Once you have acquired the necessary tools for making cocktails at home, you will be eager to begin mixing drinks. As with most things worth doing, practice is essential. Fortunately, learning to make cocktails is a pleasurable experience. I recommend beginning by making drinks for yourself, maybe for one or two close and understanding friends. As you build confidence, you can then begin sharing your skills with a broader audience.
I recommend beginning by brushing up on some basic cocktail techniques, including shaking, stirring, and muddling. There are many excellent videos that show these techniques, such as this series by Bols Cocktails. As you begin, remember the two most important rules: first, measure out your drinks, as proportion is everything, and, second, use the highest quality ingredients that you can afford.
But which drinks should you attempt to make first? Cocktail lists can be quite intimidating and at times esoteric. However, most drinks are simply variations on a few basic concepts. Once you understand those concepts, you can expand your repertoire quite rapidly, preferably with the help of a cocktail guide. In the final section of this essay, I offer a list of excellent cocktail guides, all of which will help you develop your skills.
In this article, I briefly profile 10 classic and essential cocktails that I would recommend to the beginning home bartender. This list reflects several criteria. First, I have chosen cocktails that highlight the spirit and yet are open to variation. Second, I’ve sought to highlight drinks with a significant heritage or history. Finally, these drinks, as a whole, introduce you to a wide variety of skills, which, eventually, you will use to make many other fine cocktails. In each entry I give a brief explanation of the drink’s significance, and share further resources, including links to traditional recipes.
I list these two classic and complex cocktails together, as the concept behind both is relatively similar. Both drinks have a long and illustrious history, dating back at least to the mid-19th century, well before James Bond introduced “shaken, not stirred” to popular culture. Both blend a large proportion of base spirit (whiskey and gin, respectively) with vermouth. The Manhattan also requires bitters. Each can also be transformed by the specific garnished used, whether an orange twist or maraschino cherry with the Manhattan or, in the case of the Martini, a lemon twist or olive.
Within that relatively simple combination, however, an almost infinite degree of variation is possible, which makes it easy to manipulate the flavor profile. As simple as these drinks are in concept, the execution can be rather challenging, largely because of the many subtle effects possible with each ingredient.
Esquire magazine recently published an excellent guide to making a proper Manhattan, while the following video offers a nice demonstration of the Martini.
Gin and Tonic
The Gin and Tonic may be the best known example of the highball, which is a drink with one spirit and one mixer. Despite its simplicity (gin, tonic, and a lime wedge served over ice) and ubiquity, the Gin and Tonic clearly illustrates how the combination of sweet, bitter, and spirit can produce remarkable flavor effects. Tonic, when used in the right proportions, can highlight different aspects of the gin, making visible the character of the spirit.
I also include the Gin and Tonic due to its unique history. Tonic contains quinine, which was given to British colonial soldiers as a treatment for malaria. The soldiers began mixing it with gin to make it more palatable, and the concoction took on a life of its own.
For added complexity and flavor, I highly recommend the St. Germaine Gin and Tonic.
Despite its recent association with smoothie machines, sweet and sour mix, and spring break parties, the margarita has the potential to be an excellent cocktail. It is an example of the “sour” family of drinks, which includes the whiskey sour and the daiquiri. It is worth noting that many sours were originally served with egg whites, which makes for a smoother texture and consistency. An egg white can be a nice addition to a whiskey sour, but I wouldn’t include it in a margarita.
The quality of your ingredients is essential in any cocktail, but of particular importance when making a good margarita. Do not use pre-bottled mixes. Instead, squeeze fresh lime juice and sweeten it with triple sec. I occasionally use agave nectar as an additional sweetener.
The Wall Street Journal has published a nice overview of the margarita, with a basic recipe and several variations.
David Wondrich reports in Imbibe! that the name “Old Fashioned” emerged in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to the development of more complex mid-nineteenth-century cocktail culture. The Old Fashioned has undergone something of a revival in recent years, and you will find it properly made on the menu of many bars and restaurants. I find it an easy drink to perfect at home, unlike the more challenging Manhattan and Martini.
Today, the Old Fashioned may be the simplest way to accentuate bourbon or rye whiskey. It also allows you to practice your muddling technique, as shown in this video.
Like the Gin and Tonic, the Rum Punch is an example of a long drink, namely a beverage with a somewhat large amount of mixture, in contrast to a short drink, like the Manhattan. The classic rum punch is a traditional way to highlight rum, and comes in many variations. It’s an easy choice for hosting a large crowd during the summer months. Additionally, punches have a very long history, predating the cocktail by several centuries, so knowing how to craft a good punch shows your appreciation of the past.
