The Classic Cocktail Recipes You Need to Know
Classic cocktail recipes are the bartender’s mother sauce. In French cooking there are five mother sauces that every chef knows intimately. These sauces provide a foundation for every Saucier to build on. They are a shorthand, a shared language in the kitchen. They are tied to classic cuisine but they also provide a jumping off point for creativity and innovation.
A Classic Cocktail Recipe Framework
A similar framework exists behind the bar as well but it is not nearly as well-known. There are five (maybe seven) classic cocktail recipes that can fill the same role as the mother sauces. If you learn the structure of these seven cocktails well you will be conversant with most cocktail you will encounter
across the average cocktail bar. You will develop immediate recall for dozens of recipes at once. The most amazing thing about these seven recipes is that you will rapidly become very fluid at extending these recipes, creating variations and developing entirely new recipes.
The seven classic cocktail recipes we are going to explore are immediately recognizable to most cocktail aficionados but they are not always recognized as a rubric for understanding cocktails themselves. The cocktails are the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Negroni, Sour, Collins, French 75 and the Daisy. Most of these recipes are fairly distinct from each other but there is some overlap in between the Sour, Collins, Daisy and French 75. Some of these, like the Old Fashioned, are already recognized for their versatility and adaptability but others are gems waiting to be discovered as platforms for exploration. In this article we will take an overview of each of these cocktails. Over the next several weeks we will explore each of them in-depth and provide some ideas for jumping off points where you can develop your own variations.
Before we get too far down this road I should point out that this idea is not unique to me. I first encountered the idea in Michael Rhulman’s excellent book Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. At the time I started thinking about how this would translate to cocktail recipes. Eventually I began to see the structure of the cocktails I was working with on a day to day basis.Death and Co’s amazing book really brought the concept home. A Bar Above and Cocktail Virgin Slut reinforced my thinking on these recipes. These days I constantly refer to these recipes both when I am developing new recipes and when I am training people behind the bar.
I always like to start with the Pre-Prohibition Martini, also known as a Manhattan or for easy of remembering the proportions a Two-One-Two (212 being the area code for Manhattan). This spirit forward and beautifully balanced drink is great for understanding how spirits and flavors work in a cocktail. The simplicity of the drink really lets the base spirit shine and the bitters, vermouth and citrus play up and off the flavors in the drink.
The Manhattan and the Pre-Prohibition Martini are the same drink with different spirits. They both also claim a murky and contested history with several competing origin stories. Recipes for both Martini and Manhattan style drinks first started appearing in the 1870’s and quickly became popular additions to cocktail menus as a result it has gathered plenty of legends and lore along the way.
Manhattan or Pre-Prohibition Martini
- 2 ounces (60 ml) spirit
- 1 ounce (30 ml) vermouth
- 2 dashes bitters
The basic recipe calls for two parts base spirit, one part vermouth and two dashes of bitters (2-1-2) with a twist of lemon expressed over the drink and dropped in for garnish. It’s as simple as a cocktail ever gets and yet the results seem to move people to wax poetic. There is no end to lyrical odes to this drink. Likewise it also inspires endless customization, sometimes inspired, often anything but.
A classic Pre-Prohibition Martini made with a great gin and a good vermouth may be the only drink you’ll ever need. The same could be said for the Manhattan, but that’s not what we do here. If you really want to get to know this drink check this out.
The Old Fashioned
The Martini may be the ever-present classic. The solid standby. Even when it’s not fashionable it’s still on the menu. The Old Fashioned, despite its long and well documented history and all its charms has never achieved the same status as the Martini. It has come and gone with some regularity and there is little guarantee that its current popularity is going to outlast the next trend.
The earliest known reference to the Old Fashioned in print dates to 1806 but there is evidence that it was around earlier than that.In the ensuing 210 years it has had more revivals than a televangelist. It was described as being a mix of spirits, sugar, water and bitters. It still is.
Old Fashioned Recipe
- 2 ounces (60 ml) spirit
- 1/4 ounces (10 ml) simple syrup
- 2 dashes of bitters
The versatility of the Old Fashioned is well-known. You can swap out the bitters for a huge range of flavors. Purists will insist on Rye or Bourbon or even Brandy as the base spirit but they are wrong and we know better. At some point in the last 200 years almost every spirit known to man has been used in this particular recipe and we see no reason to stop experimenting now.
