Staring down the menu at a cocktail bar can be an intimidating prospect for the uninitiated. What’s the difference between “Martini” and a martini? What’s an old-fashioned no. 1 versus a no. 2? What makes a daiquiri a daiquiri exactly? And it never helps that every bartender in the country makes their own variations of classic drinks with (often) superfluous ingredients.
This post isn’t here to teach you the finer arts of mixing a cocktail — that takes years of practice to perfect. We’re here to give you a gateway into the world of cocktail menus: what to look for when ordering, how to spot an over-wrought recipe, and a general introductory syllabus to help you get into the world of mixology. Enjoy!
The dry martini is the most iconic cocktail on any menu. It’s the perfect cocktail hour drink because it’s light and strong at the same time. You can literally drink them all night. It’s important to remember that Martini is a mid-range brand of vermouth that provides a vital ingredient in a dry martini. The ‘dry’ part of the name comes from dry gin being the main ingredient. Dry (or London) gin is the clear, twice distilled version of gin that has little to no added sugars.
What you’re looking for in a great dry martini is a 1:1 ratio of a decent gin (Bombay Dry, Old Tom, and Tanqueray will suffice) and a great dry or white vermouth (Noilly Prat, or Dolin if you’re trendy) with a single dash of bitters (Angostura only). It should always, without question, be stirred, and strained into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe. The biggest reason shaking is out of the question with gin in this case is that the ice bruises the oils in the spirit when shaken and releases peroxide into the cocktail, making it cloudy, and thereby overwhelming the botanicals of both the gin and vermouth. This then changes the balance of the drink from something that has a herb-forward smoothness to a watered down shot of alcohol.
It’s also true that over time “dry” has come to mean less and less vermouth in the concoction. The measurements range from 1:1 down to 6:1 (commonly called a Gibson), which gives rise to the old adage that “the best martini is the one where the bottle of vermouth only casts its shadow over the gin.” Lastly, purists will never garnish their martinis. Twists of lemon or speared olives were seen as abomination when they were introduced. Today, we seem to have collectively gotten over it. So the only advice one can give here is: If your gin is more South Asian, go for the twist, and if it’s more Dutch or English, go for the olive.
Continuing along the gin road, we find the very colonial gimlet. There are various reports on where the name comes from (either a small drill or a British naval admiral), but the simplicity of the gimlet is a piercing and lime-y delight.
The gimlet is a 5:2 blend of gin and Rose’s Lime Juice garnished with a lime twist (not a wedge). The old school variation calls for simple syrup and fresh lime to be shaken with the gin. Without the Rose’s Lime it’s essentially a gin sour at the end of the day. And, yes, it’s okay to shake the gin here, but it should be done gently. What needs to happen are the oils of the gin must be broken down a bit to emulsify with the acids of the lime and the sucrose of the syrup. This creates a cloudy drink that used to be prescribed to fight cholera and scurvy. It worked gang-busters for latter (thanks to Vitamin C).
When it comes to types of gin, think the British navy and colonies. Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Plymouth are all standard gins that work well here. The debate over whether to use Rose’s Lime or a lime-infused simple syrup is down to taste. Rose’s Lime is likely to be the most common variation you’ll find, and there’s even debate over whether it can actually be a gimlet without it. If you find yourself in a cocktail bar that has made their own lime simple (or cordial depending how trendy they’re trying to be), try it and see if it stands up to the same flavor profile as a gimlet made with Rose’s.
The manhattan cocktail comes from Manhattan — we know, shocker, right? Some say it was served at a banquet hosted by Jennie Jerome (Winston Churchill’s mother), others say it was invented on Broadway. No matter its origins, the manhattan is an American classic that blends America’s whiskey with immigrant Italians’ vermouth and a dash of El Carib.
A manhattan is 2:1 rye and sweet vermouth mixture with a dash of Angostura bitters. It should always be stirred in a jug and strained into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe and garnished with a Amarena cherry. That’s your basic, classic recipe. And then there are about a million variations from there. Some bartenders like to use bourbon or Canadian whiskey, both of which are fine. Often Peychaud’s or orange bitters will be dashed instead of Angostura. Once you know the classic version, it’s okay to play around with the flavors and find the variation that suits you.
Overholt, Wild Turkey, or Bulleit rye do the trick. Dolin Sweet Vermouth or Carpano Antiqa Formula are swell vermouths that pair perfectly with the sharp spiciness of the rye. If you’re more into bourbon, then you can’t go wrong with Four Roses or Maker’s Mark. And if you’re feeling in a speakeasy mood, hit the Canadian Club.
