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.
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. . Below are the five most influential cocktails inspiring today’s drinks.
Dates to: Around 1900.
Crisp, tart and elegantly simple, a good daiquiri is a pale, delicious thing of beauty. The classic version is not frozen, but it is still perfect for drinking beachside, or for bringing the beach to where it ain’t. Look for a good Cuban-style light rum (Havana Club, Banks 5 Island) to get you started, and then adjust as you get acquainted with the drink. (Aficionados sometimes graduate to older rums, but the light is classic.) A simple sugar syrup balances out the tartness of the lime and keeps the drink from getting too watered down by its icy shake.
If you like it, try: Mojito, Last Word, Hemingway Daiquiri.
60ml white rum, such as Cana Brava (see headnote)
30ml fresh lime juice
15ml rich Demerara syrup (see headnote and NOTE)
Dates to: Unknown, but likely 1930s-40s.
Like the daiquiri, the margarita is a classic from the cocktail family known as sours, a simple but delicious clan of drinks in which the DNA is made up of spirit, citrus and sweetener. You should taste the tequila (use a good blanco, which is unaged, or reposado, which is lightly aged), the lime and sweetness from the orange liqueur; a touch of agave syrup boosts the sweetness and the flavor of the spirit’s origin plant. Salt is optional, of course, but it functions the way it does in cooking, tying the whole package together.
If you like it, try: Mezcal Margarita, Paloma.
Large/coarse-grained salt (for rimming; optional)
Lime half (for rimming; optional), plus 30ml fresh lime juice
7.5ml agave nectar
3 GIN AND TONIC
Dates to: Early 1800s.
With two ingredients plus a couple of slices of citrus, the gin and tonic seems so simple it barely warrants a recipe. It’s gin, it’s tonic: Where’s the complication? But the flavors of juniper mixed with the tongue-livening bitter bubble of tonic have made this drink the essential highball for centuries. Its simplicity makes the quality of the ingredients and the right proportions critical. Once you can make the classic, branch out into new gins, tonics and garnishes. (Look to Spain for inspiration; there, variations on the “gin-tonic” are infinitely variable.)
If you like it: Try Tom Collins, Pimm’s Cup, Moscow Mule.
A few lime wheels
60ml dry gin
90-120ml good tonic water
Dates to: Late 1800s.
A boozy, classic deep dive into whiskey and sweet vermouth. These days, most craft cocktail types opt for rye, which has a spicier profile than bourbon, but the main thing is to pick a whiskey you like and a vermouth that’s worthy of it. Small but interesting tweaks can happen via new types of bitters (chocolate or pimento make for a nod toward autumn, Peychaud’s or cardamom will bring out other notes), but orange and Angostura are reliably on point.
If you like it: Try Brooklyn, Vieux Carré, Black Manhattan.
Brandied cherry, for garnish, such as Luxardo or Amarena Fabbri brand
2 dashes Angostura and/or orange bitters
60ml rye or bourbon whiskey
30ml sweet vermouth
Twist of orange peel (for its oils; optional)
Dates to: Late 1800s.
Everyone agrees the martini is an essential drink: Its glass has become the universal sign of the cocktail. And yet for such a canonical beast, the martini is perennially personalized, a drink everyone dials into their own tastes. Gin or vodka? Purists will argue for the former, but vodka has plenty of advocates. Vermouth-to-base-spirit ratio? Debated endlessly, but if you’re using good, well-cared-for vermouth, it’s not to be feared. Shaken or stirred? The latter is the rule, but shaking has advocates. (They’re outliers. Even Bond, James Bond). Add bitters? Garnish with a lemon twist or an olive? Your call. Try this recipe, adjust to your liking, and then be prepared to adjust and argue about it with every new drinker you encounter for the rest of your life.
If you like it, try: Martinez, Bijou
75ml ounces dry gin, such as Plymouth, Beefeater or the citrusy Tanqueray 10
15ml dry vermouth, such as Dolin
1 or 2 dashes orange bitters
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish