Bartender's Guide to the Most Popular Bar Drinks

Essential Cocktail and Mixed Drink Recipes

Bar cocktails
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Cocktail and mixed drink recipes are everywhere and there are thousands you can choose from and mix up. When you're just starting out, it's best to begin with the most popular bar drinks.

Learn Basic Drink Recipes

These basic recipes are perfect for bartenders who want to learn the cocktails and mixed drinks your customers are most likely to order. They're also essential if you want to mix up favorite drinks in your bar or kitchen at home.

The list includes the highballs, lowballs, martinis, tropical drinks, and shots that have been favorites at bars and cocktail lounges for years. Most are very easy to mix up and are the perfect way to get some practice behind the bar.

Tall, Refreshing Highball Drinks

Highballs are tall, simple mixed drinks that are easy to remember and the easiest to mix up. They're the refreshing drinks that are a hit at happy hour and a perfect way to begin your bartending experience.

Generally, highballs are mixed in an ice-filled highball or collins glass with a shot of a base spirit that is topped with a mixer or two, such as juice or soda. Essentially, these are "pour and serve" drinks. They are good practice for familiarizing yourself with the basics of pouring drinks as well as the primary ingredients and the layout of the bar.

Vodka Tonic
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Vodka Highballs

Vodka is the most used liquor in the bar and you will find it in the majority of drink recipes. These include recipes like the bloody Mary. With this one, you can make it from scratch every time or with a spiced tomato juice mix you make in advance—a popular shortcut often seen in bars.

Vodka is also often mixed with a single fruit juice. The Cape Codder (cranberry juice—aka Vodka Cranberry), greyhound (grapefruit juice), and screwdriver (orange juice) are three essential mixed drinks you should know.

If you'd like to get a little more complex, add a second juice and create one of these:

A few simple vodka and soda drinks should also be on your radar. The hottest of the lot are the Moscow mule (ginger beer) and vodka tonic (tonic water). 

To round off your vodka highball experience, be sure to add these drinks to your list:

Whiskey Highballs

Most of the volume of a highball drink is made up of the non-alcoholic mixer and that creates drinks which are relatively light on the alcohol. This makes the highball style a great way to enjoy your whiskey without the heavy buzz.

There is, of course, the basic highball drink, which mixes your favorite whiskey with ginger ale. You will also encounter these whiskey and soda highballs:

The collins family of drinks uses a simple highball drink formula. The whiskey version is known as the John Collins, a mix of bourbon, lemon, syrup, and club soda. You can also switch from whiskey to gin and have a Tom Collins or use any variety of liquor as the base to create a variation on the collins.

The Lynchburg lemonade is the last of the essential whiskey highballs and it's a bit more complex than Jack and lemonade. To make a proper Lynchburg Lemonade, mix Jack Daniel's with triple sec, sour mix, and lemon-lime soda.


Watch Now: 4 Essential Whiskey Cocktails

Gin Highballs

The most common way to enjoy gin at the most bars and restaurants is as a highball. Among these, the famous gin and tonic (G&T) takes top honors. It's a nice, relaxing drink that's fantastic with any meal.

Building on the G&T's popularity, it's also a good idea to be able to mix up any of these gin highballs:

Rum Highballs

Rum is frequently poured in bars and the rum and Coke is among the most common drink orders. It's a very easy drink to make and a great option when you simply don't know what you want.

To add a little more spice to the rum-soda routine, give the dark and stormy a try. It replaces the cola with ginger beer and is rum's answer to the Moscow mule.

Tequila Highballs

Tequila makes an appearance in a handful of highballs. The best-known is the tequila sunrise (orange juice and grenadine). A refreshing alternative is the Paloma (lime and grapefruit soda) and you can also make a Juan Collins.

Other Highballs

There are a few popular tall drinks that are a little more complicated but key to rounding off your bartending knowledge in this category:

  • Black and Tan: A layered beer drink of Guinness Stout and pale ale beer.
  • Long Island Iced Tea: The famous bar drink that's made from five liquors (and no tea).
  • Smith and Kearns: It's not as hot as it once was, but it is a tasty throwback drink of coffee liqueur, cream, and club soda.

