14 Classic Cocktails to Wow Your Guests – and Yourself, Too!

– by Wendy Morley, Publisher –

makingdrinkClassics become classics for a reason. Yes, bartenders can create some tasty new drinks, but some cocktails are being enjoyed as much now as they were over a hundred years ago. If a drink can be enjoyed as much by you as by your great, great-grandparents and every generation in between, there’s got to be something there.

Note that these are the real, original recipes. Lime bar mix might be ok for a busy nightclub, but if you’re making these at home you want the real deal: fresh limes or lemons and the best liquor. Make your own simple syrup, too. Just warm equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan. (Don’t burn it!)

Seriously, there’s something to be said for quality. A few extra minutes and a few extra cents per drink and you have spectacular vs mediocre.

margarita1. Margarita

There is some debate over the exact origins of this drink, but all agree it was invented in Mexico sometime in the 1940s. The drink:

3 parts tequila, 2 parts orange liqueur (most often Triple Sec), 1 part freshly squeezed lime juice. Shake together with ice in a cocktail shaker and strain into a margarita glass rimmed with salt.

daquiri2. Daquiri

This drink was invented in Cuba somewhere in the early 20th century. As with the Margarita, variations have sprung up over the years but the original goes like this:

Fill a tall glass with crushed ice. Add the freshly squeezed juice of one or two limes, a teaspoon of sugar or syrup, and 2 ounces of white rum.

tomcollins3. Tom Collins

Believed to have been invented and named for a head waiter at a popular public house in London, the drink was originally known as a “John Collins.” Old Tom brand gin seems to have brought about the name change to Tom Collins, which was immortalized in a hoax in 1874 that I won’t get into in detail here but sent people running off to find a “Tom Collins,” who had slandered them, and ending up at a bar. Here’s the original recipe:

In a cocktail shaker, place a few dashes of simple syrup, the juice of a small lemon, a couple of shots of gin and some ice. Shake well and strain into a short cocktail (rocks) glass, then fill up the glass with soda water.

whiskeysour4. Whiskey Sour

This drink recipe was first written down in the 1860s, but had apparently been served for at least a century before then, made popular by sailors who used limes to prevent scurvy while they were at sea (hence the term “Limey.” Like the Margarita, the classic whiskey sour is a 3-2-1 drink:

3 parts whiskey, usually Bourbon, 2 parts freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice, 1 part sugar or syrup. Shake and pour over shaved ice.

Later versions of this drink began to introduce egg whites, for foaming after shaking.

mintjulep5. Mint Julep

If the idea of a mint julep conjures up images of proper older white ladies on a big southern porch, you’re not far off. The drink is indeed associated with the south, Kentucky in particular, and is considered the cocktail of the Kentucky Derby. To make a batch (this drink is usually served in company):

Take the leaves from a couple of bunches of spearmint. Wash and pour a few ounces of Bourbon over top. Muddle the mint and let sit for about 15 minutes. In a pitcher, place about 3 cups of bourbon. Add one cup of simple syrup, and the mint-infused bourbon. Mix together (it’s best if you can let this rest for awhile) and then pour into a short (rocks) glass filled with shaved ice to serve.

brandyalexander6. Brandy Alexander

As with many of these classic cocktails, the Brandy Alexander’s origins are disputed, but this cocktail came into existence around the early 20th century. Creamy and flavorful with just a little sweetness, this drink is delicious (and reportedly John Lennon’s favorite drink).

Place 1½ to 2 parts brandy, 1 part dark crème de cacao and 1 part heavy whipping cream with ice in a cocktail shaker Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and grind some fresh nutmeg on top (or sprinkle a little ground nutmeg).

planterspunch7. Planter’s Punch

This drink has often been claimed by the Planters hotel in Charleston but drink historians dispute that version of history, saying this classic rum punch came straight from Jamaica. A punch is called a 1-2-3-4 drink: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and one of weak. For Planter’s Punch this proportion seems to be somewhat fluid, and indeed there are many variations of this drink. The variations are always fruity and with a strong taste of rum, however. Here’s a typical version:

Over shaved ice in a highball, place 2 parts dark rum, ½ to 1 part lime juice, 1 part sugar or syrup, 2 parts mixed juices (orange, guava, pineapple and passionfruit are popular choices). If you like, Garnish with tropical fruit slices.

cosmo8. Cosmopolitan

This is not an old drink, but I think its safe to say it quickly settled itself among the classics as it gained in popularity thanks to the Sex in the City TV show in the 1990s.

In a cocktail shaker mix ice, 3 parts vodka, one part fresh lime juice, 1 part triple sec and one part cranberry juice. Shake and strain into a martini glass.

irishcoffee9. Irish coffee

Hot coffee with liquor – there’s really very little better on a cold night. As the story goes one night in the 1940s or early 1950s, a group of passengers disembarked for a layover in Shannon, Ireland on a cold winter’s night, and were treated with this delight.

