Cocktails 101: What is a Cocktail?
We have established what spirits are and how the major spirits are made, but now what should you do with them? There are many, many spirits which are excellent experienced on their own (straight, neat or on the rocks) or in a mixed drink, and also many which benefit greatly from being mixed with something else. The earliest mixed drinks were created to disguise the occasionally terrible results of less-than-expert distillers and pre-bottling sanitation issues, but today we are fortunate to have high quality spirits for mixing.
The earliest form of the mixed drink is punch, a mixture of: spirits or wine; water; sugar; citrus; and tea or spices. This potent bowl was a direct outgrowth of intercontinental trade and colonial rule, tea and citrus being two items which the British brought back from India—early ingredient contributions to mixology that are still integral to mixology today. Punches were an easy and effective way to disguise questionable ingredients and they provided an excellent social fulcrum for the peoples of Europe and America to eat, drink and be merry around the communal punch bowl.
From this parentage comes the cocktail, as well as a long list of slings, cobblers, fixes, daisies, flips and assorted other names for specific alcoholic preparations. In our time, the word “cocktail” is associated with any mixed drink—a margarita, for example, is frequently called a cocktail despite the fact that it is a sour. It may seem like a silly, purely semantic point to fixate on whether a drink is a sour or a cocktail, but it is an important point when considering the history and breadth of the full complement of mixed drinks.
To illustrate how broad the field is, here is a list of some of the most common mixed drinks, followed by the definition, list of ingredients and some popular examples of the style.
Originally a mix of spirits, sugar, water and bitters, the modern definition fudges the sugar a bit with the inclusion of fortified wines, spirits or even a bit of citrus, though the inclusion of bitters is still strictly necessary for a cocktail. Cocktails can come over ice or up; some famous cocktails are the Manhattan, Martini, Sazerac and Old-Fashioned.
A crusta is primarily known for its garnish, being itself a cocktail with an added dash of citrus juice, but it features a striking, wide sugared rim lined by a thick strip of lemon peel tucked inside the glass. The most common is the Brandy Crusta.
Probably the most well-known of all “cocktails,” a highball is simply a spirit and a carbonated beverage built in a glass over ice. The vodka-tonic and Jack & Coke are probably the best known, but classic examples include the Cuba Libre and Moscow Mule.
The unofficial alcoholic mascot of the American South, juleps are a historic medicinal remedy that slowly transformed into a delicious, refreshing beverage. A julep features a spirit combined with fresh mint and sugar, served over crushed ice. A true Mint Julep uses bourbon as its base, though there are other juleps out there.
The sour is all about balance, featuring only spirit, sugar and citrus shaken over ice. Sours use the juice of lemons and limes, and the sugar can come in the form of a liqueur, syrup or even plain table sugar. Sours can be served on ice or up, and are probably the most well-known of all the styles discussed here. Common examples include the Margarita, Whiskey Sour and Daiquiri.
Essentially a sour served tall, built over ice and topped with club soda, the collins was a popular drink during the mid-twentieth century. A collins is made only with lemon juice as opposed to other citrus, and its most famous representative is the Tom Collins.
Though most often found in its non-alcoholic iterations, a rickey is simply a collins that exclusively uses lime juice rather than lemon—a Tom Collins made with lime is a Gin Rickey.
Kissing cousin of the collins, a Fizz can only be differentiated by its manner of preparation; rather than building the drink in the glass, a fizz is shaken and strained into a glass filled with ice and then topped with soda water. Also, unlike the collins, there are many variations of the fizz which include eggs. The Ramos Gin Fizz is the most well-known (and delicious) example.
A favorite winter warmer and cold remedy, the Toddy is simply spirit, sugar and hot water, occasionally fortified with a squeeze of citrus or a sprinkle of nutmeg. The most common variety is the Hot Toddy, made with whiskey, though a hot Rum Toddy isn’t uncommon.
Armed with these basic definitions, there is a world of beverage exploration open to the curious imbiber. Give one of these styles a try and see where your tastes lie—you may want a stiff drink next time, when we’ll discuss the history of mixology from the birth of cocktails to Prohibition, and the lasting effect that the Volstead Act had on cocktail history.