Lowball Drinks

Easy to memorize, lowballs are often served on the rocks. These are just as easy to create as the highballs, often pairing a liquor with one or two mixers. They get their name because they're served in a lowball, rocks, or old-fashioned, glass and ice is almost always involved.

Unlike highballs, these mixed drinks tend to include a liqueur like amaretto or coffee for extra flavor. Due to the lower volume and additional alcohol, you will also find these to be just a bit stronger, but it's not significant and they're meant to be sipped slowly. 

Memorizing most of these drinks should be quite easy because many are related to one another. With a simple switch of ingredients or an addition here and there, a new drink is created.

White Russian
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Kahlua On the Rocks 

Kahlua is, of course, not the only coffee liqueur, but it is among the most popular in the bar. It is the brand that many drinkers associate with drinks like the vodka-based black Russian. The coffee flavor also lends itself to the addition of cream, creating the white Russian.

These two mixed drinks form the foundation for a variety of other recipes:

  • Mudslide: Pour Irish cream into the vodka-coffee mix.
  • Colorado Bulldog: Top your white Russian with cola.
  • Dirty Mother: Switch to brandy; adding cream makes a dirty white mother.
  • Brave Bull: Switch the black Russian's vodka to tequila.

Amaretto On The Rocks

Right behind coffee liqueur comes amaretto in popularity when it comes to delicious lowballs. This collection begins with the toasted almond, a simple mix of amaretto and coffee liqueurs with cream. You can add vodka and you'll have a roasted toasted almond.

If you would simply like to enjoy vodka and amaretto, you would have a godmother. Pour scotch instead and a godfather is yours to enjoy. Should you switch to cognac, you would have a French connection.

More Casual Lowballs

If you're looking for a delicious and easy mixed drink to serve on a moment's notice, the nutty Irishman is a fantastic option. It is a flavorful mix of Irish whiskey, Irish cream, and Frangelico and there are a few ways to serve it.

For something considerably sweeter, the peppermint patty has long been a hit and many bartenders have their own take on this mint-chocolate sipper. Should something fruity sound good, give the nuts and berries (Frangelico, Chambord, and cream) a try.

For drinkers who want something short and flavorful without the sweetness, the surfer on acid is an excellent choice. The mix of coconut rum, Jagermeister, and pineapple juice is always hit.

Stick Drinks

The following drinks are in a category of their own; they are "stick drinks." Essentially, this means that they a muddler to mix a few of the ingredients. It's a slightly more advanced bartending skill, though it's really easy once you get the hang of it. These drinks are typically served over ice and can be either tall or short. 

Shot Recipes

Party shots come and go, though a few remain favorites and are drinks everyone should know. This is where things get very crazy because shooter recipes can vary greatly for the same drinks and there are many local favorites.

Some bars will serve a lot of shots on high-traffic party nights. They're hot with the younger crowd and they don't always know what they want. This means that a bartender should be on the ball and have a good list of shots memorized.

Pickleback Shooter
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Tequila Shots

There are many ways to take a shot of tequila. You can drink it straight or do the customary tequila shot with salt and a lemon or lime. You might also want to serve up the two-part shot known as a sangrita, which can be made in two entirely different ways.

Tequila shots are fun and here are a few more ways to spice it up:

Whiskey Shots

Yes, you can simply take a straight shot of whiskey, but where's the fun in that? 

Whiskey shooters are often a bit more interactive. You might try a two-part drink like the popular pickleback (Jameson's Irish Whiskey, pickle juice), for instance. The dropped shots, such as the Irish car bomb (Irish whiskey, Irish cream liqueur, Guinness) or the Boilermaker (blended whiskey, draft beer) are also quite popular.

The fun does not stop there and if you're pouring whiskey, you should really try some of these popular shots:

Vodka Shots

Vodka frequently makes it into a shot glass as well and these shooters are some of the most flavorful of the tiny, quick drinks. Among the longtime favorites are the interactive lemon drop (lemon wedge, sugar) and mind eraser (coffee liqueur, soda).

You will also find requests for the tart kamikaze (orange liqueur, lime juice) and the surprising chocolate cake (hazelnut liqueur, lemon). On the fruitier side, the melon ball (melon liqueur, pineapple juice) and purple hooter (black raspberry liqueur, lime juice) are hits as well.

