A young bartender’s recurring nightmare is an avalanche of orders for obscure drinks that can only be found in one of those phonebook-size volumes in the bookstore that boast “3000 Popular Cocktails!” But there’s no need to lose sleep. I can tell you that there are really just a few dozen drinks that are popular—and many of them follow a single basic formula that can be modified to produce an endless number of tasty variations. (Consider it a strand of cocktail DNA.) Whether you’re mixing drinks at home or in a swanky joint, understanding this simple code will help you unlock the world of mixology.
If you can make a simple Whiskey Sour (.75 ounce lemon juice, .75 ounce simple syrup, 1.5 ounces whiskey) you have the template for hundreds of cocktails. Change the simple syrup to Cointreau and the whiskey to cognac and you have a Sidecar. Substitute tequila for the cognac and, ta-da, you have a basic Margarita.
If you use the Whiskey Sour recipe and top it off with some club soda or champagne, you can make even more drinks, including the Collins, the Mojito and the French 75. Once you’ve tried these classics, you can start having some real fun by making your own creations. Mash a couple of pieces of fresh mango in the bottom of your Mojito or flavor your Tom Collins with a few dashes of Angostura Bitters, and I guarantee the difference will be dramatic. And once you commit this formula to memory, you’ll definitely sleep soundly.
Master Mixologist Dale DeGroff is the author of The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail. He is also one of Liquor.com’s advisors.