Posted On: April 18, 2017

7 Drinks Every Bartender Should Know

Ask any two bartenders for their list of the most popular cocktails in America; chances are, the lists have diverged by the time they get to drink number four. 

Entire books can (and have) been written on the subject. Nonetheless, here are ten popular cocktails with a colorful history you should know.

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#1: The Martini (aka, James Bond's Drink)

A classic martini calls for gin and a splash of dry vermouth, stirred, served in a chilled martini glass with a pimento olive garnish.

But that's not how 007 does it. He likes a vodka martini, shaken not stirred. For the record, shaking a martini makes it colder and more diluted as the ice melts during the process. To be fair, a spy has to stay sharp while looking cool.

History of the Martini

The classic martini definitely came into being by 1922, but records of a martini cocktail date back to 1887 (with a much sweeter recipe).

Sometimes the martini is said to be traced to the Gold Rush in California. In these origin stories, the name comes from either a brand of vermouth (Martini & Ross) or the town of Martinez. Sometimes, it's linked to the name of a bartender in the Knickerbocker Hotel in NYC, circa 1911.

Either way, the relative prevalence of gin during the Prohibition probably popularized the classic version of the drink.

Ways to Take Your Martini

Martini aficionados have…opinions about their drink. They also have a whole vocabulary to describe their preference, and the uninitiated are often confused by the terms.

How "wet" or "dry" a martini indicates how sweet it is due to the amount of vermouth. The standard is 3 parts gin or vodka, 1 part vermouth. A wet martini has more, a dry martini has less. An extra dry martini may only have a vermouth rinse. There's a joke that a Churchhill martini made with 5 parts gin and a quick glance at the vermouth. A martini with no vermouth is sometimes called a Naked Martini.

Martinis are traditionally garnished with an olive, but a "dirty" martini has a splash of olive brine in the mix as well for a savory taste. Sometimes this replaces the vermouth, but typically it's an addition.

These are the most common versions of a "real" martini. Then people got creative.

Variations on the Martini

A smoky martini, sometimes called a burnt martini, has a splash of smokey single malt scotch added in.

When you garnish a martini with a cocktail onion instead of an olive, it becomes a Gibson.

A Perfect Martini is sweeter, sometimes called the 50/50 Martini due to a mix of sweet and dry vermouth. The Martinez, which possibly pre-dated the Martini, forgoes the dry vermouth entirely for sweet and adds two dashes of orange bitters and a spoon of Maraschino liqueur with a lemon twist.

A Reverse (or Upside-Down) Martini flips the ratios of gin and vermouth for a weaker cocktail with a lighter flavor.

Then there's a whole family of Tini's – the Appletini, Chocolatini, Mochatini, Pornstar Martini, etc etc. The greatest resemblance these bear to a martini is the glass and the liquor (typically vodka, but sometimes gin). Otherwise, they're really their own beast.

#2: The Margarita (Jimmy Buffet's Beverage)

A cool, fruity combination of tequila, triple sec (orange liqueur), lime juice, and ice. Shake, strain, and present with a salt rim and lime wheel. Salt subdues the bitterness and brings out the sweet and sour flavors.

History of the Margarita

The first U.S. importer of Jose Cuervo ran an ad campaign in 1945 with the tagline "Margarita: it's more than a girl's name." It's the first definitive record of the iconic cocktail.

Frozen margaritas were invented in 1971, inspired by 7-Eleven's Slurpee machine.

Variations on the Margarita

The margarita is incredibly adaptable. You can add just about any fruit for a rainbow of tequila regrets. You can make them on the rocks, straight up, or frozen.

#3: The Manhattan (J.P. Morgan's Favorite)

A timeless mingling of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters, stirred – never shaken – and garnished with a maraschino cherry.

History of the Manhattan

The origins of this cocktail are fuzzy and often associated with Prohibition, but the cocktail was mentioned in print as early as 1882.

Variations on the Manhattan

The Perfect Manhattan calls for a 50/50 mix of sweet and dry vermouth, and the Dry Manhattan uses dry vermouth entirely, with a lemon garnish instead of cherry.

The Rob Roy is made with scotch, rather than the more traditional rye whiskey or bourbon.

#4: The Mojito (Hemmingway's Habit)

Taste a bit of Havana with this mixture of white rum, club soda, lime juice, simple syrup, and a healthy dose of mint leaves. To draw out the enjoyment, make special ice cubes with water, sugar, and lime juice. Delicious!

History of the Mojito

The mojito is a very old cocktail – it's believed to have originated in Cuba in the 1500s. Rumor is that pirates drank it to cure scurvy and dysentery (yum!).