The original proportions were 2 parts Irish whiskey, 4 parts coffee, 1½ parts heavy cream and a teaspoon of brown sugar. The whiskey, coffee and sugar are carefully heated together and the cream added after. These days you’re more likely to see the cream and sugar replaced with whipped cream. As long as the whipped cream is real cream and not that spray-can garbage, either choice is delicious.

pinacolada10. Piña Colada

The stereotypical tropical vacation drink. People might lambast it for its kitsch, but why is it stereotypical? Because it’s fantastic, that’s why! Drink whatever you want while on vacation, but a Piña Colada brings you back to those tropical breezes no matter where you are when you drink it. The drink was probably invented in the early 19th century but really made its mark with the rise of the middle class – and with it the rise in the winter vacation – starting in the 1950s. The Piña Colada is bourgeouisie at its finest.

Place 2 parts coconut cream, 4 parts pineapple juice and 1 part white rum into a blender or shaker with crushed ice. Blend or shake until smooth and creamy.

bloodymary11. Bloody Mary or Bloody Caesar

I’m going to belie my Canadian roots here with the Caesar inclusion, but it must be done. A Bloody Mary (named after the daughter of King Henry VIII, Queen of England the 16th century, who gained her nickname from her habit of offing Protestants). The Bloody Caesar is the Canadian version made with Clamato juice instead of tomato juice, a thinner version of this spicy drink. It’s a popular drink for brunch – probably partly because the tomato juice and other hearty ingredients makes it feel more like a meal than a drink. These days it’s popular to garnish with any number of spicy or pickled accouterments, making it even more meal-like. The Bloody Mary originated in Paris, France, at Harry’s New York Bar, somewhere before the 1920s. Living up to the bar’s name the drink did indeed cross the pond, and is now a distinctly American drink. The Canadian version, the Bloody Caesar, or simply “Caesar,” is exactly the same, but with the thinner clamato juice rather than tomato. Here’s the recipe:

1 part vodka, 2 parts tomato/clamato juice. Add a few dashes of Tobasco sauce and Worcestershire sauce, and a teaspoon of horseradish. Finish off with salt and pepper. Serve in a highball glass that’s first been rimmed in celery salt, with a celery stalk, a lemon wedge (Mary) or lime wedge (Caesar). Pickled peppers, olives, pickled asparagus and even shrimp are sometimes seen as the garnish.

mimosa12. Mimosa

Another traditional brunch drink, this one is also traditional for other daytime events – fashion shows, weddings, product launches, and on daytime flights if you’re in business or first class.

An incredibly easy drink to make, it’s just a mix of champagne (or other sparkling wine) and orange juice, served in a champagne flute. The juice is best freshly squeezed.

manhattan13. Manhattan

I hear this is traditionally a “man’s cocktail” but a Manhattan was always the preferred drink of my mother and grandmother, and will be indelibly correlated with them in my mind. The traditional whisky used is Rye or Canadian whisky, but any American-style whiskey, from rye to Tennessee whiskey to Bourbon to blends, will do. Canadian rye whisky became the liquor of choice for this drink because during prohibition, that was the liquor that was available, thanks to cross-border rum runners.

Like many of the most famous cocktails, the Manhattan was developed in the 1870s. (My theory is that everyone was finally starting to kick up their heels after recovering from the Civil War). The drink did indeed originate in New York City, at the Manhattan Club, although similar drinks predated this one. Here’s the traditional recipe:

In a shaker, place 2 parts Canadian whisky, Bourbon or Tennessee whiskey, 1 part sweet (red) vermouth, a dash of bitters and ice. Stir with a cocktail spoon and strain over ice in a short cocktail (rocks) glass. Garnish with one or two maraschino cherries.

martini14. Martini

I saved this as the last cocktail on the list because it’s my personal favorite. You can find lists of different “martinis” at any cocktail bar these days, but to any real martini drinker those sweet martini imposters are not martinis. They are cocktails served in a martini glass. They can even be quite tasty (Lychee? Hello!) but they’re not a martini. Here, then is a real classic martini. For me, dry (meaning very little vermouth).

Chill a martini glass. In a cocktail shaker, place ice cubes, 2 ounces of quality gin (you can use vodka, but gin is the traditional choice), and just a tiny splash of dry (white) vermouth. Allow to sit for a minute, to get very cold. Strain into a martini glass. For a gin martini, place two pimento-stuffed olives on a cocktail stick, place in chilled glass and strain the chilled liquor overtop.

For a vodka martini, as the vodka chills with the vermouth, use a citrus zester/stripper to create a beautiful lemon-peel spiral. Zest a little extra peel for flavor. Pour the chilled vodka martini overtop.

I’ll never turn down a good vodka martini, but gin with olives is the bomb.