Essential Drinks of the American Bar
This exhibit presents a fairly complete, chronological list of the drinks that—at one point or other—achieved ubiquity and fame. To be clear, these are the drinks that cocktails are—or were—known for, by people not personally invested in mixology. Consequently, this list is dismal for emphasizing the famous, infamous, and fashionable, regardless of quality. Several drinks on this list are arguably not good drinks! The other problem this sort of reductive list poses is that it overlooks many thousands of drinks, some of which are amazingly delicious, and so underemphasizes the fertile creativity and adaptability of mixology.
Regardless, most of these drinks—well executed—are wonderful. They’re also major protagonists in the history of mixed drinks: they help to illustrate the story (please also see our Evolution of Mixed Drinks timeline) and most have stories of their own.
Moreover, many of these aren’t just one drink: some are entire categories. We have even “invented” a few categories that never existed by name, because they help to understand how things changed.
Two additional notes: first, we have omitted a smattering of well-known drinks that enjoyed popularity in the late-20th Century, but aren’t mixologically interesting, such as the Mimosa, the Kir, the Screwdriver, and various “shooters”. These omitted drinks aren’t irrelevant, but other drinks can stand in for them for our purposes. Second, there are no contemporary drinks, here. The Cocktail Renaissance that began in the 1990s has produced a couple dozen “modern classics” and a great many other delicious new drinks, but it’s too soon to know which—if any—of those fit into this particular company.
You can join the discussion at the forum.
milk or cream, wine or ale, egg, bread, grain, nuts, and/or spices
Posset, and the comparable syllabub, are medieval concoctions that are perhaps today easier to relate to from a culinary perspective than a drinks perspective: they involve curdling milk or cream in an acidic wine or ale, yielding an edible layer of proteinous curds with a drinkable whey-infused mixture below. Possets (warm) and syllabubs (cool) remained popular for centuries, largely disappearing by 1800, but they comprise an essential link in the history of dairy in mixology. (See also milk punch, egg nogg, and flip.) (recipe)
spirits, citrus, sugar, water, and often spices
The foundational mixed drink, emerging in British-occupied India in the 16th Century, and across the colonial world by 1660. Punch was eventually adapted to a single serving format, from which cocktails and other styles of mixed drinks eventually grew. (recipe)
Madeira wine, sugar, citrus and spices
A spiced Madeira punch, probably from England, by the 1690s; led to the colonial sangaree.
medicinal extract of various botanicals
The original bitters, a “stomach settler”, manufactured and marketed by Richard Stoughton, c. 1690, London; a great success in authentic or imitation form well into the 19th Century; the bitters used in the original American Cock-Tail, but also a proto-cocktail when simply added to beer or wine (see purl), as was the original function. Although largely extinct by the 1860s, its influence is far-reaching, and recipes for imitation Stoughton’s were the foundation for the genre of red bitter aperitif liqueurs from Northern Italy (e.g., Campari). (recipe)
milk, spirits (and/or wine, cider or ale), sugar, and spices
Milk-based punches date to 17th Century Britain, beginning with the punchbowl (old school), extending to clarified (through curdling) bottled milk punch (old school), to the single serving milk punches of the 1850s (new school) that remain popular, today, in New Orleans. Milk punch was most likely derived from posset and syllabub, eventually passing through or adjacent to egg nogg, and winding up influencing the Ramos Fizz (recipe)
strong wine (but sometimes beer or even spirits), sweetened and diluted with water, often with a spice element or a float of something
A branch of punch evolved from Sang-Gris that worked its way around the colonial Atlantic eventually diversifying into a slightly shifty category of drinks by the 1820s, the Port Wine Sangaree being the most successful. (recipe)
spirits, sugar, and water (often hot, sometimes cold)
Initially a simple whisky preparation from Scotland, quickly popular in British colonial America, where it was adapted, diversified and was often known as the Sling. Today, the toddy is pretty exclusively a warming drink involving hot water, but wasn’t always. (recipe)
brandy or liqueur, or a mixture or layering of them
Began as a French tradition, by the 1780s, of a brandy or liqueur served after the meal; by the 1850s, the bourgeoning class of professional bartenders in America transformed it into a “stunt drink” that showed their mastery of their ingredients and technique (recipe)
