Whether you work in the food and bev industry or you simply enjoy a homemade cocktail from time to time, it’s important to have a steady lineup of drinks you know by heart. I find that it’s the mark of a good and gracious host to be able to offer different drink options to your guests. Pointing to a bottle of whiskey on your counter and a can of coke in the fridge just won’t cut it. Every person should have a reasonable grip on a handful of mixed drinks, even if it’s hard to make bar-quality cocktails.
We’d even take it one step further and encourage folks to have a few non-alcoholic options at the ready. Whether you’re taking a break from the booze for the night or simply want to offer a guest who abstains from alcohol something more exciting than a glass of water, there are plenty of drinks worth memorizing. If you’re looking to expand your own repertoire or need a place to start, these are the 35 essential drinks everyone should know how to make.
Tips for Learning How to Make Cocktails
Unless you’re a professional bartender we wouldn’t necessarily expect you to be able to memorize all 35 of these drinks. In fact, for a while I struggled to recall the specific measurements in most recipes. But, once I started to grasp the principles of mixing cocktails, it became significantly easier to maintain my mental Rolodex of recipes. Plus, understanding the basics gives you the foundation for experimenting and crafting your own drinks. Here’s where we think you should start.
Read Cocktail Books
Especially when you’re working to memorize classic cocktails, it helps to have a selection of cocktail recipe books at the ready. Not only do they provide the simple guides to making these cocktails, but many books (the good ones, anyway) will also communicate why cocktails are made in certain ways. It’s the same principle as a book like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is for cooking. There’s a long list of best cocktail books here but consider asking your favorite bartenders or try to spy some books on the shelves of your local cocktail bar.
Cocktail books to look out for, from the classic to more modern:
- The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock
- The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan
- Meehan’s Bartender Manual by Jim Meehan
- The Drunken Botanist by Amy Steward
- Imbibe! by David Wondrich
Additionally, if you prefer a more visual medium, there are some very helpful YouTube channels that serve as guides for the cocktail newbie. Anders Erickson and How To Drink are two particularly great beginner-friendly channels.
Sample the Spirits on Their Own
If you’re making a cocktail for the first time, it’s important to understand each component part. Let’s say you’re making your first Negroni, familiarize yourself with Campari, vermouth, and gin individually. Deconstructing a cocktail helps elucidate why certain spirits work well together. In the context of the Negroni, the botanical qualities of gin blend beautifully with the herbal bitterness of Campari. Plus, once you have a grasp of each spirit, you’ll be able to better understand why you might want to swap in different brands of booze.
There’s a basic list of spirits and types of liqueurs that anyone getting started on building out their home should have, but here’s a primer:
- Rye whiskey
- Scotch whisky
- Simple syrup
- Orange liqueur
Practice Makes Perfect, But Your Drinks Don’t Need to Be Perfect
As with any skill or hobby, repetition helps with memorization. If you want to memorize a cocktail recipe, make it a bunch (within your limits, of course). Invite some friends over for a Whiskey Sour night and take over the bartender duties. Keep making drinks and you’ll start to pick up the muscle memory of mixology.
Classic cocktails usually call for pretty specific measurements but the key to mastering a cocktail is having some flexibility. If you obsess over the exact amount of each spirit in your drinks, you’ll constantly consult a recipe. But if you understand the basic proportions (like one part each, or two parts of one and one part of the other) you’ll have a better sense of the drink you’re making. Additionally, there are some general guidelines like many cocktails have three ounces of liquid or making sure to balance your booze so one spirit isn’t overpowering another. Remember that fruit, juices, and egg whites should be shaken while spirits by themselves should be stirred. Don’t fuss over making your drinks picture-perfect. A well-made, tasty cocktail will impress just about every guest.
Make Some Mocktails
If you want to take your at-home mixology a step further, it’s worth knowing how to make a few mocktails. Some key elements to understand in mocktails are carbonation, sweetness, and botanicals. Soda, seltzer, or tonic water are good options for your mocktail base. Fresh fruit juice, muddled fruits, and/or syrups add the dominating flavors while herbs or spices serve as finishing elements and garnishes. Keep something sparkling as well as some homemade or locally-sourced fruit juices and syrups on hand. They’re great for non-alcoholic drinks but many cocktails call for them, too.
10 Essential Two-Ingredient Drinks
We’ve separated our list into two-ingredient drinks and fully-fledged cocktails. That distinction is relatively arbitrary but we thought you might find it helpful if you’re looking for extra-simple mixed drinks or cocktails that require a bit of prep. In this case, all of these two-ingredient mixed drinks do not explicitly require shaking or stirring so they are typically built right in the same glass you’re drinking from.
These 10 include some classic options as well as some personal favorites. I’d also recommend experimenting in this category. Sparkling water is an excellent base for most spirits, so if you’ve got an open bottle of vermouth but don’t want to make a full cocktail, pour two ounces into a glass of seltzer, garnish with a lemon, and enjoy. Similarly, you can get creative with two-ingredient shots. Find complementary spirits, pour into a digestif glass, and sip for a unique and wonderful concoction.