Rum punches go by many names, often called a Planters Punch or Bajan Rum Punch. The traditional recipe has been handed down in the form of a rhyme: “One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak.” Kingsley Amis, the British novelist and author of Everyday Drinking, was never a slave to fashion nor tradition. He preferred a revised, slightly bolder version: one sweet, two sour, three weak, four strong.
Here is a recipe, as well as an explanation of the poem.
By adding champagne or sparkling wine to a spirits, you create a drink light, welcoming, and yet sophisticated. Since they are typically served in a flute, a champagne cocktail is also visually appealing. There are many variations, some of them quite simple, and yet effective, so I encourage you to experiment with different recipes.
One of the most famous is the French 75, purportedly named after an artillery weapon used in World War I, calling for gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and champagne. If you prefer bourbon, I highly recommend the Seelbach cocktail, named for the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.
Corpse Reviver #2
This gin-based cocktail is somewhat more obscure than the others on this list, but I include it as an excellent example of the use of a wash, in this case absinthe. A wash is the technique of using a spirit to lightly coat the glassware or, in some cases, the ice in a shaker. The result is a hint of flavor or an aromatic that infuses the other ingredients. Absinthe, with its strong anise and herbal nose, makes a particularly fine wash, and is an essential ingredient in the Sazerac (another drink I recommend that you learn how to make). With the reintroduction of quality absinthe into US markets, many of these traditional recipes have, thankfully, themselves been revived.
I’m also personally fond of this drink, both in name and flavor. A brief history and recipe are offered on Post Prohibition, an excellent web resource for exploring cocktails.
While we are on the subject of reviving the human spirits, it is worth remembering that for many years alcohol was used for medicinal as well as recreational purposes. Indeed, one of the legal ways to purchase whiskey during prohibition was through a doctor’s prescription. The hot toddy, typically made with honey, lemon juice, and hot water or tea, can be something of an extension of those soothing purposes, and is particularly comforting when one is suffering from a cold.
As with the champagne cocktail, there are many variations, and the drink can be made using rum, brandy, or whiskey. I include it on this list because it is an instance of a hot drink, best served during the winter months, as well as an echo of older traditions in cocktail culture. David Wondrich points out that before ice became widely available in the late 19th century, hot beverages were quite common. Thus, making the humble toddy connects you to a grand tradition of mixing drinks.
The Guardian has published a nice overview of the drink, with several recipes.
The Sidecar is a simple yet compelling drink, a classic example of a prohibition-era cocktail. It provides a particularly nice contrast to the whiskey and gin drinks that tend to dominate many cocktail lists (including this one!). Finally, I include it as a chance to experiment with triple sec (of which Cointreau is the most famous brand), an important and versatile ingredient featured in many cocktails.
Here is a longer introduction to the Sidecar, as well as a recipe.
I end with an example of a drink that has been made famous by an occasion, in this case the Kentucky Derby. The julep is worth mastering for two other important reasons. First, the drink calls for crushed ice, which illustrates an important cocktail principle: the manipulation of ice can have a significant effect on a drink. Second, the mint julep demonstrates the value of fresh herbs; the mint, in this case, gives the cocktail its signature aroma.
Although this recipe calls for simple syrup, I typically use raw sugar in my juleps, as the abrasiveness of the sugar helps bring out the oils of the mint. I would also recommend using more mint as a garnish.
With the Help of a Cocktail Guide, Make Your own List
Undoubtedly, a list such as this one leaves out many important drinks, and other home cocktail enthusiasts might encourage you to begin with a different set of recipes. However, all of these drinks have stood the test of time, and, just as importantly, each drink allows you to develop a different set of skills. I encourage you to get comfortable with these cocktails, and then, with the help of a good cocktail guide, begin making a list of your own. Here are ten great guides, all of which are full of helpful information.
Title Author Must/Nice/Niche
The Craft of the Cocktail Dale DeGroff Must Have
Difford's Encyclopedia of Cocktails Simon Difford Must Have
Killer Cocktails David Wondrich Must Have
The PDT Cocktail Book Jim Meehan Nice to Have
Speakeasy Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric Nice to Have
The Modern Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim Nice to Have
The Joy of Mixology Gary Regan Nice to Have
Mr. Boston Official Bartenders Guide Jonathan Pogash and Rick Rodgers Nice to Have
The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks David Embury Niche, but excellent
The Savoy Cocktail Book Harry Craddock Niche
As you read and experiment, feel free to add other essential recipes in the comments section. Cheers!