spirits (rum or brandy initially, whiskey after the Civil War), sugar, water (ice) and mint (and sometimes a float of this or that)
One of the earliest and most essential American drinks, begun in Virginia by the 1780s, but fully realized by 1810, with the addition of ice, leading to universal popularity until Prohibition. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the julep to the elaboration of American iced drinks and the professionalization of drink mixing—the julep was the crucible on which reputations were made for decades. The julep became the first fancy American drink. Currently underappreciated. (recipe)
spirits (most commonly a genever, rye whiskey or brandy), sugar, water and bitters
A “bittered sling” that emerged at the outset of early 19th Century as a hangover cure, delivering a stiff-but-palatable hair-of-the-dog with “medicine” (the bitters). Ubiquitous by the 1830s. See also Old Fashioned. (recipe)
spirit, sugar, lemon juice and carbonated water
The roots of the collins was a gin punch served in a London coffee house by 1834, by bar manager John Collin. The refreshing “Collin’s punch”, made with gin, was later popularized in Australia, Canada and America in the 1860s in both genever (John Collins) and tom gin (Tom Collins) forms before spawning other variations with other spirits. (recipe)
wine (less commonly, spirits), sugar, ice (generally shaken with, and garnished with fruit)
A key class of American mixed drink, apparently originating in New York, and one of the most popular in the country from the 1840s until around 1900, particularly in the form of the Sherry Cobbler. The cobbler is also closely connected to the popularization of the drinking straw, being one of the first broadly-popular, heavily-iced drinks. (recipe)
wine and sparkling water
The simple Spritzer—a bit like a wine sling or highball—began in Austro-Hungary as a way to lengthen and lighten the local wines into something more like beer, for easier, more refreshing drinking. This practice remained popular in northern Italy after reunification, and there, in the early twentieth century, variations incorporating vermouths and amari emerged. Two important examples of these variations are the Americano and Aperol Spritz. The spritzer also remains popular in Austria to this day, and the “wine cooler” that was common in the USA in the 1980s can be viewed as a (degenerate) commercial variation. (recipe)
spirits (typically genever or Old Tom), lemon juice, sugar, ice, and maybe a touch of liqueur
A class of mixed drink from the 1840s—a simple, iced, single-serving punch of served American-style in a small bar glass, with a fruit garnish. Precursor of the Bramble and (arguably) various on-the-rocks drinks. (recipe)
brandy (or less commonly genever or rye whiskey), sugar, curaçao, lemon juice and bitters
A drink with an unprecedentedly fussy presentation, created by Joe Santini, c. 1850-1855, in New Orleans, but even more important for judiciously introducing citrus juice to the cocktail. Santini’s approach would result in new drinks for which a little acid from citrus plays a nuanced role, but also an eventual “merger” of sorts with the sour that leads to the cocktail [sour] and the “new school” daisy. (recipe)
spirits, sugar, lemon juice (and sometimes egg white and/or a splash of carbonated water)
The Sour is a tricky, but important, one. It was a de facto drink category by the 1850s, but what that actually meant varied a lot. Sometimes the Sour seemed to be an adaptation of punch to the smaller, single-serving template of the American bar, difficult to distinguish from the Fix. Other times the Sour seemed to just be a Sling “made sour” with just a touch of citrus juice. Or it could be something inbetween. Regardless, over the years the Sour led to the Daisy and citrus-oriented cocktails like the Jack Rose and Clover Club. The main Sour that has essentially survived intact to this day is the Whiskey Sour, but the New York Sour has also seen revival. (recipe)
spirits and crushed ice, usually with a sweetener like sugar or falernum, sometimes with lime juice
The use of a swizzle stick (a suitably straight twig with a crotch of trimmed boughs at one end whose stubs serve as paddles) to mix and froth a drink date to the Caribbean colonies of the 1600s; by the 1860s, this regional tradition was married to the growing availability of ice. (recipe)
vermouth (Italian, usually), gum syrup, bitters (and sometimes maraschino liqueur or other additions)
Somehow, in the late 1860s, the inscrutable ethnic specialty that is vermouth began to fascinate the American bar. Logically, the first application of this “strong wine” was as the direct substitute for the spirits in the established cocktail template. This drink is the beginning of the cocktail [americano] meta category. Soon, the vermouth would be sharing the space with the spirits in the Manhattan, Martini, and countless similar drinks. Eventually, these concepts would be reinterpreted in the homeland of Vermouth—Italy—as the Americano. (recipe)
