Spend any time bartending and you’ll notice that cocktails are both specific and incredibly broad. At the same time.
Take, for example, the Moscow Mule, which was invented in Los Angeles in 1941. The truest form of the Moscow Mule is made with Cock ‘n’ Bull ginger beer and Smirnoff vodka served in a solid copper mug. However, you can order a Moscow mule at any bar and get an excellent drink without any of those specific components present.
Looking at the original recipes for any cocktail will undoubtedly show that the first form of the drink is made with very specific ingredients. However, cocktails have evolved with time, location and even ingredient availability, so it’s no wonder that it can be hard to neatly place all cocktails into their own tidy categories.
And, yeah, cocktails have categories! Families, actually, if we want to get fancy.
Because of their fluidity and constant evolution, some cocktails could fall under a few different categories at the same time. This becomes extra confusing when certain cocktails are meant to be served in certain glasses, with certain types of ice and so on.
Understanding some of the different cocktail categories can be handy if you’re looking to experiment with mixers, liquors and flavors at home but aren’t sure what to combine or where to start. There is no one list of cocktail categories, but oftentimes bartenders will create their own list of categories to help them understand the similarities and differences between two otherwise unrelated drinks.
Below, we’ll go over some common cocktail categories that are commonly found in cocktail theory. It's just one of many lists of cocktail categories, but it does a good job of boiling down the thousands of drinks into a decent assortment of similarities.
Knowing the types of cocktails doesn’t do much aside from gaining some potential points for your next trivia night or impressing a master bartender. Otherwise, feel free to continue sipping your cocktails out of your Solo cup or Mason jar, because I know I will.
Common cocktail categories
Spirit + bitters + sweetener + water
Think of the early cocktails like the Old Fashioned: simple, tasty and strong. These cocktails are the earliest forms of mixed drinks we know of, and they all share the same basic formula for a classic cocktail.
Ginger beer + lime juice + spirit + ice
The first cocktail to come to mind in this category is the vodka-based Moscow Mule, which, in fact, is now one of the most popular bucks out there today. Switch up the spirits to make a Kentucky Mule (with bourbon) or an Irish Mule (with Irish whiskey).
Champagne/sparkling wine + bitters + sweetener + citrus
This is where there’s no one formula for a drink in this category. Most of these cocktails share bitters, citrus garnishes and, of course, champagne, but there are plenty of drinks that deviate from the norm. The Old Cuban adds rum and mint leaves to the mix, while the classic Champagne cocktail is more plain with just an addition of a sugar cube.
Flavored syrup + lemon juice + spirit + sweetener
This category covers a multitude of drinks ranging from the frosty margarita to the Rum Daisy. While the measurements and ingredients differ widely, the common thread is that each contains either lemon or lime juice, a flavored syrup and a spirit.
Mint + sugar + spirit + crushed ice
The mint julep, made with bourbon and aromatic bitters, is arguably the most popular of this category. Add an extra flair by garnishing juleps with fresh mint sprigs lightly dusted with powdered sugar.
Spirit + carbonated water
Highballs are some of the more simple cocktails. Traditionally, highball cocktails must be made with just two ingredients: carbonated water or soda and a spirit. Nowadays, though, it’s common to add a splash of fruit juice for flavor, but the drink must absolutely be served in a 10 oz glass, otherwise it’s no longer a highball.
Nogs & flips
Spirit + egg yolk + sugar + cream
These egg-celent cocktails date back to around 17th-century England where the strong drinks were served hot! Now, though, they are more popular cold and served over ice. Flips contain spirits, sugar and egg, while nogs add milk or cream.
Citrus + sugar + spice + spirits
A common theme with punches is that they are made in large quantities and meant to be shared. Does this mean that the plastic tub of Jungle Juice in the back room of my college parties were punch cocktails too, then? Asking for a friend...
Orange juice + spirit
Easy peasy, orange squeezy! This easy cocktail is usually made with clear spirit like gin or vodka with orange juice.
Citrus + spirit + sweetener + bitters
These sweet drinks have citrus juice as the main flavor, with the spirits, bitters and sweeteners taking more of a back seat. Popular sours include margaritas, daiquiris, cosmopolitans and whiskey sours.
Wine + sweetener + liqueur + spirits
Sangrias are refreshing red-wine based cocktails that are best served on the rocks. Add a sprinkle of nutmeg to finish off the drink. Here’s a tasty recipe for a Gin Sangre that’s perfect for any occasion.
Hot water + spirits + sweetener
This warm cocktail is perfect for cooler nights, especially if you’re fighting off a cold or looking for a soothing drink. Most toddies, like the Scotch Toddy, include lemon juice and spices to add to the “health” effects.
While this doesn’t even begin to cover all the cocktails out there in bars today, having an idea of how cocktails are categorized can help identify what types you tend to prefer more! If you’re feeling adventurous, ask your bartender to make you their favorite sour or their most popular highball. You may be pleasantly surprised with what you end up with!
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Seo_Seungwon