Layered Shots

You can really show off your bartending skills if you learn how to create layered shooters like the popular B-52 (coffee liqueur, Irish cream liqueur, orange liqueur). There's a bit of a trick to it, but it's definitely worth practicing and it's all about the order of the pour. These recipes should give you plenty of practice:

The Weird and Wacky Shots

We're all adults here and if you get offended easily, bar shooters are not the drinks for you. Racy names like the blow job (Baileys Irish Cream, amaretto) and orgasm (Irish cream liqueur, amaretto liqueur, coffee liqueur) are par for the course in the bar.

They're actually tasty little drinks, as is the redheaded slut (Jägermeister, peach schnapps, cranberry juice). Yet, those like the cement mixer (Baileys Irish Cream, lime juice) are what you might call gag shots (and that has a dual meaning) which you can mix up or order for a friend.

Bartenders and party hosts may also want to know these very popular shots:

On the Martini Menu

Not every bar will serve martinis and other fancy drinks, though they are good to know.

There are many cocktails that are generally accepted as "martinis" though it's also important to note that there is only one true martini (gin and dry vermouth). These are the drinks that you will spot on martini menus and they are a bit more involved when it comes to mixing.

"Martinis"' (or more appropriately, "up" drinks) are normally served in a chilled cocktail glass, yet some can be served on the rocks in an old-fashioned glass. They are either shaken or stirred in a cocktail shaker then strained into the serving glass. It's really not that hard, it simply requires a few extra steps.

While these are considered essential for bartenders, the exact recipes do not always agree. Some bars have their own recipes and many bartenders will add their own twist as well. However, these recipes will give you a good idea of where to start.

Dry Martini
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The Complexity of Ordering a Martini 

Ordering or serving a gin or vodka martini is not as simple as some other drinks. Everyone has their personal preference and it's very important that you find out how the person you're mixing for likes theirs:

  1. Liquor preference (often specific brands)
  2. Garnish preference (olives, lemon twist, etc.)
  3. Shaken or Stirred
  4. Dry, Dirty, or Perfect

You might come across someone who enjoys a perfect martini with equal parts of sweet and dry vermouth. Another person may enjoy a dirty martini with a small amount of olive brine. Others may like theirs in one of these ways:

  • Dry Martini: 1/2 the amount of dry vermouth
  • Extra Dry Martini: couple of drops of dry vermouth
  • Bone Dry Martini (Desert Martini): no vermouth

You can even use cocktail onions to create a Gibson. Optionally, you can create the martinez (sweet vermouth, maraschino, bitters) which is known as the grandfather of the martini.

When it comes to gin-based martinis, you will find that these cocktails are nice to know as well:

Vodka Martinis

Vodka dominates the modern martini menu and there are thousands of recipes to choose from. Unlike gin, vodka martinis tend to be filled with a variety of flavors, from the sweet chocolate martinis to the fruity apple martinis. This is also where it gets complicated because few recipes for the same drink are the same.

The most famous vodka martini is the cosmopolitan. It's a cocktail that can be as sweet or dry as you like. What everyone does agree on is that the drink includes orange liqueur and cranberry juice.

From there, you can mix up fruity martinis like the kamikaze (lime juice, triple sec) and lemon drop martini (lemon juice, simple syrup). You might also find a woo woo (peach schnapps, cranberry juice) and key lime pie martini (vanilla vodka, triple sec, pineapple juice, lime cordial) on a number of today's menus.

Vodka martinis come in many flavors and among the most popular are:

Whiskey Manhattans

When you switch from gin to whiskey, you step from the world of martinis into the realm of the popular Manhattan. Again, this cocktail can be served dry or perfect, though sweet vermouth is the preference in the original recipe.

Building off of that whiskey drink, you can switch to brandy for a metropolitan or scotch for a Rob Roy. Add absinthe to that for the classic Robert Burns. Should you wish to turn back to rye whiskey and keep the absinthe, you will have a Waldorf.

Whiskey also gets some extra flavor at times and you can mix up these popular cocktails as well:

  • Algonquin: rye whiskey, dry vermouth, pineapple juice
  • Blood and Sand: scotch, cherry brandy, sweet vermouth, orange juice
  • Millionaire: curaçao, raspberry liqueur, grenadine, egg

Brandy Cocktails

Brandy doesn't make many appearances in the average bar, but when we step it up in style, this spirit is a natural choice. It often begins with something as simple and sophisticated as the B&B, a snifter of brandy and Benedictine. The brandy Alexander (chocolate liqueur, cream) also makes a regular appearance. 

