Bartender's Guide to the Most Popular Bar Drinks

Essential Cocktail and Mixed Drink Recipes

Bar cocktails
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There are thousands of cocktail and mixed drink recipes you can choose from and mix up. A great place to start is with the most popular bar drinks. These basic recipes are perfect for bartenders who want to learn the drinks 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 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 make. 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.

Vodka Tonic Garnished With a Lime Wedge
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Vodka Highballs

Vodka is the most used liquor in the bar and the star of recipes like the bloody Mary, Moscow mule (ginger beer), and vodka tonic (tonic water).

It's 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 vodka drinks. Adding to the cranberry juice, bring in a second fruit to create the bay breeze (pineapple), madras (orange), and sea breeze (grapefruit).

To round off the vodka highball essentials, learn these recipes:

Whiskey Highballs

Most of the volume of a highball drink is made up of the nonalcoholic mixer, and that creates drinks that are relatively light on the alcohol. This makes the highball style a great way to enjoy your whiskey without the heavy buzz, and soda is the most popular mixer for whiskey:

The collins family of drinks uses a simple highball drink formula. The whiskey version is 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.

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Watch Now: 4 Essential Whiskey Cocktails

Gin Highballs

The most common way to enjoy gin at 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 a good idea to be able to mix up 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) and the paloma (lime and grapefruit soda).

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

Just as easy to memorize, lowballs pair a liquor with one or two mixers. These short drinks are served in a lowball, rocks, or old-fashioned glass, and ice is almost always involved.

Lowballs tend to include a liqueur, such as amaretto or coffee liqueur 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
The Spruce

Kahlua On the Rocks 

Kahlua is not the only coffee liqueur, but it is the most popular in the bar. It is the brand that many drinkers associate with drinks like the vodka-based black Russian and its creamy companion, the white Russian.

These two mixed drinks form the foundation for other recipes:

Amaretto On The Rocks

When it comes to delicious lowballs, amaretto falls right behind coffee liqueur comes amaretto in popularity. This collection begins with the toasted almond, a simple mix of amaretto and coffee liqueurs with cream.; add vodka for a roasted, toasted almond.

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 is a favorite. 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, Jägermeister, and pineapple juice is always hit.

Stick Drinks

Caipirinha Cocktail
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A category of their own, "stick drinks" require a muddler to mix a few of the ingredients. It's a slightly more advanced bartending skill, though it's 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. This is where things get very crazy because shooter recipes can vary greatly for the same drinks, and there are many local favorites.

Pickleback Shot
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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.

Whiskey Shots

Whiskey shooters are often a bit more interactive than a straight shot of whiskey. Try a two-part drink like the popular pickleback (Jameson's Irish Whiskey, pickle juice), for instance. The dropped shots, such as the Irish slammer (formerly the Irish car bomb) 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. 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 raspberry gimlet (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

Drinking alcohol is an adult pastime, so many shots come with names that are anything but PG. It was much worse a few decades ago when suggestive, rude, or otherwise offensive names were par for the course in the bar. Since then, many have been renamed, including the fuzzy Jäger cranberry (Jägermeister, peach schnapps, cranberry juice). Quite a few are actually tasty drinks, while others are simply a powerful mix.

On the Martini Menu

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 require a bit more mixing and attention to presentation.

"Martinis"' (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 and many should be adapted to personal taste. However, these 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

Many people enjoy a perfect martini with equal parts of sweet and dry vermouth, while others enjoy a dirty martini with a small amount of olive brine. You can even use cocktail onions to create a Gibson. Optionally, you can create the martinez (sweet vermouth, maraschino, bitters), which is 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. 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 there are many variations for the same drink.

The most famous vodka martini is the cosmopolitan. Made with orange liqueur and cranberry juice, it's a cocktail that can be as sweet or dry as you like. From there, vodka martinis come in many flavors:

Whiskey Manhattans

When you switch from gin to whiskey, you step from the world of martinis into the realm of the 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. Pour rye whiskey and keep the absinthe, and 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

Classic Cocktails

Classic cocktails are often featured on today's cocktail menus, and some of the best don't fall into the "martini" category. A few are served "up" and others are on the rocks.

Rusty Nail
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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 Carré (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. Add a red wine float, and it's a New York Sour. You might choose to sweeten it with grenadine in a Ward Eight or with Grand Marnier in the whiskey daisy. Then again, you can swap the liquor and mix up the popular pisco sour or easy-drinking gin sour.

Brandy doesn't make many appearances in the average bar, but it's a natural choice for simple and sophisticated drinks like the B&B, a snifter of brandy and Benedictine. The brandy Alexander (chocolate liqueur, cream) is also a favorite, as is the sidecar

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.

Margarita
Claire Cohen

Margaritas, Daiquiris, and More

The truth is that neither the margarita and daiquiri are 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 include 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 bar scene, there are a number of famous tiki cocktails to explore. These recipes can become very complex and the ingredient lists quite long and you will 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 curaçao, creme de coconut, pineapple juice
  • Mai Tai: light and dark rums, curaçao, orgeat
  • Rum Runner: rum, blackberry brandy, banana liqueur, orange juice

Non-Alcoholic Bar Drinks

While the majority of people in the bar 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
The Spruce

Among the most popular drinks in this category are the 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, and every sports bar should know that a virgin mary is a bloody mary without the liquor.