Variations on the Mojito

As a popular drink in Cuban and Mexican restaurants, mojitos are sometimes made with tequila instead of rum. You can also change out the lime juice for other fruit.

#5: The Piña Colada (Official Drink of Puerto Rico)

Tantalizingly tropical and named for its primary ingredient, combine pineapple juice with white rum and coconut cream then shake or blend with ice. Garnish with a pineapple wedge, maraschino cherry, or both.

History of the Piña Colada

The piña colada was probably invented at a tourist bar in Puerto Rico in 1954. The U.S. territory adopted it as their official beverage in 1978.

"The Piña Colada Song" (which you're probably singing in your head right now) was written by a guy who never liked piña coladas and originally wanted to sing about Humphrey Bogart, instead.

Variations on the Piña Colada

Add blue curaçao to turn your piña colada into a Blue Hawaiian, or Midori for an Iguana Colada. Replace rum with Kahlua and it's a Kahlua Colada, or with vodka for a King Henry. Blend a piña colada with a strawberry daiquiri for a Lava Flow.

#6: The White Russian (The Dude's Drink)

Deliciously rich! Made with Kahlua (coffee-flavored liqueur), vodka, and heavy cream, stirred together and served over ice in an Old Fashioned glass.

The Dude abides.

History of the White Russian

The earliest written mention of the White Russian doesn't show up until 1961, though the Black Russian has its origin story in the late 1940s at the dawn of the Cold War. The story goes that it was created for the American ambassador to Luxembourg while she was visiting Brussels.

No Russians were consulted in the making of this drink…unless you count the vodka.

The drink was repopularized by its appearance in The Big Lebowski, under the screenname of "The Caucasian."

Variations on the White Russian

Skip the cream and it's a Black Russian. When it's made with chocolate milk instead of cream, it's either called a Dirty Russian or an Off-White Russian, depending on your preference. Replace the cream with horchata and it's a White Mexican. And if you really must, you can replace the cream with goat milk to make a White Canadian.

A White Cuban swaps out the liquor instead of the cream – change the vodka out for rum (what else?).

The Mudslide is basically a White Russian with Irish cream liqueur added to the mix.

#7: The Mai Tai

Get a taste of good old American tiki culture with rum, orange curaçao, lime juice, and orgeat (a syrup made of rose water, sugar, and almonds). Shaken with fresh-crushed ice.

History of the Mai Tai

Despite its exotic name, this cocktail is all-American. Invented in 1944 as a simple cocktail designed to spotlight good Jamaican rum, the drink got sweeter as the rum got cheaper until the Mai Tai became what you'd recognize today.

The name comes from the Tahitian phrase "Maita’i roa a’e" (which means "out of this world! The best!").

Variations on the Mai Tai

Add sparkling wine to the Mai Tai for a fizzy twist. Sub bourbon for rum to make a Honi Honi. Made with tequila, it's a Pinky Gonzales.

#8: The Tequila Sunrise

Three simple ingredients: tequila, orange juice, and grenadine for that classic color gradient. Garnish with orange slice.

History of the Tequila Sunrise

While the U.S. was dealing with Prohibition in the 1920s, Californians were sneaking just south of the border for a classic recipe for regret: gambling and tequila. And so, a spring break staple was born.

#9: The Gimlet

Just gin, lime juice, and simple syrup. Garnish with lime zest for extra Vitamin C.

History of the Gimlet

This drink is either named after Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette for dosing his mariners with gin and scurvy-preventing lime juice or for the hand tool used to bore barrels in the Royal Navy, also called the gimlet.

Variations on the Gimlet

With such a simple base, you can do a lot with infusions or liqueur to put your own twist on the gimlet. Try rosemary or thyme-infused syrup. For a fruity twist, substitute umeshu, or Japanese plum wine.

#10: The Lemon Drop

Vodka, triple sec, syrup, and lemon juice – shaken, strained, and served up in a sugar-rimmed Martini glass as the grown-up version of lemon drop candy.

History of the Lemon Drop

This sweet favorite was invented (or at least popularized) to please "the ladies" in the 1970s San Francisco singles bar scene.

There's More to Bartending Than Cocktails

Mixology is an important part of bartending, but so is knowing the law where you live and protecting yourself from liability.

Whether your area requires a bartending license or not, it's a good idea to complete alcohol server training. You'll learn how to spot minors, evaluate someone's level of intoxication, and become familiar with the law where you work.

Our alcohol server training is self-paced, inexpensive, and online. Get started today!

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