11 Classic Cocktails Everyone Should Know

Happy Hour

Need a break? Yeah, so do we. Now seems like a great time for a happy hour, doesn’t it? Let’s have a cocktail (or 11).

Since, of course, the dictionary is our go-to place to discover new and interesting drinks, we thought we’d get back to basics by looking at some of the best-known ones. Whether you’re new to cocktails or you’re an expert mixologist, the backstory of a drink you’ve known since you were 21 might surprise you.

Who knows? You might even find a new favorite.


The martini might be one of the most iconic cocktails in the world. The word itself first appeared in 1885, and was probably a variation of another drink name (Martinez). Some experts believe that people assumed Martinez was plural and the singular would be martini. That’s called a back formation, which is when someone creates a new word based on a false assumption about an existing word.

A different theory is that it had something to do with vermouth manufacturer Martini, Sola & Co. (now known as Martini & Rossi).

Because the recipe is so simple, it’s easy to create different variations of the martini to suit different people’s tastes. Trust us, there are a lot of different martinis. The classic recipe goes like this:

  • 1/2 oz Dry vermouth
  • 3 oz Gin or Vodka

Just stir the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice cubes, then strain into a martini glass. The drink is usually served with a green olive for garnish.


There’s a lot of debate about the Manhattan’s origin story. One popular version is that it was created at the Manhattan Club in New York City for a banquet hosted by Jennie Jerome (also known as Lady Randolph Churchill) in the 1870s. As a result of the banquet’s success, the cocktail became incredibly fashionable. People would refer to it as “that Manhattan cocktail.” This a great story, but Jennie Jerome was most likely back in France or the UK, getting married and giving birth to Winston Churchill during that time. So it’s probably fiction.

Another story is that the drink was created in the 1860s by a bartender in New York City, who was named Black. Beyond that, there isn’t much more information about it.

Whoever invented it, the drink was named Manhattan because it was born in New York. But what about the name of the island itself? The name was first recorded as Manna-hata by a Dutch explorer in 1609. It came from the language of the Lenape Native Americans, and means “island of many hills.”

As for the drink itself, the recipe is relatively simple. You can whip up individual Manhattans pretty quickly, which makes them great for large parties (or fancy banquets). This also means it’s easy to find a lot of different versions at different bars. The International Bartenders’ Association (IBA)’s recipe is:

  • 5 parts Rye Whiskey
  • 2 parts Red Vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters

Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing glass with ice cubes, stir, and strain into a chilled glass. It’s usually served with a maraschino cherry on top.


Daiquirí is the name of a beach town on the east coast of Cuba. The word itself comes from the Taino language (they were an indigenous people of the Caribbean). One legend says the drink was invented in the early 1900s by an American mining engineer. He named the drink after the nearby town of Daiquirí and its sparkling beaches. Most versions of the story agree that he used rum in the drink because it was easier to get in the Caribbean than gin (which was more stylish for Americans at the time). Whatever the case, the drink was a hit, and soon made its way to fashionable clubs in the US. It was one of Ernest Hemingway’s two favorite drinks during his time in Cuba. He even used to order a special version of it, which today is known as the Hemingway daiquiri or papa doble.

The IBA’s basic daiquiri recipe is:

  • 1 1/2 oz White rum
  • 1/2 oz Simple syrup
  • 1 oz Fresh lime juice

Shake all the ingredients together, and strain into a cocktail glass.


The mojito was Hemingway’s other Cuban favorite, and might be a modified version of an earlier drink, called El Draque, after Sir Francis Drake. The legend goes that in 1586, Drake and his crew were having issues with dysentery and scurvy on their ship. They made a stop while circling Cuba to find a cure, and came back with a medicinal drink that contained a local version of rum, as well as sugar, lime, and mint. To be honest, the limes alone probably would have helped, since vitamin C fights scurvy (tell your friends), but who wants to just eat plain limes? The drink cured what ailed them, and they brought it back to Europe where lots of other people loved it.

The word itself might come from the Spanish mojadito, which means “a little wet.” It could also come from the Spanish mojo, which is a citrus sauce or marinade that’s used to wet bread.

We can’t really speak to its medicinal properties, but that’s probably not what Hemingway liked it for, either. Here’s today’s version of the drink:

  • 1 1/3 oz Rum
  • 2 tsp Sugar
  • 1 oz Lime juice
  • 6 sprigs Mint
  • 1 splash Soda water

Muddle the mint with the sugar and lime juice, and add the splash of soda water. Pour the drink into a tall glass of cracked ice, then add the rum. Garnish with mint and a slice of lime, and you’ll be good to go against scurvy.

Gin and Tonic

Gin and tonic didn’t get its start in a stylish New York club or on a sparkling Cuban beach. In the 1700s, the army of the British East India Company was in India, where they had to take medicine (quinine) to prevent malaria. They drank the quinine in carbonated water, a mixture known as quinine water or tonic water. It tasted really bitter and just bad. In the early 1800s, someone had the bright idea to mix the quinine water with gin and some lime to improve the taste. The soldiers picked gin because it was actually a part of their food rations, meaning they had a regular supply of it. Mary Poppins once said, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and it turns out a little gin doesn’t hurt, either.

Modern doctors don’t encourage taking your medicine with alcohol, and we’re going to have to agree with them there. Today’s gin and tonic isn’t considered medicine at all, but it’s still really easy to make. Just combine 1-3 parts gin (to taste) with 3 parts tonic water in a highball glass, and garnish with a lime. Take that, malaria.

