15 Essential Cocktails Every Bartender Should Know

There are literally hundreds of so-called “essential cocktails” out there. Some of them were created in the 1800’s. And even more, are being thought up today by creative bartenders.

If you really wanted to, you could spend years pouring over cocktail books and practicing cocktail techniques in an attempt to master them all!

But do you really need to memorise a hundred cocktail recipes to excel as a bartender?

Of course, you don’t.

And in most cases, it would be a waste of your time. Because unless you’re actually making the cocktails you’re trying to learn, you’ll end up forgetting them.

When I was starting out, that’s exactly what I did. I tried to memorize as many cocktails as I could find. But because I only ever made a few of them, I ended up forgetting most of them. The only ones that stuck with me were the ones that I made on a daily basis.

So no. You don’t need to memorize a hundred cocktails recipes. Most of the time you’ll only ever make the same 10-15 cocktails over and over again so there’s no point. If you really want to excel as a bartender, you should focus on learning how to make those 10-15 cocktails really well.

That’s what this article is about. Instead of giving you a list of 100 essential cocktails you’re never going to make. I’ve distilled this list down to 15 of the most popular cocktails that are being ordered around the world today.

And these recipes are good…. Really good.

So once you’ve mastered them, not only will you be able to confidently jump behind any bar, but you’ll be able to satisfy even the most sophisticated of customers!

How to Use this List

This list has been designed with you in mind. Not only are they some of the most popular cocktails in the world. But learning how to make them will also teach you the most important cocktail techniques you need to know.

That means that the better you get at making these cocktails, the better you’ll become at making cocktails in general.

Why?

Because the majority of cocktails use very similar techniques and formulas. So when you come across a new cocktail, all you’ll need to do is switch the ingredients and change some of the proportions. You won’t need to learn any new techniques.

I highly recommend that you download this list. Memorize this list. Study this list. And practice making these cocktails whenever you get the chance. Because you’re going to be making them over and over again throughout your entire bartending career.

And once you’ve mastered them, you’ll be able to pump out these delicious cocktails fast. You’ll be able to confidently tackle the vast majority of cocktail recipes. And you’ll become a better bartender in general!

Conversions:

For my American friends out there (and anyone else who uses the imperial system of measurement), here are the conversions:

  • 1 oz = 30ml (approx – 28.413ml to be exact)
  • 1/2 oz = 15ml (close enough!)

Now, without further ado, let’s get started with the 15 cocktails every bartender should know. And what better way to start than with one of most infamous cocktails of all-time.

1) The Martini

martini

The Martini is one of those essential cocktails that everyone has heard of. Popularized in recent years by the James Bond films and his famous line “Shaken, not stirred.” This cocktail is becoming more and more popular by the day. But it’s been around for more than a century.

Martini’s can be made with either vodka or gin and it can be garnished with an olive or a lemon twist (you should always ask what the customer would like). Then, there are three main variations on top of that.

The first is the Dirty Martini. To make a dirty martini you need to add 1-3 bar spoons of olive brine to the mix. The second variation is when a customer asks for their martini extra dry. That basically means that they want less vermouth (5ml of dry vermouth is considered to be extra dry). And the final variation is when a customer orders their Martini perfect. Which means equal parts dry and sweet vermouth (i.e. 5ml of each).

This is one of the most popular cocktails of all time. If not the most. And every bartender should know how to make it. It’s got world acclaim, James Bond drinks it, and people will order it regardless of the occassion.

Ingredients:

  • 60ml Gin/Vodka
  • 10ml Dry Vermouth
  • 1 olive/lemon twist (garnish)

Method: Stir & strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the garnish.

2) Manhattan

The Manhattan is the grandfather of the Martini. It’s not as well known but it was actually created before the Martini. And some people believe that the Martini only exists because of it. It was one of the first drinks that called for the addition of vermouth. And because of that, it changed how we drink alcoholic beverages today.

Some people love it, some people hate it. But every great bartender should know how to make it. And although you won’t make it as often as some of the other cocktails on this list, it’s still an important addition to your repertoire.

There’s one main variation you need to know. Just as there’s a perfect martini, there’s a Perfect Manhattan. And once again, all it means is that there should be equal parts of dry and sweet vermouth (15ml of each).

The following recipe is straight from Gary Regan. A self-proclaimed Manhattan lover and one of the most celebrated cocktail bartenders of our time. I can testify to how great this recipe is. I used to be in the hate-it camp until I tried his concoction. Now, I’ll forever be in the love-it camp.

Ingredients:

  • 60ml bourbon or straight rye whiskey
  • 30ml sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes of bitters (Angostura is a fine choice)
  • 1 maraschino cherry (garnish)

Method: Stir & strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the garnish.

3) Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned has evolved over the years into a fantastic cocktail. Back in the 1960’s, it was made by muddling a cherry and orange slice with the sugar and bitters. But having personally compared both original and modern versions, I can say that the modern version is a far more approachable cocktail.

But the truth is, you should be able ‘fashion’ your Old Fashioned however you like. Some people prefer them to be made with rum instead of bourbon. And I know a particularly good variation that calls for Jamaican rum, sherry, and chocolate bitters.

However, most of the time, people are going to want it made the modern way. So when you’re starting out, you don’t need to concern yourself with any of its variations.

Ingredients:

  • 1 brown sugar cube (1 full bar-spoon of brown sugar)
  • 2-3 dashes of bitters
  • 60ml of bourbon/rye whiskey
  • 1 orange twist (garnish)

Method: Muddle the sugar and bitters in a rocks glass. Add 30ml of bourbon then stir with ice until the ice has slightly diluted. Add the other 30ml of bourbon and stir once again, tasting as you go until the dilution is perfect. Add the garnish.

Alternatively, to speed up the making of this drink. You could do the whole process in a mixing glass, then stir & strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Add the garnish.

4) Negroni

negroni

The Negroni was once described to me as the perfect balance of sweet, sour, and bitter. And now, that I’ve become a huge fan of this classic cocktail, I can’t help but agree.

The Negroni seems to be particularly popular among bartenders. So a lot of time, the person ordering it on the other side of the bar knows what to expect. That means it’s important that you know exactly how to make it!

But fortunately for you, it’s one of the easiest cocktails to make on this list. It’s simply equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin. And if you’re making a lot of them, you can premix this cocktail to save yourself a bit of time.

Ingredients:

  • 30ml Campari
  • 30ml Sweet Vermouth
  • 30ml Gin
  • 1 orange twist/orange wedge/flaming orange zest (garnish)

Method: Build in any order in a rocks glass. Add ice and give a quick stir. Add the garnish.

5) Whisky Sour

If you don’t think you like bourbon or rye whiskey, you probably haven’t tried a Whiskey Sour. This is one of the first cocktails I ever drank and I still enjoy drinking them today. Especially when it’s made with an egg white.

The egg white gives the cocktail a creamy texture that adds to this already well-balanced cocktail. But it’s an optional addition. Some of your customers won’t like it (and some might even be allergic).

There a couple of important variations you need to know. The first is made with Pisco instead of bourbon/rye whiskey (called a Pisco Sour). And the second is made with amaretto instead of bourbon/rye whiskey (called an Amaretto Sour).

When you’re making an Amaretto Sour, you’ll want to add less sugar syrup (about 15ml instead of 30ml) because the amaretto liqueur is already quite sweet. And having too much sugar syrup will overpower the cocktail.

Ingredients:

  • 60ml bourbon or rye whiskey
  • 30ml fresh lemon juice
  • 30ml sugar syrup
  • 1 egg white (optional)
  • 1 maraschino cherry (garnish)

Method: Dry shake (if using egg white), then shake & strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Add the garnish.

6) Daiquiri

The Daiquiri is one of the David Embury’s 6 cocktails he discusses in detail in his infamous cocktail book, ‘The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.’ And for good reason. This cocktail has taken the world by storm because of its endless variations.

It’s essentially a ‘rum sour’ (without an egg white) except it’s made with lime juice instead of lemon. And because rum is more open to mixing with other ingredients than whiskey is, it’s a great cocktail to play around with. You can throw in fruits, syrups, and other liqueurs to mix it up and give the daiquiri a completely different flavor profile.

Frozen versions are extremely popular during the summer. And they’re made by simply blending the mix with crushed ice. It’s an easy cocktail to make, but its endless variations make it an important addition to your arsenal.

Ingredients:

  • 60ml light rum
  • 30ml fresh lime juice
  • 15ml sugar syrup
  • Lime wheel (garnish)

Method: Shake & strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the garnish.

7) Cosmopolitan (Cosmo)

I hate to admit it, but the Cosmo is one of my favorite cocktails. Despite it being extreme girly and popularized by the T.V. series, ‘Sex and the City,’ I love it. I just wish it looked more manly…

But it’s not just me who loves it. The Cosmo is one of Dale Degroff’s (king of the cocktail) signature cocktails. It became a runaway hit in the 1990’s when he started flaming an orange zest over the drink. Gary Regan also describes the cocktail’s success as well-deserved.

If you’re looking for a variation, swapping the citrus vodka for tequila is a great way to change it up. Which basically turns the drink into a Margarita with cranberry juice.

Ingredients:

  • 45ml citrus vodka
  • 30ml triple sec (If the bar you work at only wants 60ml of alcohol in the cocktail, replace 15ml of triple sec with 15ml of simple syrup)
  • 15ml lime juice
  • 30ml cranberry juice
  • Flaming orange zest (garnish)

Method: Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Flame that garnish!

