple. The recipe combines gin, simple syrup, and lemon juice for a classic sour base. It's when the sparkling wine hits this mix that things really begin to glisten.
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Many classic cocktails were designed as apéritifs to be savored before a meal. Among the best of these are recipes that feature the unforgettable Italian bitter known as Campari.
The Negroni is arguably the most famous of all Campari cocktails. This modest mix of equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth has made fine dining even finer since the 1920s.
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If you think that yummy, creamy cocktails are a modern infatuation, you haven't met the Alexander. You might call this the grandfather of all those tempting chocolate martinis, though this recipe is definitely a classic.
Originally a gin cocktail, the mix of crème de cacao and cream was eventually dominated by brandy. Today, you can enjoy the delicious brandy Alexander along with any dinner dessert and get a blast from the past.
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There is a lack of fruity drinks among the classics and most stick to lemon or lime juice accents. That makes a recipe like the Bronx cocktail a little more unusual and special within the lexicon of old-fashioned drinks.
The easiest way to remember the Bronx cocktail recipe is to think of it as a perfect martini with orange juice. It's an amazing blend of flavors, and it's interesting to note that the bartender who created it didn't drink himself.Continue to 25 of 27 below.
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Blood and Sand
Scotch appears in several classic drinks, and the blood and sand is one of the more interesting recipes. It was created sometime after 1922 and has gained a renewed interest among modern drinkers.
Think of this recipe as an enhanced Rob Roy. It maintains the scotch and sweet vermouth but adds cherry brandy and orange juice to the mix. The four ingredients are poured equally, so it's also easy to remember.
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Monkey Gland Cocktail
Definitely among the more obscure cocktails, you'll be forgiven if you have yet to taste a monkey gland cocktail. However, this drink offers a fascinating taste experience that will be worth your time.
Before shaking the drink, the glass is rinsed with absinthe, and that's what makes this cocktail special. That subtle kick of anise is fabulous against the combination of gin, orange juice, and just a hint of sweet grenadine.
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The gimlet has been around since the late 1800s. It originally used Rose's Lime Cordial, and that has been the drink's go-to sweetened (or "preserved") lime juice ever since. However, with a cocktail this old and famous, it has been remade countless times and begs to be adapted to your taste. You can adjust the ratio of gin to lime cordial, mix up a vodka gimlet, make your own lime cordial, switch to lime and simple syrup, shake it, or serve it on the rocks.
Wait... Where's the Vodka?
You may have noticed that there is not a single vodka cocktail on this list, and there is an excellent reason for that.
The bar grew up in America, and early bartenders did not use vodka like we do today. In fact, many of them may not have even heard of it. Vodka did not become a hit in America until the 1930s, and 40's when drinks like the white Russian, vodka tonic, and Moscow mule hit the bar scene. Even then, it took a few decades before vodka became very popular.
Brandy, gin, rum, and whiskey were the base liquors of the original bar. Even tequila was not widely available, and the margarita (dating to around 1938) was not common outside of areas near Mexico unless a tourist brought the idea of the drink home.