In an effort to make home cocktail crafting more approachable, we’ve identified six essential cocktails that are the key to understanding how to make any cocktail. We’ve looked to experts both past and present for the best breakdown of basic drink types. In 1948, David A. Embury dedicates an entire chapter to the basic cocktails in his book, The Fine Art of Making Cocktails. A more modern dive into cocktail basics can be found in the Cocktail Codex, published in 2018, by Alex Day, David Kaplan, and Nick Fauchald of Death & Co.
Both books believe that there are essential cocktails which must be learned in order to make any other cocktail. Both identify the Old Fashioned, Martini, Daiquiri, and Sidecar as essential. Embury’s list, however, misses cocktails from two critical families that the Cocktail Codex includes, a fizzy soda Highball and a Flip with its creamy dairy or egg element.
They share the concept that every ingredient fits into one of three categories. Embury classifies: the base as the primary ingredient; a modifying agent that gives the cocktail character; and a special flavoring or coloring agent, such as a liqueur, cordial, or aromatic bitters. The Codex similarly identifies: the core is the primary flavor; balance adds sweetness and/or acidity to balance the core; and seasoning, which either complements or contrasts with the core.
Each book addresses the basic principles of crafting quality cocktails: the value of quality ingredients, understanding basic components of a drink, and how to apply that knowledge to creating cocktails. In the Cocktail Codex, their approach is more scientific, similar to that of the best-selling cookbook by Samin Nosrat Salt Fat Acid Heat, we’ve attempted to describe the six essential cocktails in a concise and digestible format.
1. Old Fashioned
The first ever reference of a “cocktail” is that of an Old Fashioned recipe, in 1806, defined as a potent concoction of spirits, bitters, sugar and water. An essential cocktail that showcases the spirit without adding another liqueur. Its flavor is balanced and in essence the “perfect” cocktail. Other variations on this drink include the Champagne Cocktail, the Mint Julep, and the Cobbler.
- CORE: American whiskey or bourbon
- BALANCE: sugar cube
- SEASONING: Angostura bitters
The pinnacle of spirit forward drinks, whose core spirit is balanced with vermouth, is the classic Martini. A gin base, which is complemented by dry vermouth, anchors this cocktail, while ultimately offset with orange bitters. It is an essential cocktail whose class includes its dark mahogany ally, the Manhattan, the bitter-sweet Negroni (both gin & Campari act as the core), and the bone-dry Vesper.
- CORE: gin
- BALANCE: dry vermouth
- SEASONING: orange bitters or an olive
Consisting of a base spirit, sugar, and citrus juice, the Daiquiri is an essential cocktail, a part of the broader Sour category. The Daiquiri, for example, is essentially a Whiskey Sour with rum substituted for whiskey and lime juice instead of lemon. A sour-style cocktail can add an egg white which differentiates Daiquiri-style drinks from its broader group. Other daiquiri-style cocktails include the Gimlet, Ti’ Punch, and Caipirinha.
- CORE: rum
- BALANCE: lime juice & simple syrup
- SEASONING: lime wedge
The Sidecar evolved from the original sour, much like the rum-based Daiquiri and is a direct descendant of the more complex Brandy Crusta. This essential cocktail and its variations feature liqueurs like triple sec that provide core flavor, balance and seasoning, making them drier that other sours. For this differentiating reason, it is considered an essential cocktail with variations like the Margarita, Cosmopolitan, and the Last Word.
- CORE: Cognac & orange liqueur
- BALANCE: lemon juice & orange liqueur
- SEASONING: Orange twist & orange liqueur
5. Whiskey Highball
In a Highball, there’s a higher ratio of the balance to core, the intention is not to dilute the core spirit but allow the soda water to open up the flavor of a quality spirit. This also applies to the Americano, whose core is both Campari and sweet vermouth. However, in other Highball-style drinks like the Cuba Libre and the Bloody Mary the core is balanced by flavored soda or juice.
- CORE: Scotch
- BALANCE: cold soda water
- SEASONING: lemon wedge
In this essential cocktail family, the unique identifier is the use of either an egg or dairy element as the balance. In cocktails like the Flip, an appropriately shaken egg white will create a smoother and creamier drink. Variations on the Flip can be composed of a duel core, a combination of two spirits or liqueurs, such as the White Russian (vodka and coffee liqueur), Egg Nog (rum and Cognac), and the Piña Colada (light and dark rum).
- CORE: spirit or fortified wine
- BALANCE: an egg and sugar
- SEASONING: nutmeg