The word “cocktail” dates back to 1806. It was a simple concoction of a base, enhancer, bitters, and water, or, in layperson terms, a spirit, sugar, bitters, and water. By the 1860s the variations were so wide and over-stuffed with cordials, absinthe, liqueurs, and others ingredients that bartenders had to pull back a bit and started mixing old-fashioned cocktails that adhered strictly to the original sentiment of the word cocktail. Hence the “old fashioned” was born.
So we know a cocktail is base, enhancer, bitters, and water. In an old fashioned that translates to bourbon, sugar, Angostura, and ice. How those basic ingredients are chosen and mixed will make all the difference to how your drink tastes. Many, many bars will use simple syrup as the enhancer and top it with the bitters and whiskey then add ice, stir and serve with a orange rind and cherry as garnish. And, you know what, that can be perfectly acceptable. Better versions will use granulated raw sugar that’s wet with the bitters and stirred into the whiskey before ice is added, and that’s better. Still other bartenders will muddle orange and maraschino cherry into the sugar and bitters before adding the whiskey, and that’s the old fashioned no. 2 and a kind of Frankenstein’d version of the drink.
The point is to watch the bartenders as they mix your drink. Are they using simple syrup or raw sugar? If they’re using a syrup, is it Gomme (because that’s a whole different texture and flavor profile which isn’t a bad thing with an old fashioned). If you already have a bourbon you like, make sure to order your old fashioned with that one. It’s a sure bet. Lastly, the orange twist should be exactly that, a twist. The oils that come from the orange rind top and finish the cocktail in perfect way. So it’s not just about dropping in a piece of orange peel, it’s about balancing the glass and drink inside it with orange oils.
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Time for some rum. The el presidente is a classic Havana concoction. The presidente it honors is acclaimed Cuban War of Independence general Gerardo Machado. The drink became very popular during American prohibition when Americans flocked to Havana to get their buzz on in peace.
The el presidente is a 4:1:1:1 blend of dark rum, sweet vermouth, curaçao, and grenadine. Together you’re left with a spicy, sweet, orangey, ever so slightly fruity cocktail that goes down way too easily. There’s some controversy over whether to use curaçao, triple sec, or Cointreau. Let’s put that to rest. First of all, Cointreau is literally “Curaçao Blanco Triple Sec,” which means it’s an orange liqueur. Bols Curaçao specifically uses the laraha rind to bring out the orange flavor, whereas Bols Triple Sec and Cointreau use Valencia oranges. Either way, it’s an orange flavored liqueur that you’re using to enhance your drink. So it’s generally all to the good, though Cointreau is probably the best way to go.
As for the rum, Havana Club 7 anos is the standard-bearer of the el presidente. Since Havana Club is still largely unavailable stateside, Bacardi 8 anos is a great substitution. As for the vermouth, look for the same profiles you’d want from a manhattan since ryes often start to overlap with darker rums in mouth feel and subtle, spicier flavors. And, lastly, the grenadine should be pomegranate based. So don’t be surprised if some bar chef has made their own pomegranate cordial or syrup to appear all haute and pretentious. (And enjoy the benefits of their haughty pretentiousness!)
All of these ingredients have to be stirred, not shaken. They need a smooth blending and chilling, not a violent emulsification.
The daiquiri is another rum classic from Cuba. Cuban soldiers used to carry a bottle on their belts filled with lime juice, cane juice, and rum. This concoction was both an analgesic and a boost for the long marches through tropical jungle. US General William “Pecos Bill” Shafter led 300,000 American troops into Cuba in 1895. The Cuban rebels they fought alongside carried bottles of the Cubano elixir. When Shafter finally convinced a Cuban to give him a sip, he proclaimed, “The only missing ingredient is ice!” And, thus the daiquiri was born…more or less.
The concoction was perfected in Cuba before it hit American shores via the New York cocktail scene after the Spanish American War ended. The blend of a 4:2:1.5 parts of white rum, lime, and simple syrup makes the daiquiri one of the most refreshing drinks known to humankind. They should always be shaken over ice and poured into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe. No garnish is necessary. The frozen, or blended daiquiri is a variation that was largely created to sate the sugary appetites of American tourists in Havana post-WWII, and there are endless variations from there.
The original is a simple affair that highlights a good white rum like Havana Club or Bacardi (you don’t need to go crazy price-wise, especially with white rums). Unlike the gimlet, the daiquiri is much better served by not using something like Rose’s Lime. A good raw cane simple syrup and fresh-squeezed and strained lime juice offers a far better result.