spirits, aperitif/digestif wine or liqueur, and sometimes other additions
This is our category to corral the wildly successful branch of cocktails that incorporated European aperitif and digestif products in addition to or in place of aromatic bitters; this category begins with the adoption of Italian and French vermouths by American bartenders in the late 1860s, the Manhattan, Negroni and Martini being the most famous examples, and extends through today’s fascination with Italian amari. (recipe)
spirits (genever, cognac or rye), gum syrup, maraschino, bitters and absinthe
Here, in the 1870s, we see the Cock-tail begin to fragment into an infinitely variable, generic class of drink, simultaneous to cocktail culture entering mainstream embrace. The “improved” cocktail was an upgraded cocktail, with a little extra this or that (initially maraschino liqueur and absinthe), probably served in a fancier glass, with a nicer garnish, and probably a higher price. Fancy wasn’t new, but now it was the standard. (recipe)
spirits, citrus, sugar and sparkling water (and often other additions)
A class of mixed drink from the 1870s, achieving great popularity in the 1880s, spawning many variations and deviations. The fizz was traditionally smallish in size and strained, rather than served over ice. The fizz is one place where the drinks of the American bar and the American soda fountain nearly rub shoulders. See also the Ramos Fizz. (recipe)
spirits (originally gin or whiskey); curaçao, grenadine and/or raspberry liqueur; lemon juice or lime juice, and carbonated water
A class of mixed drink—a sour sweetened and flavored with a liqueur or fruit syrup instead of sugar—from the 1870s that enjoyed two bouts of popularity prior to Prohibition, making the “new school” transition to the cocktail glass alongside the sour in the 1890s, then reemerging after Prohibition as one of the most popular drink categories, led by the Sidecar and the tequila daisy—the Margarita. (recipe)
egg (whole), sugar, and spirits (and sometimes nutmeg or cream), shaken vigorously with ice and strained
A class of rich American mixed iced drink from the 1870s taking its name from a Colonial-era drink but perhaps more direct inspiration from Egg Nogg; the form enjoyed some popularity until World War II, particularly the Brandy Flip and Sherry Flip. (recipe)
spirits, citrus peel, ice, carbonated water or ginger ale (and sometimes other things)
An influential, but vague class of American drink close to the Highball, less sweet and less sour than a Collins, and always featuring carbonated water or ginger ale. The intent, at least, is clear. (recipe)
gin (Old Tom or London Dry) and vermouth (sweet or dry), and sometimes bitters, absinthe or other additions
The “king of cocktails” began inauspiciously, in the 1880s, with numerous vermouth experiments less successful than the Manhattan, mostly built with the genever that was commonly called “gin” in America; the increasing availability of Old Tom gin and, in the 1890s, London Dry gin, transformed the drink, revealing a new, remarkable synergy between the mysterious vermouths from Italy and France and these English gins. Countless variations ensued under a bewildering number of names, but the underlying idea was here to stay, with the Dry Martini ultimately dominating. (recipe)
rye or bourbon, sugar and bitters
At some point in the 1880s, it became common (evidently first in Chicago) to refer to the original Cock-tail as the “old fashioned Cocktail”, or even just the “old fashion”, to distinguish it from the flood of newer drinks also called cocktails; this new name stuck. (recipe)
Old Tom gin, cream, lemon juice, lime juice, egg white, sugar, carbonated water and orange flower water
In the early 1890s, New Orleans bartender Henry Carl Ramos combined the Silver Fizz, the Cream Lemonade (from the pharmacy soda fountain world), and possibly the influence of the local Milk Punch into a new kind of fizz that has endured to the present day. (recipe)
spirits, lemon or lime juice, and sugar (and sometimes other additions)
This is our category for the “new school” sours after around 1890 that were just called cocktails instead of being called sours; these were designed around and served in the cocktail glass; of many examples, the most important example is the Daiquiri; see also Daisy. (recipe)
This is our category to organize a diverse array of sweet drinks that began to present as cocktails in the 1890s, but probably are inspired by European after-dinner drinking traditions such as the Parisian pousse café and Italian scaffa. Famous examples include the Stinger, Alexander, Grasshopper and Irish Coffee.
