The home bartender would be well-advised to practice and prepare the classics not only for his or her own sake, but because each is a jumping-off point for another fifty cocktails you can either find or invent for yourself.
Start here and feel free to adjust or substitute any of the key ingredients.
10 Classic Cocktails for Beginners
- Sazerac: One of the first cocktails, and still one of the more sublime combinations of a spirit with light aromatics.
- Negroni: One of the more unexpected entries into classic status, this carefully bitter drink can either be prepared as a simple equal-parts drink or be the template for a world of variations.
- Whiskey Sour: A simple sour that, well-made, is absolutely indispensable.
- Manhattan: One of the few drinks that truly changed the face of cocktails, there are probably five perfectly balanced mixes for every fifty made. It’s worth knowing how to make one well!
- Old-Fashioned: Such a core cocktail that it is its own family of drinks, typically a single spirit served with several dashes of bitters, a small bit of sugar, and some small amount of water.
- Sidecar: If this blend of cognac, triple sec, and lemon juice looks a bit like a Margarita, it’s for good reason: they (and the Cosmopolitan) share not only their ancestors, but their own achievements as core classics.
- Margarita: Perhaps the most popular of sours today, the Margarita is the tequila-based update of the Daisy, a gloriously refreshing sour of yesteryear, balanced with citrus and sweetened with triple sec.
- Mai Tai: The drink that put Tiki drinks on every map and in every themed bar, but do you know how to make a truly great one?
- Gimlet: An invigorating, encouraging, balanced gin sour that can open a dinner party and prevent scurvy at the same time.
- Cosmopolitan: One of the few modern classics, the Cosmo is as easy to make as it is easy to ruin, but the just-so ratios of its few ingredients makes its fame seem well-deserved.
Building a Bar Library
It can be argued that building a small bar library is nearly as important as choosing your first bottles.
The best cocktail books offer not only many approachable, doable recipes, but provide context for them, helping you understand where they fit in to history or how they relate to other cocktails, and ultimately how you might develop your own variations. If you’re lucky, you’ll pick up a thing or two about technique as well.
These few are great places to start, or would be great gifts to get a budding mixologist started on their own path:
- The New Craft of the Cocktail, by Dale DeGroff: One of the best overviews of technique and encyclopedias of core drinks ever published.
- 3-Ingredient Cocktails, by Robert Simonson: One of the few compendia of exceedingly doable drinks that manages to be quality through and through.
- Cocktail Codex, by Alex Day, David Kaplan, and Nick Fauchald: The most recent (and best yet) book from the Death & Co. founders explains and explores the evolution, relations, and fundamentals of every cocktail and cocktail family you need to know.
- The Joy of Mixology (Revised and Updated Edition), by Gary Regan, is just what its subtitle promises: “the consummate guide to the bartender’s craft.” But just as its title alludes to Julia Child’s indispensable book, it is much, much more than a treatise on craft, though it is almost comprehensive in that regard. The Joy of Mixology is a standard in homes and behind bars alike for its ability to explain not only the “idea” behind so many cocktails, but what actually makes them work.