Mint Julep

The mint julep was born, bred, and raised in the American South. It first emerged in the early 1800s, where it was mainly served at parties or gatherings among the Southern upper classes. It was fully designed to show off how wealthy the hosts of the parties were. At the time it was introduced, ice was a huge luxury—you’d need a house and servants to keep and maintain a supply of it. The drink was traditionally served in a chilled silver cup (with frost still on the sides), which, again, you’d need money to buy and servants to maintain.

A julep is a sweet drink that’s sometimes used as a vehicle for taking medicine (so we’ll say, again, don’t do that). It comes from the Arabic word julāb, which itself comes from the Persian word gulāb, meaning rosewater. Rosewater itself was once used for cosmetic, medical, and religious purposes throughout Europe and Asia. A julep can theoretically be made in plenty of different ways, so it’s possible that an early version of it may have involved rosewater.

Mint juleps are traditionally made with four ingredients:

  • 2 oz Bourbon
  • 1 tsp Sugar
  • 2 tsp water
  • 4 fresh mint sprigs

Muddle the mint, sugar, and water, then add finely cracked ice and bourbon. Don’t forget the silver cup.

Bloody Mary

This spicy brunch standard is everywhere, but its origin story is actually pretty murky (like some of the ingredients). While no one can seem to agree on who invented the cocktail, we do have some insight to the name. It’s said to be named after Mary Tudor, who was queen of England in the 1550s. She was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” because she persecuted a lot of protestants. She was trying to bring back Catholicism after her father, Henry VIII, did away with it, but that’s another story.

What exactly does a cocktail have to do with a former Queen of England? Not much, actually. The drink didn’t actually exist until several hundred years after Mary Tudor’s reign. There’s another version of the drink called Bloody Caesar, which is basically the same thing, but with clam juice added. So maybe the bloody part of the name just has to do with being opaque and red. Why does the Caesar have clam juice? We’d actually love to know, too.

The IBA’s Bloody Mary recipe is:

  • 1 1/2 oz Vodka
  • 3 oz Tomato juice
  • 1/2 oz Lemon juice
  • 2 to 3 dashes of Worcestershire Sauce
  • Tabasco
  • Celery salt
  • Pepper

Gently stir the ingredients together, then pour into a highball glass. The traditional garnishes are a celery stalk and a lemon wedge, but we all know it can go way beyond that (bacon, anyone?).

But maybe Bloody Marys are a little too intense for your brunch style. What other drink tastes great with waffles?


Light and bubbly, mimosas are another classic brunch pairing. They’re great for when you want an orange juice with your first meal of the day, but also want to feel fancy with a glass of champagne.

The drink was probably invented at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1925. It’s named after a tropical plant whose yellow flowers cluster together in long, fluffy “fingers” (kind of like lilacs).

Mimosas are so easy to make. The official recipe calls for equal parts champagne and orange juice, poured together in a champagne flute. A similar drink called a buck’s fizz is pretty much the same, but with twice as much champagne as orange juice. Maybe that’s how you’ve been making “mimosas” this whole time. Now you know there’s another name for it. No judgement here.

Mai Tai

When you think mai tai, you probably think Polynesia or tiki room, right? As it turns out, the mai tai was invented in 1944 by Victor Bergeron. He was the owner of Trader Vic’s, an upscale Polynesian themed restaurant in Emeryville, California. As the story goes, he first prepared the drink at home for some friends visiting from Tahiti. One of them took a sip and said “Maita’i roa ae!” (Tahitian for “This is very good!”). Maita’i is the Tahitian word for “good,” and that’s where the cocktail gets its name. Not long after, the drink was being served at Trader Vic’s, and today it’s still a favorite among those with tropical-themed drink cravings.

Trader Vic’s original recipe from 1944 goes like this:

  • 2 oz Rum over shaved ice
  • Juice of one fresh lime
  • 1/2 oz Orange curaçao
  • 1/4 oz Trader Vic’s Rock Candy Syrup
  • 1/2 oz Orgeat syrup

Shake well, and serve with a sprig of mint.


The margarita has one of the most mysterious origins of them all. There are tons of legends about how the drink came to be (most include a woman named Margarita or Rita or Margaret). The only thing that they all seem to agree upon is that the drink came from Mexico, and was created some time in the 1940s.

The name Margarita itself is a woman’s name in both Spanish and German. It’s a version of Margaret, which comes from a Greek word for pearl.

However mythic its story may or may not be, the recipe is roughly the same wherever you go:

  • 1 oz Tequila
  • 2/3 oz Orange-flavored liqueur
  • 1/2 oz Freshly squeezed lime juice

Shake all the ingredients in a shaker with ice, then strain them into a margarita glass rimmed with salt.

Old Fashioned

The old fashioned, as we know it today, first appeared in the early 1900s at a gentlemen’s club in Louisville, Kentucky. Legend has it that the recipe was developed by a bartender in honor of a prominent bourbon distiller, who eventually brought it to New York City to be served at the Waldorf-Astoria.

The name was inspired by a late-1800s trend of referring to whiskey cocktails as “old fashioned cocktails.” Since this style of drink predates Prohibition, it can also be said that this cocktail is done in “the old fashioned way.” Now that the phrase is strongly associated with the cocktail recipe itself, the name seems appropriate. This drink is so iconic, even the glass you drink it from is called an old fashioned glass.

To make it, you’ll need:

  • 1 1/2 oz Whiskey
  • 2 dashes Bitters
  • 1 dash Water
  • 1 Sugar cube

First, put the sugar cube in an old fashioned glass. Then, pour the bitters and water over it, and muddle them until the cube is dissolved. Lastly, add an ice cube, the whiskey, and garnish with a cherry and orange twist.

We know we can’t have possibly gotten to every cocktail in one happy hour. Did we miss your favorite? Tweet us at @Dictionarycom and let us know which classic drinks you’d like to learn more about in the next #DcomHappyHour.

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