rye whiskey, simple syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, absinthe (and sometimes maraschino liqueur)
The Sazerac is a particular way of serving the Improved Whiskey Cocktail developed at the Sazerac House, New Orleans, in the 1890s. The Sazerac went on to great fame, and is distinguished by an absinthe-rinsed glass and the use of the local Peychaud’s Bitters. (recipe)
cognac, kirchwasser, coffee and spices
Café Brûlot, invented c. 1895 by Jules Alciatore, Antoines Restaurant, New Orleans, is the vanishingly rare example of an “extravaganza” cocktail service that achieved longevity.
Cuban-style rum, sugar and lime juice
The Daiquiri is the most iconic and important cocktail sour, prototyped by Yankees at a iron mine near Santiago, Cuba, in 1896 and subsequently refined and popularized by Havana bartending legends Emelio “Maragato” González and Constantino “Constante” Ribalaigua Vert. (recipe)
gin, Cherry Heering, Bènèdictine, lime juice, carbonated water and Angostura bitters
The Singapore Sling is a curious case how the American’s sling evolved through England and the British colonies, first to resemble a cooler or collins, then, by 1910, in Singapore, acquiring liqueurs, a name, and global popularity. (recipe)
amaro, vermouth and carbonated water
Also known as the Americano Highball. A family or template of drinks, late 1890s, where the American cocktail employing Italian ingredients (vermouth) is re-interpreted by the Italians, substituting their regional aperitif and digestif bitters (Fernet, Campari, etc.) for the aromatic bitters (such as Bokers or Angostura) used in America, and often served with ice and topped with a little sparkling water (a variety of highball). See also Negroni. (recipe)
dark jamaican rum, lime juice, sugar, water, and nutmeg
The elemental Jamaican punch, adapted to the single serving format in the late 19th Century, and particularly boosted internationally by Fred Myers (Myers’ Rum) in the 1920s. Also, the foundation—elaborated in myriad ways (e.g., the Zombie)—by Donn Beach in the 1930s that launched Don the Beachcomber’s and the mid-century exotic drink phenomenon. (recipe)
sweet vermouth, gin, Amer Picon (maybe), curaçao (maybe), bitters (maybe)
The Combinación is not one exact drink, but rather a rough template with many small variations at the heart of Spain’s cocktail culture and affinity for vermouth, both of which are entwined and owe more to Parisian (and Cuban) mixology than to direct American inspiration. On paper, it looks a lot like a sweet Martini or some sort of Vermouth Cocktail, and it may circuitously derive from those, but the expression (and sometimes the ingredients) is Iberian.
rye whiskey, lemon juice, sugar, grenadine (and sometimes orange juice, curaçao, and/or amontillado)
A daisy created by 1905, Boston, and particularly popular in the 1930s–40s.