The Waterfall Pour AKA the 3-2-1 Negroni
The Negroni is well-known for being equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. It sounds great. Easy to remember. People love it. Except that fewer and fewer bartenders actually make a Negroni like that anymore. Between new styles of gin and changing consumer palates the Negroni recipe has morphed into a 3-2-1 configuration.
That is 3 parts gin, 2 parts vermouth, 1 part amaro. I love this recipe for a couple of reasons. One – in metric it is incredibly easy to batch. 30 ml, 20 ml, 10 ml. 3 litres, 2 litres, 1 litre. Two – it is incredibly versatile. For some reason these proportions work well in a lot of situations. Three – You can use this format with a world of amaro, fortified wines and spirits to make all kinds of incredible cocktails.
Waterfall Recipe – Negroni
- 1 ounces (30 ml) spirit
- 1/2 ounce (20 ml) vermouth
- 1/4 ounce (10 ml) amaro
The Sour – Classic Cocktail Recipes
To the layman the Sour is a delicious drink made with Whisky or Amaretto. To the knowledgeable barkeep it is a universe of flavors. As a formulation it is possibly the single most consumed cocktail on the planet. Most people aren’t aware of this because it usually goes by some other name.
Gimlet, Bramble, Sidecar, Daiquiri, Margarita, Cosmopolitan, Corpse Reviver, Collins and more. The sour is not just a cocktail it is an entire family of cocktails. In fact four of the seven cocktails in this list are branches of the sour family tree.
It is a simple formula. Two parts spirit, one sweet, one sour. If you take a look at the Daisy, Collins and the 75 you’ll find that sweet sour balance in there.
- 2 ounces (60 ml) spirit
- 1 ounce (30 ml) simple syrup
- 1 ounce (30 ml) fresh lemon or lime juice
Because it is a simple formula the Sour is an easy drink to modify. You can swap out the spirits. Add some spice. Use flavored spirits. Change up the acid. Add a little egg white for texture and foam. This drink is all about the balance. As long as you get that right the only limit here is your creativity.
The Collins is one of the first branches on the Sour family tree. It first shows up as a Jerry Thomas’ Bon Vivant’s Companion as the Tom Collins. It is essentially a gin based sparkling lemonade. A refreshing cocktail, it quickly became very popular leading to the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874.
The Collins is the same recipe as the Sour but lengthened with the addition of a carbonated soft drink. It is a little trickier to get right than the sour because the acidity of the soda will affect the balance of the drink.
The Collins is another versatile and refreshing drink. The Tom Collins and one of its most popular variants the Mojito are both known as fun and refreshing drinks. The fizziness of the added soda brings a playfulness and punch to any flavors you add to it.
The 75 – Classic Cocktail Recipes
The 75 further extends the Sour by modifying the Collins. In this case the soda is replaced with a sparkling wine. The French 75 first makes an appearance during WWI when it was usually drunk as a mix of cognac and champagne with some lemon and sugar. It packed a bit of a punch and so it was named for France’s 75 mm field artillery.
These days the 75, or Soixante Quinze if you’re feeling fancy, is usually made with gin. The canonical recipe seems to be based on Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book.
The Daisy – Classic Cocktail Recipes
The Daisy is an interesting one. I’m tempted to ignore the history and just call it a Margarita. I’m pretty sure more people alive today have had a good Margarita than the number of people who have even heard of the Daisy. Oh, and it’s another Sour.
In this case it is a Sour modified by an orange liqueur. So you split your two parts spirit between your base spirit and Cointreau, triple sec or something like it. From there you add your one part sweet, one part sour.
The Daisy is another one of Jerry Thomas’s classic cocktail recipes. This one shows up in the 1876 edition. The name has since become obscured by time but the recipe itself is alive and well. You’d be hard pressed to find a bartender anywhere who couldn’t make you a Margarita or a Cosmopolitan.
Learn these classic cocktail recipes. Once you understand the structure and the way flavor work in these drinks the world is your oyster. You should be able to change and adapt these recipe to work with the spirits and flavors you have on hand. If you can’t make a good drink once you have these recipes in hand it may be time to go back and review the basics.
Over the next couple of weeks I am going to post an in-depth look at each one of the seven classic cocktail recipe with examples of variations and suggestions of things you can try on your own. If you are interested I suggest you follow along. You can sign up to be notified of new postings here.
Thanks – See you at the bar! – Jay Jordan