Jack & Coke
Ah, the classic. It’s hard to go wrong with the simple equation of Cola + a spirit. Jack & Coke is a stalwart for a reason; it’s easy to make and tastes decent enough. Pour two ounces of Jack Daniels into an ice-filled glass, top with Coke, and enjoy.
A classier yet no less easy option than the Jack & Coke sees whiskey combined with ginger ale. Pour two ounces of whiskey into an ice-filled highball glass, top with ginger ale, and enjoy.
Gin & Tonic
The sweetness is virtually non-existent when compared to the previous two picks but there are few things more refreshing than a great G&T. Simply pour two ounces of gin into an ice-filled highball glass, top with tonic water, garnish with a couple of lime wheels (or any other garnish), and enjoy.
Dark & Stormy
Thanks to its natural sweetness and complexity, rum is a great option for two-ingredient mixed drinks. And the Dark & Stormy is a stone-cold classic. Pour 2 ounces of rum into an ice-filled highball glass, top with ginger ale, and garnish with a lime wedge. Give the lime wedge a nice squeeze before garnishing for an extra citrus kick.
What would brunch be without the mimosa? While you could certainly make this with any old store-bought OJ, we think that freshly squeezed orange juice makes all the difference here. Simply pour two ounces of orange juice into a champagne glass and top with chilled champagne.
The Italian cousin of the mimosa has not earned as much popularity stateside but it deserves a spot in your Sunday brunch rotation. Many online recipes recommend making your own peach puree at home but there are plenty of perfectly suitable peach nectars available at most grocery stores. Pour about two ounces of peach nectar into a champagne glass and top with chilled prosecco.
The Greyhound cocktail is a classic warm-weather drink perfect for the sunny mornings of summer. It’s beautifully vibrant and deliciously refreshing. Simply pour 1 and a half ounces of vodka or gin in an ice-filled rocks glass, top with grapefruit juice, and garnish with a lime wheel. Salt the rim to make a “Salty Dog” cocktail.
Here’s where things get a little creative. The Ferrari is a bit of a bartender’s handshake. Not a ton of drinkers know about this delicious concoction. It can be taken as a shot or sipped neat as a digestivo. Combine an ounce each of fernet and Campari for a bitter, herbal delight. Try chilling your cocktail glass ahead of time for an added layer to this 50/50.
One of the weirdest drinks out there but trust us when we say it’s delicious. If you’re looking for the pinnacle of refreshing beer cocktails, this is it in my opinion. Crack open a bottle of Miller High Life, top it off with Aperol, squeeze in a lemon wedge, and enjoy.
Fernet & Coke
Fernet & Coke is Argentina’s response to the Jack & Coke. It’s long been a favorite among the young drinkers of Buenos Aires but this excellent mixed drink hasn’t yet permeated the American market. There’s quite a medicinal kick to this one thanks to the unique flavor profile of fernet. But I encourage. you to give it a try. Pour two ounces of fernet in an ice-filled highball glass, top with coke, and enjoy.
25 Essential Cocktails
We’ve gone with a list of mostly classic cocktails. These are excellent, relatively straightforward drinks that are essential for any cocktail enthusiast. Many of them have room for slight variations so familiarize yourself with these drinks and start riffing by substituting different spirits, garnishes, ingredients, and more.
An Old Fashioned is the singular essential cocktail in our book. Smooth, balanced, and exceptionally drinkable. Find your favorite whiskey (I make mine with rye) and keep this cocktail in steady rotation.
One of my favorite cocktails around thanks to its simplicity and refreshing bitterness. Plus, with equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, it’s extremely easy to remember.
Margaritas require a bit of prep work if you’re going to make your own sour mix but the end result is a delicious, summer-friendly, easily riffable cocktail. Not everyone keeps Cointreau on the bar cart but pick up a bottle and find your favorite tequila (or mezcal for a smokier drink) to keep Margaritas in rotation all summer long.
The OG hangover cure, it’s worth having a Bloody Mary recipe in your back pocket for rough mornings. This is also one of those cocktails that you can make your own. The only strictly necessary components are vodka and tomato juice, so you can go to town on different herbs, spices, hot sauces, and garnishes.
Halfway between the Old Fashioned and Negroni lies the Manhattan. Simply combine 2 parts bourbon or rye with 1 part sweet vermouth and a couple of dashes of bitters then garnish with a cherry. Add in some amaro like Montenegro or Averna for a beautiful herbal kick.
Another great warm weather sipper is the Tom Collins. Many would classify this as a two-ingredient mixed drink. But, I think the addition of simple syrup or demerara syrup and lemon juice makes this a little more complex. Shake 2 ounces of gin, 1 ounce of lemon juice, and half an ounce of simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Pour into an ice-filled highball glass and enjoy.