dry gin, dry vermouth, red vermouth, Angostura bitters, and orange
The Bronx cocktail emerged in New York City—possibly the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel—circa 1900–1907, and enjoyed great popularity until Prohibition. The Bronx is the first popular cocktail to feature orange juice, one of the first cocktails to directly inspire mixology-at-home, and a harbinger of the rising fashion of citrus-oriented cocktails in the 20th Century.
often brandy, often whiskey, often white wine, usually champagne on top, maybe some vermouth, some kirsch, some bitters or dashes of liqueurs, but no citrus juice
The Ohio Cocktail is a German cocktail—perhaps the German cocktail—dating to the late 1890s, with many recipes spanning the ensuing decades, but few consistent characteristics; it is generally spiritous, and often topped with champagne, which can’t help but make it celebratory in some sense. (recipe)
dry gin, lemon juice, maraschino liqueur and crème de violette
The Aviation was apparently created by obscure New York bartender Hugo Ensslin c. 1916. The drink seems to have enjoyed some interest in the 1930s–40s, and was enthusiastically embraced at the start of the Cocktail Renaissance, re-introducing maraschino liqueur and crème de violette to the cocktail bar. (recipe)
gin, red vermouth, Campari (and sometimes carbonated water)
The Negroni existed by 1920, Florence, an Americano variation strengthened with gin, featuring the then-novel Campari aperitif bitters. Its early history is entangled with a general French fashion for Campari in the 1920s, and the drink has enjoyed multiple periods of popularity, proving particularly influential to the Cocktail Renaissance. (recipe)
Cognac, triple sec, lemon juice
The Sidecar (by 1922, France) is the most famous cognac cocktail, and the second-most famous “new school” daisy (to the Margarita). The drink appears to have emerged from hotel scene in the French Riviera. The Sidecar enjoyed particular popularity in the 1920s in both Europe and even in American speakeasies, and remains a favorite of many, today. (recipe)
Cuban-style rum, lime juice, sugar, mint, and carbonated water
A cooler or collins made with Cuban rum and mint, this drink can be traced to Prohibition, where it was popular with Americans on a drinking vacation in Havana, and then again in the United States during the 1990s, when it enjoyed a vigorous resurgence beside the Cosmopolitan. (recipe)
spirits, citrus and fruit juices, various sweeteners and spices
What came to be known as “exotic drinks” was almost entirely invented in Hollywood by Donn Beach, at his Don the Beachcomber restaurant (opened 1934): he created extraordinarily sophisticated variations on Planter’s Punch, and presented them with the trappings of fantasy escapism, drawing particularly from Polynesian language, art, and aesthetics; success and imitators followed; almost all exotic drinks are some form of punch, and the most famous examples are the Zombie and Mai Tai
151-proof Demerara rum, Jamaican rum, gold rum, lime juice, Don’s Mix, falernum, grenadine, Pernod and Angostura Bitters
The Zombie (c. 1934) is the most famous drink by Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (Donn Beach), and was essential to establishing and popularizing the mystique of the “exotic restaurant” that Beach more or less invented with his Don the Beachcomber’s in Hollywood. The recipe was secret. Donn Beach actually had several significantly different Zombie formulations over the years, but the original launched his legacy. Despite endless attempts by competitors at reverse-engineering the drink, the original Zombie recipe remained a lost drink until historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry was able to reconstruct it from the 1937 notebook of a Don the Beachcomber waiter. (recipe)
vodka and dry vermouth
With the creation of the Smirnoff brand in 1933 began the wooing of the American drinking public to try vodka. The Vodka Martini was an inevitable and effective tool, and indeed, its first known appearance in print is a 1935 Smirnoff pamphlet. As the market for vodka took off, the vodka version significantly expanded the Martini market for the mid-Century and beyond. (recipe)
tequila, triple sec, and lime juice
The (perhaps) most popular cocktail in the world apparently began as a Tequila Sidecar (amongst other names) in the 1930s at the hands of mixologists in various places, finally gaining its name in the late 1940s; from there, the drink was everything to tequila marketing and, thus impelled, became many things. See also daisy (“margarita” in Spanish).
rum, passion fruit syrup, lemon juice, and lime juice
The Hurricane evidently began as “Hurricane Punch”, a recipe in a marketing pamphlet intended to help market then-new RonRico rum circa 1940. Louis Culligan of Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans seized on it a couple years later, and the Hurricane became their signature drink, building in popularity, world-famous by the 1960s.
vodka, lime juice, and ginger beer
Along with the Vodka Martini and Bloody Mary, the Moscow Mule was an effective tool in the 1940s–1960s for Smirnoff to popularize vodka with Americans. Also notable was how Smirnoff owner Heublein used custom copper cups as a marketing tool for drink to be served in.
jamaican rum, curaçao, orgeat, lime juice, and simple syrup
The most famous exotic (“tiki”) drink, created by Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron in 1944. Like most exotic drinks, the Mai Tai was proprietary to Trader Vic’s, and like Don the Beachcomber’s Zombie, it drew countless inaccurate imitations, with the name eventually applied to virtually any tropical punch. The distinct and nuanced original—or at least as close as we can get to it, today—has enjoyed a rebirth in recent years. (recipe)
Irish whiskey, sugar, hot coffee and whipped cream
One of the most ubiquitous mixed drinks in the world, created c. 1944 by chef Joe Sherican in Foynes, Ireland, and popularized in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Café in the 1950s.
crème de menthe, crème de cacao, and cream
A famous after-dinner drink prototyped in the early years of the 20th Century, possibly in San Francisco or Germany, but apparently reaching its final form and great popularity in the midwest states after World War II.
vodka, light rum, blue curaçao, pineapple juice and sour mix
Created for Bols’ marketing of their blue-colored curaçao, ushered in the blue drink era and interesected the (rum-heavy) world of exotic drinks with the post-war vodka craze.
light rum, pineapple juice, and Coco Lopez
Piña colada (strained pineapple) was long-established non-alcoholic mix of pineapple juice and coconut water in cuba. The appearance of Coco Lopez (canned coconut cream) on the market in 1954 eventually proved an irresistable way to streamline the popular-but-labor-intensive Caribe Welcome tropical drink at San Juan’s teeming Caribe Hilton. By 1968, the Caribe Welcome was the Piña Colada (with rum) and world famous.
vodka, Clamato juice, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco sauce
Clam juice made its way into various Bloody Mary variations in the 1950s, if not earlier, and Mott’s bottled Calamato juice was introduced in the late 1960s, offering a shortcut. The Bloody Caesar—popularized by Walter Silin Chell at the Owl’s Next in Calgary—caught on such an extent it is considered the most popular drink in Canada. (recipe)
reposado tequila, dry gin, orange juice, and grenadine
While not the first Tequila drink named “Tequila Sunrise”, the one invented by Bobby Lozoff in 1970 at the Trident in Sausalito, California is the one that became wildly famous, with promotional help from the Rolling Stones. (recipe)
Absolut Citron, Cointreau, lime juice and cranberry juice
The Cosmopolitan is arguably the transitional cocktail to prime the marketplace for the Cocktail Renaissance. It was served in a Martini glass, and looked equally sophisticated, but it wasn’t at all a Martini. The drink was popularized by 1990 at Odeon, New York City, with the help of Absolut marketing and the drink’s instantly-recognizable appearance, made world-famous by 2000 through the “Sex and the City” television show. (recipe)
vodka, sour apple liqueur and triple sec
Created at Lola’s Restaurant, West Hollywood, c. 1996-1997, by Adam Karston, following the introduction of DeKuyper Sour Apple Pucker. The Appletini was a late-1990s popular phenomenon that galvanized (in opposition) the Cocktail Renaissance, and, along with the Cosmopolitan, fed a period of burgeoning drink menus in mainstream bars and restaurants where every drink was served in a Martini glass and suffixed by -tini. (recipe)