The 7 essential cocktails every drinker should know how to make

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Whenever I entertain friends at my place, I wonder if one of them might challenge me — or rather, challenge my booze collection — by asking for a drink they’ve never had before. Will someone give me a reason to use that bottle of crème de violette I bought a decade ago and have only used 2 ounces of, or ask me to make something with that weird amaro hidden on the lower shelf? Maybe they’ll want a Missionary’s Downfall or a Flor de Jerez or an Alamagoozlum, a drink I have never made but really enjoy saying out loud.

It never happens. Even my fellow cocktail-geek friends don’t typically arrive with schemes to throw down the booze gauntlet. They come to hang out, talk, relax and have a good drink, often something comforting and familiar. They want a margarita. They want an Old-Fashioned. They want something they know and love.

They want something on this list. And if you know how to make these drinks, you’ll be a well-prepared cocktail host, and also well-prepared — if you want to be — to dive deeper down the cocktail rabbit hole.

These drinks are all essentials and all classics. It says something that after 20 years (give or take) of the cocktail renaissance and the explosion of bibulous invention and creativity it brought, the drinks many still regard as the most critical essentials have all been around for much longer. A few of them have been here for more than a century.

Which is not to say that many newer drinks aren’t excellent. But many of the best and most enduring newer tipples were built on the foundations these drinks had laid, executing their proportions and principles — fresh juices, balanced flavors, quality spirits — in new ways.

All of these essential cocktails are makeable with ingredients easily sourced at your neighborhood liquor and grocery stores, which is certainly part of what’s helped them spread around the world. In making these, you’ll learn a lot about cocktails as a whole. They’ll teach you techniques that apply across the category: how long to mix, how long and hard to shake, how to strain. You’ll learn about balance, you’ll (hopefully) learn not to be afraid of a little bitterness, you’ll learn how salt and sugar act as flavors and enhancers of other flavors, a cheer squad urging their fellow ingredients to greatness.

Make them repeatedly and they’ll teach you one of the most important lessons for the home cocktailer — what you like. What is your preferred gin-to-vermouth ratio in a martini, a matter that has been opined upon by prime ministers and presidents? Do you agree the Negroni is best as an equal-parts drink, or do you like it better when you boost the gin a bit? Do you prefer to double-strain your daiquiri until it’s a silky froth, or do you kind of like the mouthfeel of the tiny ice chips a single strain delivers? What’s the effect of switching out the vermouths in your Manhattan, or bitters or whiskeys — or maybe an aged rum?

All these questions lead to more questions. See how deep the rabbit hole goes?

There are correct answers to historical questions about these drinks (and each of these drinks can provide a launchpad to explore those fascinating histories, should you be inclined). But there are no “correct” answers to matters of taste. There’s just learning how to make a drink that pleases, using a few ingredients and a few simple tools to mix yourself from here to there, and from there to … wherever next catches your fancy.

So the next time a friend asks you for a drink, you’ll be able to tell them: I got you.

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Everyone agrees the martini is an essential drink: Heck, its glass has become the universal sign of the cocktail. Yet for such a canonical beast, the martini is perennially personalized, a drink everyone dials into their own tastes. Gin or vodka? Purists will argue for the former, but vodka has plenty of advocates. Vermouth-to-base-spirit ratio? Debated endlessly, but if you’re using good, well-cared-for vermouth, it’s not to be feared. Shaken or stirred? The latter is the rule, but shaking has advocates. (They’re outliers. Even Bond, James Bond.) Add bitters? Garnish with a lemon twist or an olive? Your call. Try this recipe, adjust to your liking, and then be prepared to adjust and argue about it with every new drinker you encounter for the rest of your life.

If you like it, try: Martinez, Bijou

From various recipes, adapted and tested by M. Carrie Allan. Click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe.

  • Ice
  • 2 1/2 ounces dry gin, such as Plymouth, Beefeater or the citrusy Tanqueray No. 10
  • 1/2 ounce dry vermouth, such as Dolin
  • 1 or 2 dashes orange bitters
  • Twist of lemon peel, for garnish

Chill a cocktail (martini) glass or coupe.

Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the gin, vermouth and bitters (to taste). Stir gently for 20 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass.

Garnish with the twist of lemon peel.

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A boozy, classic, deep dive into whiskey and sweet vermouth. These days, most craft-cocktail types opt for rye, which has a spicier profile than bourbon, but the main thing is to pick a whiskey you like and a vermouth that’s worthy of it. (Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino is terrific; Carpano Antica can be a little dominant, but if you like its heady vanilla-spice pow, it can also be delicious). Small but interesting tweaks can happen via new types of bitters (chocolate or pimento make for a nod toward autumn; Peychaud’s or cardamom will bring out other notes), but orange and Angostura are reliably on point.

From various recipes, adapted and tested by Allan. Click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe.

  • Brandied cherry, for garnish, such as Luxardo or Amarena Fabbri brand
  • Ice
  • 2 dashes Angostura and/or orange bitters
  • 2 ounces rye or bourbon whiskey
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • Twist of orange peel (for its oils; optional)

Chill a cocktail (martini) glass, adding the brandied cherry garnish.

Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the bitters, whiskey and vermouth. Stir for 20 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass.

Twist the orange peel, if using, over the surface of the drink to express its oils, then discard it.