This cocktail has a very disputed origin. Basically, it’s a fancy version of the highball called a Cape Cod (or cranberry and vodka if you insist). What is known is that it was invented around the 1970s and possibly in the Provincetown gay community, before moving on to popularity in New York, Miami, and San Francisco.
The cosmopolitan is an 4:1.5:1.5:3 mix of vodka, fresh lemon juice, Cointreau, and cranberry juice shaken and poured. Some claim that the choice of a chilled cocktail glass for serving was because bar patrons wanted to hold a sophisticated glass for a martini, but wanted something easier to drink … philistines. Either way a truly iconic drink was born.
Cosmopolitans are pretty straight forward since most vodkas live in the same realm of quality (marketing is why you’re charged more for any bottle). You’ll also see a lot of triple sec on the menu, which means the bar is trying to save itself cash on the ingredients list. The biggest offenders will be those who add in a needlessly expensive vodka and then just use Bols Triple Sec, or something similarly low rent. In that case order something else, or go to a better bar.
This is another old standard that appears as far back as the Bon Vivant’s Companion in 1862. It’s a deceptively simple recipe that requires a steady hand, patience, and quality ingredients. It serves as an excellent measure of a bartender’s ability to execute a simple concoction perfectly.
This a three parter — white sugar cube, Angostura bitters, champagne. That’s it. And oh how people f*ck it up. Patience is paramount here. The bartender should rest the sugar cube on a bar spoon and dash it with bitters about 3 times, and then let it rest. The bitters needs to soak in and soften the cube. About two minutes later, the cube is gently placed at the bottom of a champagne flute and then very dry champagne — not sekt or prosecco or cava — is poured over until you have a full glass. A maraschino cherry as added and it’s served. The sugar cube should dissolve as streams of fizz rise in your glass. No stirring, no muddling, no bullsh*t.
Lately bartenders have been adding an ounce of cognac to the mix. But that’s getting more into the Prince of Wales territory of champagne cocktails. What matters most to this drink is the champagne. It has to be dry. The best way to know what you’re going to get is to look at the bar’s house champagne because that’s what you’re getting. If it’s a sparkling wine, maybe order a old fashioned instead.
Count Camillo Negroni walked into a Florentine cafe and needed a stiff drink. He asked for an americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda) but with a bigger kick. It must have been a long day. The bartender swapped out the soda water with gin and one of the greats was born. It was so successful that Negroni opened up a bottling company to sell pre-made versions to the public with lasting success.
This is another drink that has slight variations. Higher end cocktail bars will add 1:1:1 Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin into a mixing jug, stir, and strain into a old fashioned glass, then finish with orange zest. In Italy, you’ll get a version that’s built in the old fashioned glass and often a slice of orange. It’s really hard to say which is the better version since the Campari is such a vivd bitter. Either way, you’ll be in for a fantastic cocktail of sweet, bitter, citrus, and high alcohol.
The three basic ingredients are set. Campari is the way to go. Gran Classico Bitter is the only real alternative for Campari here. There are, of course, other low rent bitters you’ll find on the market, but, you know, it’s not going to be as strong or complex. The original negroni was likely mixed with Old Tom Gin (dry gin had yet to be invented). These days a good, easy gin like Bombay Dry or Beefeater will do the job. As for vermouth, Dolin Rosso and Antica Formula both do the trick.
Have you ever had a real margarita? We don’t mean a yard of ice, booze, and sugar blended into a froth, or some margarita mix abomination. We mean an actual shaken margarita with its five natural ingredients. Drinking a real margarita for the first time is often a revelation to newborn cocktail enthusiasts. The drink was invented somewhere between Tijuana and San Diego and stands the test of time as one of the greats.
Tequila, Cointreau, lime juice, salt, ice. That’s it. It should all be thrown in a shaker in a 4:2:1.5 ratio and shaken vigorously then strained over ice in an old fashioned glass. Salt the rim if you like. Often bars will save money on tequila by upping the triple sec ration to 1:1, this will give you a more citrus forward cocktail. You need to be hit with tequila, not orange when drinking a margarita. Also, if bars are offering to “add” a shot of tequila to your margarita, you can bet there’s very little in the mix to begin with (which they’re trying to hide).
There’s no reason not to go with classic Jose Cuervo here. There are a ton of other tequilas and mezcals that work perfectly well, so start with the standard and work your way through. The best tip is to find a tequila you love and stick with it. Again, the mark of a good bar will be whether they use Cointreau or just a triple sec. If they don’t use Cointreau, you can always ask.