How to Make Classic Cocktails Without Looking Up a Recipe

These basic formulas create a blank canvas for your drinking dreams.

Photo: Eva Kolenko

Modern mixologists often seem like magicians in their creativity, bringing together novel ingredients in beautifully composed cocktails. But here's a trade secret: Even the most inventive drinks often share certain fundamental blueprints. Just as chefs don't reinvent the mother sauces with every new dish, bartenders tend to rely on basic cocktail building blocks—ratios of spirits, juices, and sweeteners that can be remixed for a near-infinite range of drinks.

Many familiar cocktails share the same formulas. A traditional Daiquiri (a tart shake of rum, sugar, and lime) is just a bottle swap away from a Gimlet (gin, sugar, lime). Change out the spirit for tequila and the sweetener for orange liqueur, and you've got a Margarita. Other classics are templates in themselves: An Old-Fashioned can be sweetened with honey, or with maple, or with a liqueur, rather than white sugar; and while it's commonly a whiskey drink, you can also build it from a base of dark rum, or aged tequila, or Cognac. A Negroni-style cocktail can star nearly any spirit in place of gin, and any bitter in place of Campari.

Learning a few basic ratios is the best way for home bartenders to start innovating—or to just make great use of whatever happens to be hanging around the liquor cabinet. Once you start riffing, the possibilities begin to seem endless. Is there a bit of trial and error in creating your new favorite cocktail? Of course. But taste-testing the results is half the fun.

Bitter: The formula for those who love a good Negroni or Boulevardier

Rum and Orange Cocktail
Eva Kolenko

1 1/2 ounces spirit

1 ounce amaro or similarly bitter liqueur

1 ounce wine-based modifier (vermouth, sherry, port, or Lillet)

Stir with ice, serve in a coupe or on the rocks, and garnish with a citrus twist.

Further riffs: Lighten it up with a splash of ginger beer or even sparkling wine.

Try It: Using Jamaican rum, Amaro Montenegro, and sweet vermouth in this formula yields a Rum and Orange, a delightfully strong drink with a hint of molasses-y sweetness balancing its pleasing bitterness.

Boozy: The ratio behind an Old-Fashioned

Apple Old-Fashioned
Eva Kolenko

2 ounces spirit

1/2 ounce sweetener

2 dashes bitters

Stir with ice. Serve on the rocks, and garnish with a citrus twist.

Riff it: For a hot drink, combine ingredients in a heatproof glass with 2 ounces boiling water.

Try it: Using Laird's Straight Applejack 86, honey syrup, and Angostura bitters in this formula yields an Apple Old-Fashioned with fresh apple flavors.

Bubbly: The ratio behind the Kir Royale, Aperol Spritz, and French 75

Winter berries Cocktail
Eva Kolenko

1 ounce spirit

1/2 ounce fruit or herbal liqueur

3 ounces sparkling wine

Combine with ice in wine glass, and garnish with citrus.

Further riffs: Swap out the spirit for a vermouth, sherry, or wine-based aperitif like Lillet; grape-based bottles almost always play well together.

Try it: We used bourbon, a dark berry liqueur (such as Chambord, crème de cassis, or crème de mûre), and sparkling wine in this formula to create a sipper we call Winter Berries, a bubbly drink with a touch of heat.

Tart: The master recipe for a Daiquiri, Margarita, Gimlet, and Whiskey Sour

Rosemary Gimlet
Eva Kolenko

2 ounces spirit

1 ounce fresh citrus juice

3/4 ounces sweetener

Shake with ice, and serve in a coupe or on the rocks.

Further riffs: Infuse light agave nectar, rather than honey, and swap the rum with reposado tequila for a wintery rosemary margarita.

Try it: For a Rosemary Gimlet, start by making an herbaceous sweetener. Steep 5 rosemary sprigs in 1/2 cup of near-boiling water 20 minutes. Add 1/2 cup honey, and steep 2 hours. Combine it with gin and fresh lime juice, and pucker up!

Fizzy: The formula behind the Moscow Mule, Dark and Stormy, and Tom Collins

Irish Buck Cocktail
Eva Kolenko

1 1/2 ounces spirit

1/2 ounce citrus

1/2 ounce sweetener

2 ounces carbonation (club soda, tonic, or ginger beer)

Shake first 3 ingredients with ice. Pour in a tall glass over fresh ice, top with carbonation, and stir.

Garnish with herb sprig.

Further riffs: Get creative with herb and spirit combinations: white rum and mint, vodka and lemon verbena, gin and rosemary, and beyond.

Try it: One delicious example of this ratio is a refreshing drink we call an Irish Buck, which uses Irish whiskey, lemon juice, honey syrup, and ginger beer, garnished with a sprig of basil.

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