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Dates to: 1919, most likely

Supposedly no one likes a Negroni the first time they taste one, and some drinkers never come around on this bright red flag of a drink. It’s an Italian liqueur that brings that fiery color and throws down the gauntlet: Campari, the deeply bittersweet, orangey and herbal aperitivo that complements equal portions of dry gin and sweet vermouth. It’s boozy, it’s strange, it’s a high-wire balancing act, and once your palate adjusts to the bitterness, you may come to crave it — and regard it as the gateway to drinks incorporating bitter flavors.

If you like it, try: ‘White’ Negroni, Boulevardier, Little Italy

From various recipes, adapted and tested by Allan. Click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe.

  • Ice
  • 1 ounce Campari
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth, such as Cocchi or Dolin
  • 1 ounce dry gin
  • Twist of orange peel, for garnish

Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. Stir for 20 seconds, then strain into the glass.

Twist the orange peel over the surface of the drink to express its oils, then drop it into the drink.

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Perhaps the first and most genre-defining of cocktails, the Old-Fashioned has been carried back into heavy sipping rotation by the craft cocktail renaissance and smart bartenders who stopped treating it as a vehicle for transporting bad fruit salad. Good bars opt to leave out the pile of pineapple and neon cherries that were once all too common. You may want a twist of citrus for its fragrant oils, but that’s all the embellishment you’ll need. A little sugar, good whiskey (it can be bourbon or rye-based, depending on your preference) and the spice of bitters to button up the whole thing nice and neat.

If you like it, try: Oaxaca Old Fashioned, Sazerac

From Jason Wilson; adapted by Allan. Tested by Michael Taylor and Allan. Click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe.

  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar (may substitute 1 small sugar cube)
  • 1 teaspoon warm water
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Strip of orange or lemon peel
  • 2 ounces bourbon or rye
  • 1 large ice cube

In an old-fashioned glass, combine the sugar, warm water and bitters, then add the citrus peel and muddle.

Add the bourbon or rye, and stir until all the sugar has dissolved.

Add a large ice cube, stir briefly to chill and serve.

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With two ingredients, plus a couple of slices of citrus, the gin and tonic seems so simple it barely warrants a recipe. It’s gin, it’s tonic: Where’s the complication? But the flavors of juniper mixed with the tongue-livening bitter bubble of tonic have made this drink the essential highball for centuries. Its simplicity makes the quality of the ingredients and the right proportions critical. Once you can make the classic, branch out into new gins, tonics and garnishes. (Look to Spain for inspiration; there, variations on the “gin-tonic” are infinite.)

If you like it, try: Tom Collins, Pimm’s Cup, Moscow Mule

From various recipes, adapted and tested by Allan. Click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe.

  • Ice
  • A few lime wheels
  • 2 ounces dry gin
  • 3 or 4 ounces good tonic water, such as Fever-Tree

Fill a highball glass with ice, layering in a few lime wheels (to taste).

Add the gin and the tonic, then stir gently.

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Crisp, tart and elegantly simple, a good daiquiri is a pale, delicious thing of beauty. The classic version is not frozen, but it is still perfect for drinking beachside or for bringing the beach to where it ain’t. Look for a good Cuban-style light rum (Havana Club, Banks 5 Island) to get you started, and then adjust as you get acquainted with the drink (aficionados sometimes graduate to older rums, but the light is classic). A simple sugar syrup balances out the tartness of the lime and keeps the drink from getting too watered down by its icy shake.

If you like it, try: Mojito, Last Word, Hemingway Daiquiri

From various recipes, including “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki,” by Martin and Rebecca Cate (Ten Speed Press, 2016); adapted and tested by Allan. Click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe.

  • Ice
  • 2 ounces white rum, such as Caña Brava
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce rich demerara syrup (see NOTE)

Chill a cocktail (martini) glass.

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the rum, lime juice and demerara syrup. Seal; shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass; double-strain only if you want to remove the tiny ice shards from the drink. (Some tipplers enjoy them in a daiquiri.)

NOTE: To make the rich demerara syrup, combine 2 cups of demerara or turbinado sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a brief boil; once the sugar has dissolved, remove the saucepan from the heat. Cool completely before using or storing (in the refrigerator, for up to 2 weeks).

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Dates to: Unknown, but likely 1930s to ’40s

Like the daiquiri, the margarita is a classic from the cocktail family known as sours, a simple but delicious clan of drinks in which the DNA is made up of spirit, citrus and sweetener. You should taste the tequila (use a good blanco, which is unaged, or reposado, which is lightly aged), the lime and sweetness from the orange liqueur; a touch of agave syrup boosts the sweetness and the flavor of the spirit’s origin plant. Salt is optional, but it functions the way it does in cooking, tying the whole package together.

If you like it, try: Mezcal Margarita, Paloma

Adapted from Julian Bermejo’s recipe for Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, from Robert Simonson’s “A Proper Drink” (Ten Speed Press, 2016). Tested by Allan. Click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe.

  • Lime half (for rimming; optional), plus 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • Large/coarse-grained salt (for rimming; optional)
  • Ice
  • 1 3/4 ounces tequila
  • 1/2 ounce Cointreau
  • 1/4 ounce agave nectar

If you are serving the drink straight up, use a cocktail (martini) glass; if you are serving it on ice, a rocks glass will work. Either way: If you are rimming it with salt, make a small pile of salt on a plate. Rub the lime half around the outside rim of the glass, then roll that rim gently over the salt to create a salt edge.

Add ice to the glass, if using. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the lime juice, tequila, Cointreau and agave nectar. Seal and shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then strain into the glass.

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