Again, technically the Martini is only two ingredients but it requires some mixing and, in my opinion, the addition of some bitters. I make mine with gin so combine 2 1/2 ounces of gin and 1/2 an ounce of vermouth in a mixing glass, add two dashes of bitters, stir, and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with whatever you’re feeling.
The French 75 is one of my favorite Champagne cocktails. It’s zippy and refreshing, perfect for celebratory occasions. Combine 1 ounce of gin with 1/2 ounce each of lemon juice and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker and shake. Strain into a champagne glass, top with champagne, and garnish with a lemon twist.
Some might call the Sazerac a simple riff on the Old Fashioned but while the two are certainly closely related, the Sazerac is very much its own drink. The official cocktail of New Orleans is boozy, herbal, and delightful. Rye whiskey is used here as well as Cognac, Absinthe, and bitters.
The Boulevardier is very much a middle ground between the Negroni and the Old Fashioned. Simply swap in bourbon or rye for the gin and you’re good to go!
The whiskey sour is a delightful, vibrant, creamy cocktail that is not particularly tough to make but delivers a lush experience. Many whiskey sour recipes consider egg whites to be optional but I’d consider them essential (for vegan drinkers, aquafaba is a great substitute).
The Old Pal isn’t an immensely popular drink but I think it’s a truly underrated nightcap. In fact, it’s a close sibling to the Boulevardier. Swap in dry vermouth for sweet and keep the whiskey and Campari.
One of the few cocktails that calls for its own specialty glassware, the Moscow Mule is a favorite for springtime drinkers. Vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice is all you’ll need for this refreshing drink.
Another springtime favorite, particularly amongst southern drinkers, is the Mint Julep. The key feature in this cocktail, when compared to others, is the use of crushed ice. Otherwise, it’s remarkably simple and deliciously refreshing.
The mojito is one of my personal favorite cocktails for the warm weather. It’s by far my favorite rum drink and, in my mind, lets the freshness of its ingredients shine rather than the spirit itself. Grab some fresh mint and lime juice and you’re in for a treat.
Ah, the Aperol Spritz. A contentious cocktail that, in my opinion, should still be considered one of the all-time greats. And, if you’ve had enough Aperol in your life, consider substituting some delicious alternative aperitivi. Italy’s favorite cocktail should be in your regular rotation.
And for those who prefer a bubbly aperitivo minus the prosecco and Aperol, you have the Americano. A ridiculously easy drink that delivers a balance of bitterness and herbal sweetness with every sip. It’s best in the summertime but we wouldn’t judge you for drinking it year-round.
Another classic and delicious rum cocktail is the daiquiri. Thanks to its simplicity, the daiquiri should be a drink you have down pat. There have been numerous riffs on this rum drink and, like the Aperol Spritz, many drinkers have thrown shade its way. But it’s a classic for a reason. Grab some rum, lemon juice, and demerara syrup and enjoy.
The gin fizz like the whiskey sour incorporates egg whites to create a fluffy, tart, lush cocktail. And it happens to be very simple to make. Keep this on rotation, particularly during the warmer months, and your guests will thank you.
This might raise a few eyebrows. Calling a hot toddy a cocktail is a bit of a stretch. But, hear me out. During the colder months, a warm hot toddy is one of the best drinks you can make. And, the ability to batch it means you can serve all of your guests this excellent drink. Plus, I still use the hot toddy as a cold/flu cure. Does it work? Probably not. But I enjoy this concoction of whiskey, tea, honey, lemons, and cinnamon.
While it’s effectively a variation on the martini and was only really popularized by James bond, the vesper is a cocktail that certainly deserves your respect. Classy, boozy, and refined, it’s the perfect sipper for a celebratory evening. Make sure you’ve got Lillet blanc on hand as well as your favorite gin and vodka. And for the love of God don’t shake it.
Corpse Reviver No. 2
This classic, under-the-radar cocktail is actually a refined version of an even more obscure cocktail. And while we think Corpse Reviver No. 1 is a worthy cocktail in its own right, we’d recommend learning the No. 2. It’s another great use for your Lillet blanc and orange liqueur, plus it gives you an excuse to work absinthe into a drink.
Oh, the Cosmo. If there’s a more maligned cocktail, we don’t know it. But, your cocktail knowledge wouldn’t be complete without it. Plus, it’s easy. Vodka, cranberry juice, lime juice, and triple sec.
Another classic gin cocktail is the gimlet. And, like many of the gin cocktails on this list, it’s very easy. All you need is gin, lime juice, and simple syrup. Shake, strain, and enjoy.
Last but not least is the sidecar. We haven’t featured a ton of brandy cocktails because, while delicious, they aren’t always crowd-pleasers. But, we think the Sidecar is a worthy addition to your arsenal. It combines cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. Play around with the proportions to find your balance but inevitably it’ll end up tasting pretty dang good.