A lot of the cocktails you find in high-end bars today are based on the classics. But whether or not a single drink has been the most influential is almost impossible to say. There is a lot to consider when determining which drinks influenced the cocktail lists of today.
First you have to look at all of the popular drink families like the sours, Old Fashioneds and so on. If you take just the sour family alone, then a margarita would fit the bill — as would the daiquiri, white lady or sidecar. They’re all really important well-known drinks. But we’re not taking this family-by-family. That would be easy. Below are the seven most influential cocktails inspiring today’s drinks. Period.
1. The ultimate cocktail: The Martini
The most important cocktail for my money is the martini. It’s certainly the most symbolic — when you look at the cocktail glass it conjures up all of these images of the Rat Pack and James Bond. The glass alone says sophistication and it has become the universal symbol of cocktail culture. Even though the Manhattan is the drink that led to the martini, the martini stole its thunder in terms of popularity.
2. If you can only master one drink: The Daiquiri
The daiquiri is the gold standard of all sour cocktails. It’s simple and clean — just rum, fresh lime and a tiny bit of sugar to balance the lime. It’s exquisite. The margarita is very similar to the daiquiri just with tequila instead of rum, Cointreau instead of sugar and the addition of salt, which is what I think made it very popular since it touches every bit of your palate.
3. Drinking history: The Old Fashioned
If you look at a drink like the Old Fashioned (named for its status as the earliest cocktail), it is really just sugar, bitters, ice and rye whiskey or bourbon. But if you look closer, you can see how bartenders have continued to use this formula in new versions of the drink. You can find variations like the Oaxaca old-fashioned (with mescal) or the elder fashioned (a version with gin and St. Germain) that my good friend Phil Ward invented.
4. The definition of refreshing: Tom Collins
The Tom Collins is a long refreshing cocktail with a basic recipe that has led to many great drinks. It’s basically a highball that’s been made very, very well. Making a Tom Collins is almost like making a margarita or white lady. It’s essentially a gin sour that’s been lengthened with soda water to make it a tall, refreshing drink. So if you look at something like a Cuba Libre (coke, rum and lime), the Dark and Stormy (rum and ginger ale) or even the mojito (muddled mint, sugar, lime, rum and soda) you can see the Tom Collins’ influence. A mojito is almost like a rum Tom Collins with mint.
5. The only drink that’s acceptable to drink in the morning: The Bloody Mary
The Bloody Mary is of course the drink that makes it OK to drink cocktails in the afternoon (or morning). It’s also the cocktail that bars that don’t specialize in cocktails often do well. You can go to your local dive bar and they may have their own version of the Bloody Mary. Pubs in England that don’t serve any other cocktail (with the exception of Pimm’s Cup) will serve them. It’s absolutely everywhere.
I credit the Bloody Mary’s success to the amount of flavor that is in it — its almost like drinking gazpacho. It really is a meal. And like all of these influential drinks, there are many versions of it like the red snapper (with gin), the Bloody Maria (with tequila) and the Bloody Caesar (with Clamato juice).
6. The definitive apéritif: The Negroni
I always refer to the Negroni as the Guinness of cocktails since most people don’t like Guinness until they have had three. (After the third, their palate has adjusted.) It’s similar with the Negroni. As the Italians know, there is truly nothing better to drink before you eat than a bitter cocktail like this one. The basic formula of equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari is a jumping off point for many other bitter drinks.
7. When a glass of Champagne just isn’t enough: The Bellini
The Bellini is a beautiful refreshing drink that is low in alcohol and is really closer to drinking wine. No spirits touch these drinks and, yet, they’re still considered cocktails. The Champagne cocktail adds another dimension to a great glass of Champagne with the introduction of some bitters on top of a sugar cube that is dropped into the Champagne, suddenly turning it into a bitters and soda-style drink. Just much fancier.
Out of the seven classics above, there is not one that I feel has been distinctly more influential than another. That said, there are a number of drinks that I have come across in the last ten years that perfectly embody the spirit of the classics but have that contemporary edge like The Bramble by Dick Bradsell, The Gin Mule, The Old Cuban by Audrey Saunders, The Elder Fashioned by Phil Ward, The Gin Blossom by Julie Reiner and The Penicillin by Sammy Ross to name a few.
Here are two recipes for you to test out that I believe will stand the test of time:
The Gin Blossom Recipe
By Julie Reiner of The Flatiron Lounge in New York City
1 ½ oz Plymouth Gin
¾ oz Apricot Eau de Vie
¾ oz Martini Bianco Vermouth
2 dashes Orange Bitters
Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail coup. Garnish with a lemon twist.
The Penicillin Recipe
By Sammy Ross of Milk & Honey in New York City
2 oz Chivas 12 year Old
¾ oz Fresh Lemon Juice
¾ oz Honey-Ginger Syrup*
¼ oz Laphroaig 10 year Old Single Malt
Shake ingredients with ice and strain over fresh ice into a highball glass. Garnish with a piece of candied ginger.
* For the honey ginger syrup, stir fresh pieces of ginger into a combination of water and honey, about half and half and heat to infuse ginger flavor. Chill and filter ginger pieces.
You can follow Simon Ford on Twitter: @SimonJFord
This post was updated October 27, 2022. Before co-founding the Fords Gin Co., he created Drink Ford Tough for Food Republic, featuring stories and recipes from the world of cocktails and spirits.