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Modern Classic Cocktails
A Cocktail Primer With Classic Recipes

by Natalie Bovis-Nelsen

A Sazerac with assorted ingredients
A Sazerac with assorted ingredients

In the early 1900s, alcohol was a bit rougher than the smooth spirits we have today.  Sugar and water were often added to make “rot gut” a bit more palatable. In many cases, those additions set the stage for what would become the “cocktails” we drink today.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a boom in what we now refer to as “classic cocktails.” Whether they were created in the pre-Prohibition cocktailian heyday, or whet the whistles of martini-drenched housewives in the 50s, cocktails from decades-gone-by are more in demand than ever. Considering they grace the drink lists of respected cocktail bars from London to New York to Los Angeles, every hotshot home bartender should know how to make a few. 

Some basic bar tools, ingredients and classic cocktail recipes can bring YOUR home bar to the height of cocktailian fashion, and the most buzzed about in your social circle!

Cocktail Shaker Used to hand-shake the ingredients with ice.

Bar Spoon
Has a long stem to reach the bottom of tall glasses.

Used to press down on fruit, herbs, etc. in order to extract their juices or essential oils. This is basically a pestle with a longer handle to the bottom of your shaker.

Citrus Press
A one-step tool for squeezing the juice from a lemon or lime.

Used for measuring liquid ingredients. The larger side typically measures a “jigger,” or 1 1/2 ounces, and the smaller side measures a “pony,” or 1 ounce.

Simple syrup
Sugar syrup used for sweetening cocktails. Make it by boiling 2 parts sugar to one 1 part water, then stirring at a cooler temperature for five minutes. Cool, and keep in the refrigerator.

Wine fortified with herbs and spices.

Herbs, tree bark and citrus brewed in a highly concentrated alcoholic mixture. Once thought to have medicinal qualities. Only a couple of drops are used in a cocktail.

Branch water
Originally referred to the purest water in the branch of a running stream used to mix with alcohol (as in the classic “Bourbon and Branch”).

Here are some recipes to try at home:

Sazerac - Originally created in the mid-1800s by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedee Peychaud, the State of Louisiana passed a bill to recognize this drink as the official cocktail of New Orleans in June 2008.

1/2 ounce absinthe
2 ounces brandy or rye whiskey
Dash of Peychaud's Bitters
1/2 ounce simple syrup or 1 whole sugar cube

Muddle the sugar cube and bitters in the bottom of an absinthe-coated cocktail glass (or use simple syrup, and skip muddling). Add ice and whiskey, then stir.  Garnish with a twist of lemon or orange peel.


Manhattan - Dates to the late 1800s.

2 1/2 ounces bourbon whiskey
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
1 dash of bitters

Pour all ingredients into an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Stir, then strain into a rocks glass.  Garnish with a maraschino cherry and twist of orange peel.

Martini - Although the precise date of creation is disputed, this cocktail is likely more than one hundred years old. Keep in mind that the original martini is made with gin, and vermouth is an important ingredient. Vodka martinis without vermouth are a later variation on this classic drink.

2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce dry vermouth

Pour into an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Stir, and then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an olive or a twist of lemon.

Cosmopolitan - This “modern classic” became a national phenomenon in the 1990s when the characters of Sex and the City guzzled them down on the NYC party circuit.

1 1/2 ounces vodka
1/2 ounce orange-flavored liqueur
2 ounces cranberry juice
1 ounce lime juice

Shake all ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lime wedge—and plenty of attitude.

Natalie Bovis-Nelsen
As editor at, mixologist and spirits writer Natalie Bovis-Nelsen shares drink trends and information on bars around the world where connoisseurs can share a quality tipple.

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(Updated: 09/16/08 SCV)

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