8) Margarita

margarita

The Margarita is one of the world’s most popular cocktails, especially during the summer. Some people are absolutely obsessed with it! Including many of my bartender friends.

It follows a very similar recipe to the Cosmo. The difference is that you replace the citrus vodka with tequila, you leave out the cranberry juice, and you garnish it differently. But other than that, everything else is the same.

The only variation you need to know is the frozen version, which is made by blending the mix with crushed ice. Keep this drink simple and your customers will be happy.

Ingredients:

  • 45ml tequila
  • 30ml triple sec (Once again you can replace 15ml of triple sec for 15ml of simple syrup to keep the cocktail at 60mls of alcohol)
  • 20ml fresh lime juice
  • Salt rim (garnish)

Method: Shake & strain into a chilled salt-rimmed cocktail glass. Only rim half the glass with salt so that the people who don’t want to taste the salt don’t have to.

9) Caipirinha/Caipiroska

The Caipirinha and Caipiroska were 2 of the first cocktails I learned how to make. So I’ve been making them for a while now. And I’ve found that the Caipirinha is quite the polarizing cocktail. If you’ve never tasted cachaca rum (the Caipirinha’s main ingredient) before, you’re in for a shock when you do.

It’s not my cup of tea, but some people absolutely love it.

On the other hand, I love the flexibility and freedom you have with a Caipiroska. It’s made in exactly the same way as the Caipirinha, except it uses vodka instead of cachaca rum. The Caipirinha is the original cocktail and the Caipiroska it’s main variation. But that hasn’t stopped the Caipiroska becoming more popular.

Just as with the Daiquiri, the Caipiroska is a great drink to play around with. Throw in some fruits, syrups, and liqueurs and you’ll create a completely different cocktail.

Ingredients:

  • 4-6 lime wedges
  • 1 bar spoon of brown sugar
  • 60ml of cachaca rum (or vodka for the Caipiroska version)
  • No garnish

Method: Muddle the limes and sugar in a rocks glass. Add the cachaca/vodka. Fill the glass with crushed ice. Stir thoroughly. Crown with crushed ice.

10) Mojito

mojito

The Mojito has taken the world by storm. You’ll find people ordering them at almost every bar, restaurant, and/or pub you go to. It’s become one of the most popular cocktails of the modern era. And it’s up there with the Martini as a contender for the most popular cocktails of all time.

It requires a little more skill to make, than most of the other essential cocktails on this list. But it’s still relatively simple.

First of all, it requires fresh mint leaves. And to release the flavors, scents, and oils, of those mint leaves, you need to ‘clap’ them in your hands before adding them to the drink. You should do the same with the mint sprigs when you add the garnish. If you do it properly, it will pack the cocktail with a refreshing minty freshness that is essential to a delicious Mojito.

It can either be made with brown sugar or sugar syrup. But brown sugar marries better with the muddled limes. However, if you use brown sugar, it will take longer to make.

And finally, you should always use crushed ice. Even if it means you have to crush it yourself. Because the drink won’t be half as good if you use cubed ice instead.

Ingredients:

  • 4-6 lime wedges
  • 60ml light rum
  • 20ml sugar syrup (or 1-2 bar spoons of brown sugar)
  • 8-10 mint leaves
  • 1-2 mint sprigs (garnish)

Method: Muddle lime wedges and sugar in a highball until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add rum and mint leaves (give them a good ‘clap‘ before adding them). Fill with crushed ice then stir rigorously. Top with soda water. Crown with crushed ice then slap the mint sprigs and garnish the cocktail.

11) Long Island Iced Tea

This drink packs a powerful punch. That’s why it’s become such popular drink among college and university students! So if you’re working in a nightclub or a bar near a college/university, expect to make a lot of these.

But despite this drink going against many ‘mixing’ conventions, it actually tastes alright. And it’s really easy to remember. It’s equal proportions of all its ingredients, then topped up with coke. How easy is that!

Ingredients:

  • 15ml Vodka
  • 15ml Gin
  • 15ml Light Rum
  • 15ml Tequila
  • 15ml Triple Sec
  • 15ml Fresh Lemon Juice
  • 15ml Sugar Syrup
  • Cola
  • 1 Lemon Wedge (garnish)

Method: Shake everything except for the Cola and strain into an ice-filled highball glass. Top with cola. Add the garnish.

12) Pina Colada

pina-colada

“If you like Pina Colada’s….” It’s the tiki cocktail that’s gone viral. I love the song almost as much as I love the drink. It’s one the best cocktails you can order during the summer, when you’re by the pool, or when you’re bathing in the sun at the beach.

When it’s made right, it’s fantastic. But when it’s made wrong, it’s pretty average. So if you’re going to make this cocktail, learn how to make it right. Do that by following this recipe and using the best ingredients you can find.

