Classic Cocktail Recipes: The Basis for the World’s Great Drinks

What we know as classic cocktails are really pretty new on the scene. People have been fascinated with alcohol for millenia. People around the world use booze in religious ceremonies, social rituals and merrymaking.

Christians have been using wine as a vehicle to commune with god for over two thousand years. Before that the Ancient Egyptians offered beer and wine to their various gods. Rum is central to many Haitian vodou ceremonies. We use spirits every day to celebrate weddings, mourn the dead, and mark other small victories. Today’s classic cocktails are new on the great timeline of history. What we regard as ‘classic cocktail recipes’ are mostly less than 200 years old.

Classic Cocktail Recipes

The following recipes can be considered ‘mother recipes’. These classic cocktails are a framework for thousands of popular cocktail recipes. 

Seven Master Cocktail Recipes

Sour Cocktails

The Old Fashioned


The Daisy

French 75

As long as people have used alcohol to celebrate life they have also feared it and tried to banish it from society. The development of cocktail culture was radically altered by the prohibition movement. Cheap, poor quality booze drove people to add modifiers to it to make it more palatable.

Many of the cocktails that existed pre-prohibition are still popular. Several bartenders have made careers from reviving cocktails from the old recipes. Others drinks, like the Martini or Margarita, are mutant variations on earlier drinks. In this guide you will find all our favourite classic cocktails.

Classic Cocktails with Bourbon

Thanks to a few accidents of history bourbon has earned its place in the whiskey cocktail. First, the phylloxera epidemic killed off French brandy production in the 1850’s. At the time brandy was everyone’s choice spirit. Later on American rye whiskey was displaced by prohibition and corn subsidies. Over time, bourbon replaced brandy and rye in a lot of cocktail recipes. Today bourbon is the default choice for many classic whiskey cocktails.

Classic Gin Cocktails

Gin is the workhorse of the cocktail world. Its distinctive blend of juniper and botanicals gives a bartender a lot to work with. Gin typically brings piney notes, spice, citrus and floral notes to the mix. You can push these flavors a lot of different directions. There is a good reason that gin is the base spirit in dozens of classic cocktails.

Classic Vodka Cocktails

Vodka is a contentious beast in the realm of classic cocktails. Vodka is the bread and butter of the spirit world it outsells every other spirit by a large margin. The difficulty a lot of people have with it is that it is a neutral spirit. A lot of bartenders believe that this means it makes a less interesting cocktail. But, vodka is popular for a reason. It is crisp and clean. With the right pairings it can really sing.

Classic Cocktails Rum

Rum has a long and varied history. Early rum punches sustained sailors in the Caribbean. Punch became the basis for several great classic cocktails. The punch format is the basis for a lot of drinks that came later.  Rum cocktails spawned a whole treasure chest of tropical and tiki drinks. Tiki culture is an entire world surrounding these drinks. If you like fun there’s a good chance you like rum cocktails.

Classic Cocktails Tequila

Tequila doesn’t have as much history as other spirits in the classic cocktail canon. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place in your drink. It is a complex spirit with unique savory flavors that can contribute a lot to your drink. Everyone knows the Margarita. The Paloma is another favorite. Those drinks are delicious. Tequila can also bring something new to other classic formulations. Everyone’s favorite is Phil Ward’s Oaxacan Old Fashioned.

Making a Classic Cocktail Your Own 

The great thing about classic cocktail recipes is that we know they work. The ratios are dialed in. Adding herbs, fruits or bitters can create interesting new variations on a classic. Or, you can take those existing measurements and swap out spirits to create something new. Our guide to Classic Cocktails Recipes is a set of templates. Using them you can build your own unique variations on the classics.

Classic Cocktail Books

If you really want to go deep down the classic cocktail rabbit hole you need to check out the recipes in their original forms.

The EUVS Vintage Cocktail Books repository is an amazing resource for books dating as far back as the 1870s. The books have all been scanned and are can be read online.

Many of the great classic cocktail books have been reissued and are available on Amazon and other booksellers. If you are interested in collecting original editions Abe Books has a great guide to collecting classic cocktail guide.