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Have you ever had a proper Manhattan? Or tried the all-time bartender favorite, the Negroni? If you answered no to either question, there’s a chance you’re missing out on some of the best drinks ever created.
Yes, there are dozens––perhaps hundreds––of classic cocktails. But few have true staying power: Those that do are drinks as popular in the modern era as they were a century (or two) ago.
Everyone has their preferences. Whether your go-to is gin, tequila or scotch, the dozen drinks listed here transcend predilection. They are the 12 drinks every self-proclaimed cocktail lover should get to know. There’s a perfect time and place for each and every one of them.
No one knows for certain who created this cocktail or where. Despite its mysterious history, it likely came into being sometime around the 1880s as a combination of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and aromatic bitters. While many bartenders today substitute bourbon (or even rum or tequila) for rye, there’s nothing like the original.
One cocktail above all others reveals you as a savvy drinker, according to the legendary Gary Regan, who famously said that whether you’re trying to impress a first date or your boss, ordering a Negroni will do it. Born of a happy accident during the early 20th century, this drink was created by Count Camillo Negroni, who swapped the traditional club soda in his Americano with gin. The Negroni’s bitter intensity and easy, equal-parts formula have helped make it a favorite among home and professional bartenders alike.
The very first definition of the word “cocktail” in print (way back in 1806) described a combination of sugar, bitters, water and liquor. In other words, this drink is precisely what the word cocktail referred to 200 years ago. Old Fashioned, indeed. It typically calls for bourbon or rye whiskey, but variations abound. In theory, you could swap out the spirit, sweetener or bitters for endless new versions of the Old Fashioned. But the original is so solid, it's definitely where you should start.
There aren’t many reliably delicious ways to get both your caffeine and booze fixes at the same time. The Irish Coffee does the job beautifully. The drink—called Gaelic Coffee in the Old Country—is a blend of Irish whiskey, coffee, brown-sugar syrup and cream. Pro tip: Whip the cream just enough so that it floats on top of the drink. It’s all about presentation, baby.
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It’s now common practice to sip cognac neat. It sure does shine that way. But you’ll gain a new appreciation for the remarkably versatile French spirit after you try it in this citrusy cocktail, a mixture of cognac, fresh lemon juice and the orange liqueur Cointreau. Don’t balk at the sugar-coated rim: It’s there to mask the Sidecar’s wicked tongue.
You’ve probably had a bad Margarita. Or more than one. But when this zesty classic is made correctly—with quality tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice, the drink carries itself upright. The history of the Margarita is deep: Its progenitor, the Tequila Daisy, has been around since the 1930s, when there were no bottled mixes. Or blenders. The drink has come a long way, but finding your way back to its earliest incarnations is key to appreciating it.
Purists will say that scotch should be served neat, maybe with a little water––never ice. The Blood & Sand argues otherwise. This four-ingredient cocktail first appeared in Harry Craddock’s 1930 The Savoy Cocktail Book and comprises equal parts scotch, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering and orange juice. It’s all smoke and ease, like an autumn stroll past campfires and underbrush.
Ever been to New Orleans? If so, then you’ve probably had this cocktail. Created in the mid-1800s at the Sazerac Coffee House in the storied Crescent City, the Sazerac is a complex concoction that starts with an absinthe rinse. Rye whiskey (originally cognac, but that swap happened pretty early), bitters (most often Peychaud’s), and a sugar cube create a boozy yet fragrant sipper.
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It’s a hangover cure, a nutritious breakfast, an airport bar staple. This tomato- and vodka-based classic, created in Paris in the 1920s, is one of those drinks every city, every bar, every bartender makes their own way. If you’ve only ever had it with bottled mix and a fridgeful of garnishes, try a more traditional version with Worcestershire sauce, horseradish and celery salt, plus good vodka and tomato juice. The drink’s balance may surprise you.
The blender has certainly put its stamp on this cocktail. But this profoundly simple drink is at its best when it stays clear of a steel blade. Rum, some simple syrup and a blast of fresh lime juice, and that’s that. A perfect drink made from two staples and your favorite light rum.
The Pisco Sour is so popular that both Chile and Peru claim it as their national drink. Little wonder: It’s a tart, frothy masterpiece of pisco (the unaged grape brandy native to those two countries), lime juice, simple syrup and an egg white. Three drops of bitters to finish it off and you have yourself an aromatic and aesthetically pleasing refreshment.
The Martini is known for its class and allure, but its origins are muddled at best. The formula appeared in print under several different names around the turn of the 20th century. Made traditionally with gin (although vodka is acceptable), dry vermouth and orange bitters, it’s a cocktail that ignites the imagination.