I’ve found that Koko Kanu rum works the best. But it’s hard to find. So you’re probably going to use a combination of coconut rum and light rum. But if you had access to it, you would replace both the light rum and coconut rum with 60ml of Koko Kanu.

Always use fresh cream and a decent brand of pineapple juice.

Ingredients:

  • 30ml light rum
  • 30ml coconut rum
  • 15ml coconut syrup
  • 30ml double cream
  • 60ml pineapple juice
  • 1 pineapple wedge (garnish)
  • 1 maraschino cherry (garnish)

Method: Shake & strain into an ice-filled highball glass. Add the garnishes.

13) Mai-Tai

The Mai-Tai is one of those drinks that get’s brutalized in cheaper establishments. And when customers drink these brutalized versions, sometimes they’re left with a bad impression. Which is a shame, because when it’s made properly, it’s an awesome tiki cocktail that is best accompanied by a day in paradise!

But despite these brutalized versions going around, people still seem to love it. And it gets ordered all over the world. Especially in the tropics. Which is why it’s one of those essential cocktails every bartender should know.

And the fact that Maita’i (Mai Tai) means ‘good’ in Tahitian, says it all!

You don’t need to know any variations of this cocktail. Just remember to ‘slap’ the mint sprigs before you use them as a garnish. Just as with the Mojito, ‘slapping’ the mint sprigs will release its scents and flavors. And it will give the cocktail a refreshing smell whilst it’s being drunk.

Ingredients:

  • 30ml dark rum
  • 30ml light rum
  • 15ml triple sec
  • 20ml orgeat syrup
  • 30ml fresh lime juice
  • 1-2 mint sprigs (garnish)

Method: Shake and strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Add the garnish.

14) Espresso Martini

The rise of the espresso machine has given birth to the one of the most popular cocktails of the modern era, the Espresso Martini. As far as I’m aware, it hasn’t been around for that long. But it has quickly become one of the most commonly consumed cocktails in the world today.

Every establishment I’ve worked at in the past 3 years, has made more Espresso Martinis than any other cocktail. Who would have thought that two of most commonly consumed ‘drugs’ would marry together to make such a popular cocktail!?

When you make an Espresso Martini, freshly brewed espresso works the best. But if you’re making them in a large quantity, you can refrigerate a daily batch of espresso. You also need to shake this cocktail hard so that you activate the espresso to give the cocktail a nice foamy top.

Ingredients:

  • 45ml Vodka
  • 15ml Coffee Liqueur
  • 60ml Freshly Brewed Espresso
  • 15ml Sugar Syrup (or to taste)
  • 3 Coffee Beans (garnish)

Method: Shake (hard) & strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the garnish.

15) Bloody Mary

What list of essential cocktails would this be if it didn’t include the perfect hangover cure… The Bloody Mary. This drink has become extremely popular during a Sunday breakfast, brunch, or lunch. Mainly because people believe that it helps them cope with the hangover they earned the night before.

Just like the Caipirinha, the Bloody Mary has a polarizing audience. Some people love it. Other’s despise it. I happen to be in the loving it camp. As long as it’s not too spicy…

The Bloody Mary is a very liberal cocktail. And it should be made that way. So you have a lot of flexibility and freedom to play around with this recipe. You should adjust the amount of salt, pepper, hot sauce, Worcester sauce, and horseradish you add depending on your own tastes. And those of your customers.

This recipe should only be used as a guide. But that being said, it’s the recipe that I’ve found appeals to the widest audience.

Ingredients:

  • 60ml Vodka
  • 120ml Tomato Juice
  • 20ml Fresh Lemon Juice
  • 3 Dashes of Tobasco
  • 3 Dashes of Worcester Sauce
  • 1/4 of a Teaspoon of Horseradish (optional if available)
  • Salt & Pepper to Taste (celery salt works the best)
  • 1 Lemon Wedge (garnish)
  • 1 Celery Stick (garnish)

Method: Gently roll the ingredients from one shaker to another until the mix is chilled (don’t shake the mix because the tomato juice will foam). Strain into an ice-filled highball. Add the garnishes.

How Do I Master These Cocktails?

I created a free cocktail cheat sheet that you can use and refer to whenever you need to make one of these cocktails. The cheat sheet contains the 15 essential cocktails distilled into an easy to read/follow format.

And it’s been designed so that you can study this list at home and/or refer to it whenever you need to behind the bar.

I highly recommend that you download this cheat sheet, memorize the recipes, and practice making them whenever you get the chance. That’s how you’ll master these essential cocktails. And once you’ve mastered them, you’ll able to confidently make the vast majority of cocktails out there, and you will become a better bartender in general!

Founder of Crafty Bartending, Tom is passionate about the hospitality industry. For the past 5 years, he has traveled around Europe, Asia, & Australia working as a professional bartender & bar manager. He loves consuming cookies, big macs, beer and wine.

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