Here are the top classic cocktails to try! Learn each of the most iconic drinks made with gin, vodka, whiskey, rum and tequila.
Want to learn about classic cocktails? Here’s our master list of exactly 15 cocktails to make, carefully selected from the best of the best. Make each of them and you’ll get the full gamut of historical drinks that helped to form today’s cocktail culture. Many date back to the 1920s, but you’ll find some even older (like the classic Old Fashioned or Daiquiri). Within this list you’ll find major iconic cocktails based on spirit, and related cocktails listed below it. For example:
One of the most classic whiskey cocktails of them all: the whiskey sour! This perfectly sweet tart, balanced whiskey drink dates back to the 1870’s. It's simple to make, featuring whiskey, lemon and simple syrup. Serve it with an egg white foam topping and it's a Boston Sour. A must try!
One of the most classic gin cocktails is the gin fizz! The first mention of a fizz was back in 1876, and they became popular in America in the 1900's to 1940's. The gin fizz is tart and classy, featuring lemon, gin, simple syrup, and an egg white foam topping.
The most classic rum cocktail is the daiquiri! This perfectly balanced cocktail stars lime juice, rum, and simple syrup. A classic daiquiri is not frozen at all: it's served straight up in a cocktail glass and thought to have been invented in the 1800’s in Cuba.
The most classic tequila cocktail of them all: the margarita! Likely originating in the 1930's, the margarita is one of the most classic sour cocktails: drinks that feature liquor, sweetener and citrus. The classic recipe is tequila, lime, and Cointreau, and it's perfect in its simplicity.
The most classic vodka cocktail: the Moscow mule! This classic cocktail was born in the 1940’s: made with vodka, ginger beer, and lime and always served up in a copper mug. Why the mug? The coolness of the glass when you sip makes it taste ice cold. Try all the great Moscow Mule variations!
Another classic gin cocktail is the gimlet! While it became popular in the 1950’s, a recipe was included in a 1930’s cocktail book, so it stems back to at least that far! This classic cocktail features lime juice, gin and simple syrup.
One of the most classic sour cocktails of them all is the Sidecar! The story is that it was invented around 1918 by an army captain who drove around in a motorcycle sidecar. It’s a complex, layered drink: warm, crisp, dry, and rich all at once! It features Cognac, lemon juice, and Cointreau and a sugar rim.
Here's one of the most famous classic cocktails there is: the Old Fashioned! This classic whiskey cocktail dates to the early 1800’s, before the words classic and cocktail were even said next to each other. It's quick and simple, using a sugar cube, bitters, and bourbon whiskey for a truly timeless drink.
Another classic gin cocktail is the Negroni! This 1920's Italian cocktail is equal parts refreshing, bitter, and complex: a drink that you’ll want to sit with and savor a while. Made with Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth, the flavor can be polarizing. We prefer it as the Boulevardier (whiskey instead of gin) or the Negroni Sbagliato (Prosecco instead of gin), both of which are a more balanced drink.
The martini is one of the most iconic cocktails of all time. People have been drinking it for a century. With one sip it announces itself: crisp, cool, searing, and spirit-forward. It’s seeped in tradition, and there’s no cocktail that has the amount of variations. The classic is simple: just gin and dry vermouth. But there are lots of famous spins (see below).
Here's another classic gin cocktail: the Tom Collins! The first mention of this tall highball drink was in an 1882 cocktail book. It's a essentially gin sour, a sweet and sour drink made with gin. A cousin of the gin fizz, it’s refreshing and bubbly, impressively loaded with ice in a highball glass.
Here's a classic champagne cocktail: the French 75! A drink born in the 1920's, it's got a mysterious name and is tangy, bubbly, and a bit botanical. Simply made of lemon, simple syrup and champagne, it's almost like a Tom Collins that replaces the soda water with sparkling wine.
This classic whiskey cocktail has a long history and has come back into style: the Manhattan! It goes all the way back to the 1870’s, so it’s older than most cocktails (which sprung up in the 1920’s and 30’s). It's got a lot going on: vanilla, oak and caramel notes from the bourbon, sweet and spicy from the vermouth, and bitter and herby from the bitters.
Related Cocktails: Try the classic Martinez: like a gin version of a Manhattan! This version is a little smoother and more balanced.
Here's the other most classic rum cocktail: the Mojito! The origins of the Mojito are cloudy: some say it was invented in the 1500s, others in the 1800's with the birth of the Bacardi rum company. In any case, its place as an iconic Cuban cocktail was solidified by the 1930's when Ernest Hemingway helped to popularize the drink. It's perfectly. balanced with lime, rum and fresh mint and equally as popular today (if not moreso).
Here's a classic cocktail that's bubbly, citrusy, herbal, subtly bitter and lightly sweet…the Aperol spritz! Also called the spritz veneziano, it's an Italian aperitif: a drink for before a meal. The spritz was invented back in the 1800’s in Italy, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the Aperol spritz took the form it has today.
Each of these classics falls into a cocktail family. There’s no definite definition of cocktail families; many authors have written books attempting to define exactly what constitutes each! (See this post on Cocktail Families and Formulas for more.) Here are the major cocktail families we’ve found encompass most of the classic cocktails:
Sour cocktails A mixed drink made of liquor, citrus, and sweetener. Includes Whiskey Sour, Margarita, Gimlet, Daiquiri, Sidecar.
Spirit-forward cocktails Cocktails made only of liquor: no non-alcoholic mixers. Includes Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Martini.
Highball cocktails Cocktails that use base alcohol and a larger percentage of mixer, like fruit juice or soda water. Includes Tom Collins, Moscow Mule, Americano, Gin and Tonic.
Champagne cocktails Cocktails that use champagne. Includes French 75, Classic Champagne Cocktail.
Spritzes Cocktails with a mixer, soda water and champagne. Includes Aperol Spritz.
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.