Cocktail menus vary depending on where you’re ordering. A chain restaurant might offer one or two recognizable cocktails plus a few wild innovations that may taste a lot like fruit punch or a chocolate milkshake (and why not). “Serious” cocktail bars, on the other hand, might have just a few options, many of them unrecognizable—cocktails invented by the bartenders on staff that are no doubt delicious but maybe harder to compare to anything you’ve had.
Fortunately there’s a lot of middle ground, familiar drinks that exist pretty much anywhere a bar is decently stocked. And, of course, these days a lot of cocktail bars are eager to guide you to the right choice (which is to say, what you want), either with cocktail menus arranged by style (e.g., bright and sour, dark and boozy) or by encouraging an old school interaction between patron and bartender. A “bespoke” cocktail bar is actually built around this model, with cocktails made to order per guest preference.
But even if service is a lot more interactive these days, it’s always helpful to go out there with a rough knowledge of cocktail classics for reference. Not only are these drinks among the “standards” that any bartender knows, but if you like something about any of them, you can probably find something similar, or construct something new with the help of your local barkeep:
- Old Fashioned: As close to the original definition of the cocktail as you can get, and among the oldest drinks out there, the Old Fashioned is spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. Technically you can make it with any spirit, but most often you’ll see whiskey (bourbon or rye). Since there isn’t much else beyond some superfine sugar, Angostura bitters, and ice—in the classic recipe, anyway—it’s good to make this one with a respectably flavorful spirit. Bonus: it comes in (or should come in) the glass named for it.
- Manhattan: Also an old cocktail, from the late 19th century, best made with either straight rye whiskey or a rye-heavy bourbon (it can also be made with any decent bourbon, with a sweeter resulting flavor profile). Added complexity from the addition of sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters—a rich, muscular drink that still goes down smooth.
- Martini: Shaken or stirred, vodka or gin, dirty, chock full of olives, pearl onions, maybe even Apple-tini-ized? The Martini has gone through more than a few cultural variations—a good sign of popularity—but the classic is gin, dry vermouth (a 1:1 ratio if you want it “wet”) and a lemon twist. Or olive. (A “dirty” Martini has added olive brine, a fun variation if you’re a salt freak.)
- Martinez: Technically a precursor to the Martini, but less common (you won’t see it on a T.G.I. Friday’s menu). Supposedly invented as a way to help a miner celebrate a good day of Gold Rush-ing, it’s made with gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and bitters. A darker (amber-hued), sweeter drink than the Martini that followed it.
- Daiquiri: Nothing like the frozen daiquiris served beachside in massive glasses, the classic Daiquiri is simply a very good, very refreshing way to enjoy light rum. Like most classic cocktails, simplicity reigns here, with just light rum, lime juice, and a bit of sugar going into the classic. Righteous served beachside, Hemingway paperback optional.
- Whiskey Sour: Easily one of the most abused classic drinks, the Whiskey Sour should not have Sour Mix or Sprite (or any kind of lemon-lime sugar bomb) anywhere near it. A classic Whiskey Sour isn’t unlike a Daiquiri, except instead of light rum and lime you get (decent) whiskey and lemon juice. Optionally made with an egg white, which, when shaken with the cocktail, results in a creamier mouthfeel and a white foamy head.
- Margarita: Again, this one doesn’t have to come out of a frozen drinks machine, and doesn’t even have to be in-your-face sweet. While the greenish-yellow salt-rimmed variations have their place in our hearts, the best Margaritas are made with good, 100% agave tequila, fresh lime juice, and some Cointreau or Triple Sec (orange liqueurs). And salt, of course, if you like.
- Negroni: The Negroni is one of the major classic cocktails to highlight bitterness. But don’t be scared away—bitterness here comes in the form of a grapefruit flavor, which itself comes from the bright coral-colored Campari. The bittersweet grapefruit complexity of the Campari is matched by one part gin (which can have its own refreshing citrus/bitterness) and smoothed out by one part fragrant sweet vermouth. A rich, ruby-colored drink, which can be enjoyed up or on the rocks.
- Mint Julep: Here’s a classic cocktail that takes us into muddled fresh herbs territory (see also the Mojito), not to mention introduces the refreshing wonders of good crushed ice. A classic on Kentucky Derby Day, the Mint Julep is a good option for any hot day at a bar where fresh mint is available. Of course, you’ll also need some simple syrup and, of highest priority, some good bourbon. (Bonus: Originally thought to have emerged in Virginia, not Kentucky, and popularized in New York.)
- French 75: It’s always a good idea to know one good Champagne cocktail, because, well, Champagne. This one has just four ingredients—Champagne, gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Another classic, the simply named Champagne Cocktail, is made with Champagne, Angostura bitters and a sugar cube. Technically not a cocktail (no spirits), we’re giving it a pass.