Since the beginning of the craft cocktail renaissance, we've been gifted (and occasionally cursed) with a massive explosion of new drinks.
While I love the creativity, it's important to get to know the cocktail classics first, to understand the rules before attempting to shatter them. There are reasons classic drinks have survived: They're good, they're simple to make and they're replicable almost anywhere.
I surveyed nearly 100 bartenders, beverage writers and drinks enthusiasts about which drinks they consider essential. The martini topped the list, but every drink on this Top 7 had at least 50 percent support.
If you're just learning cocktails, making these drinks will provide the added bonus of learning cocktail theory through practice (and consumption). Once you've nailed down these giants, there will be more waiting for your exploration, and you'll make them better because of what you learn making these.
Everyone agrees the martini is an essential drink: Its glass has become the universal sign of the cocktail. And yet, the martini is perennially personalized. Gin or vodka? Purists will argue for the former, but vodka has plenty of advocates. Shaken or stirred? The latter is the rule, but shaking has advocates. Add bitters? Garnish with a lemon twist or an olive? Your call.
How you make it: Chill a cocktail (martini) glass or coupe.
Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add 2½ ounces dry gin, ½ ounce dry vermouth and 1 or 2 dashes orange bitters (to taste). Stir gently for 20 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
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. Small but interesting tweaks can happen via new types of bitters, but orange and Angostura are reliably on point.
How you make it: Chill a cocktail (martini) glass, adding a brandied cherry garnish.
Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add 2 dashes Angostura and/or orange bitters, 2 ounces rye or bourbon whiskey and 1 ounce sweet vermouth. Stir for 20 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass.
Twist an orange peel, if using, over the surface of the drink to express its oils, then discard it.
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, orangy 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.
How you make it: Chill a cocktail (martini) glass.
Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add 1 ounce Campari, 1 ounce sweet vermouth (such as Cocchi or Dolin) and 1 ounce dry gin. Stir for 20 seconds, then strain into the glass.
Twist an orange peel over the surface of the drink to express its oils, then drop it in.
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 bad fruit salad. Good bars leave out the pineapple and neon cherries that were once all too common. You may want a twist of citrus, but that's all the embellishment that's called for.
How you make it: Combine 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon warm water and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters in an old-fashioned glass, then add a strip of orange or lemon peel and muddle. Add some large ice cubes, then 2 ounces bourbon or rye, and stir to combine; make sure all the sugar has dissolved. Add a couple more ice cubes and serve.
Gin and Tonic
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 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.
How to make it: Fill a highball glass with ice, layering in a few lime wheels (to taste).
Add 2 ounces dry gin and 3 or 4 ounces good tonic water, such as Fever Tree, to fill. Then stir.
Crisp, tart and elegantly simple, a good daiquiri is a pale, delicious thing of beauty. The classic version is not frozen, but it is perfect for drinking beachside. Look for a good Cuban-style light rum to get you started, and adjust as you get acquainted with the drink.
How you make it: Chill a cocktail (martini) glass.
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add 2 ounces white rum, 1 ounce of fresh lime juice and ½ ounce rich Demerara syrup (see note). Seal; shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass; double-strain only if you want to remove the tiny ice shards.
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).
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, of course, but it ties the whole package together.
How you make it: 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 coarsegrained salt on a plate. Rub a 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. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add 1 ounce fresh lime juice, 1¾ ounces tequila, ½ ounce Cointreau and ¼ ounce agave nectar. Seal and shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then strain into the glass.