Depending on the bar, you might also find one of the corpse reviver recipes or a sidecar or two. This is particularly true for those establishments interested in reviving classic cocktails.

More Classic Cocktails

Included on many of today's cocktail menus are those that are true classic cocktails but do not fall into the "martini" category. Some of these are served 'up' and others are on the rocks.

At the top of this class of drinks are bar icons like the rusty nail (scotch, Drambuie). It is often accompanied by the New Orleans fizz (gin, citrus, cream, egg), the Sazerac (rye whiskey, absinthe), and the vieux carre (rye whiskey, Cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine), all of which are New Orleans originals. 

Sour drinks like the whiskey sour (whiskey, lemon juice, syrup) have long been favorites as well. You might choose to sweeten it with grenadine in a Ward Eight or with Grand Marnier in the whiskey daisy. Then again, you can get a little exotic and mix up the popular pisco sour.

Campari-based cocktails are also quite famous. They are best served before a meal and can often be found at high-end restaurants:

Popular Tropical Cocktails and the Tiki Bar

Rum and tequila make up the majority of tropical cocktails. These are popular in bars and make great summertime drinks at home.

Claire Cohen

Margaritas, Daiquiris, and More

The truth is that the margarita and daiquiri are not difficult to make from scratch. Each cocktail requires just three basic ingredients that are found in any bar and they have inspired countless other cocktails that have taken on the names.

How easy are the margarita and daiquiri? It's as simple as shaking these ingredients:

From there, you can add any flavor you like to create the likes of a strawberry daiquiri or a pomegranate margarita. They can also be served on the rocks, straight, or blended and with or without a salt or sugar rim.

Once you have an understanding of those two cocktails, you can build on the tropical sour base. Mix up great cocktails like the cable car (Captain Morgan, curaçao, sour mix), Pegu Club cocktail (gin, orange liqueur, lime juice), and between the sheets (brandy, rum, triple sec, lemon juice).

Tropical Fruit Cocktails

The famous piña colada is another must-have. It's a delicious mix of rum, pineapple juice, and cream of coconut that can be blended or shaken.

You will also want to know the fruity vodka drink known as the sex on the beach because it's perfect for those "I don't know what I want" moments. The New Orleans classic, hurricane, is a rum option that falls into this category as well.

Tiki Bar Cocktails

If you're ready to join the tiki scene, there are a number of famous tiki cocktails that you will want to know. These recipes can become very complex and the ingredient lists quite long. However, they are essential in tiki bars and it's important to realize that rarely will you find two recipes that are the same.

  • Bahama Mama: dark and high-proof rums, coffee and coconut liqueurs, lemon and pineapple juices
  • Blue Hawaiian: rum, blue curacao, creme de coconut, pineapple juice
  • Mai Tai: light and dark rums, curacao, orgeat
  • Rum Runner: rum, blackberry brandy, banana liqueur, orange juice

Essential Non-Alcoholic Bar Drinks

While the majority of people in the bar are going to want to drink alcohol, not everyone will. It is important to have a few non-alcoholic mixed drinks (or mocktails) in your memory bank.

Mocktails are great for designated drivers, pregnant women, and other non-drinkers. You can also use these as an alternative suggestion for patrons that may need a break from alcohol. It's nice to offer one or two options if you're hosting a party as well.

Shirley temple
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The Essential Mocktails

Among the most popular drinks in this category are the famous Arnold Palmer (lemonade, iced tea) and the Shirley Temple (grenadine, ginger ale, lemon-lime soda). Every bartender and waitress should know these and customers should be able to order them at any bar or restaurant.

For casual bar drinks, the lime and tonic (splash of lime juice topped with tonic water) and lime cola (lime juice, cola) are nice as well. The classic Roy Rogers (grenadine, cola) is sometimes called a homemade Cherry Coke in the bar and every sports bar should know that a virgin Mary is a bloody Mary without the liquor.

If you're looking for more options, give one of these tasty drinks a try: