Classic cocktails are the heart and soul of mixology, but not everyone agrees on what constitutes a classic. Whether you’re talking about rock from the ’60s and ’70s, the poetry of antiquity, or sporty muscle cars, experts in every subject will argue about what gets the title. And perhaps no group of people get so riled up about classics as bartenders. (We’re a sensitive lot.)
The world of cocktails has always had a thing about the old ways (at least since the late 19th century when we decided to call a mix of whiskey, sugar, and bitters the old-fashioned). Before we lost the thread and messed everything up, the old heads from before knew how to make a drink. And after the cocktail revival of the 21st century, classic drinks became a selling point—you’d see signs on A-frames around town proudly announcing: “Classic Cocktails!”
So what were they selling? There’s a certain kind of bartender in the past who might have summed it up succinctly: Classic cocktails are drinks from the Golden Age of drinking. Usually what they mean by that are drinks that were invented before Prohibition in the United States. It’s not a definition I like much, though, for a few reasons.
First, barroom culture in America was at least a century and a half old by the time the Noble Experiment attempted to destroy it. It’s hard for me to see this big swath of history as a single age, especially as drink trends (today and in years past) tend to last just a few years before folks move on to the next.
Second, that definition is America-centric and limiting—amazing drinks were invented worldwide, before and after Prohibition. Some of those cocktails are famous and others obscure; some have switched between these poles, sometimes more than once. Saying we can only count drinks from before Prohibition leaves out the margarita, the Vieux Carré, and the Last Word—so it’s a definition that’ll never work for me.
To me, a classic cocktail is not just defined by a certain time frame or level of popularity. It should be part of a continuity, part of what shaped the way we drink now. Some of the drinks below are members of the sour family, the collins family, the manhattans, and the fizzes—all on a through line of technique or form. Some were strange hybrids or new structures that changed cocktails going forward.
But we agree that classic cocktails are historic (a list of “modern classics” is a list for another day.) Classic cocktails had to be popular enough in their day that they made their way into the books and popular culture of the time and on down to us in the present, which was no easy feat. People are forgetful, especially when they’re drinking, but the drinks in this list have survived in one version or another for decades. You’ll find the old-fashioned sitting comfortably next to the Bloody Mary, not because they have much in common in terms of ingredients or technique or period and place, but because they are collectively part of the historic canon of the cocktail and they set some form that bartenders today continue to fuss with.
No list like this is ever complete. Maybe we’ll dig up some more old drinks soon that catch on in a big way. But you can think of this list as a starting place for your own drink-making at home; an introduction to the classics that will hopefully leave you eager for more.