After spending over a decade making and drinking cocktails in bars across the country, there’s a type of drink that I’ve come to think of as a “Ramen Noodle Cocktail.” A well-meaning bartender will start with something delicious (a nice whiskey or rum, for instance), then just keep adding things until it tastes good.
While the resulting cocktail might have a fine taste indeed, it’s never going to be easy to reproduce at home. You’ve no doubt seen some Ramen Noodle recipes online, with a dozen ingredients and three types of specialty ice, garnished with edible flowers.
This guide is the exact opposite of that: Nine carefully selected, easy-to-make cocktails that taste great, each with an option to add a fancy touch when you’ve grown tired of drinking the original.
Gin and Tonic
When the British were busy invading the entirety of the known world, they ran into a problem in more tropical climates: Malaria. A few years later, enterprising doctors had created a quinine tonic that could protect soldiers and diplomats from the disease. The problem? It tasted terrible.
So the British aristocrats did the only sensibly British thing: They added a tasty London dry gin to their tonic. And it turned out that the combination was quite good—good enough, in fact, that the Gin and Tonic quickly became a worldwide phenomenon.
To make a gin and tonic, start with a tall glass. Add a healthy splash of gin. Top it with a freshly opened bottle of tonic water. Then squeeze a lime in, and you’re ready to drink.
Spirit of Choice: Beefeater London Dry Gin is a classic and affordable choice.
The Upgrade: Make your G&T in the Spanish style by putting it in a large wine glass, and garnishing with any fresh fruits and herbs you have lying around.
Legend has it that the Moscow Mule was created at the Chatham Hotel in New York circa 1941, when the hotel’s head bartender was trying to clear out extra stock he found in the basement.
One of the most popular cocktails of the new millennium, the Moscow Mule has spawned thousands of variations. That’s because it’s very, very difficult to mess up the basic formula of vodka, spicy ginger beer, and lime, served in a copper mug.
To make one, fill a copper mug with ice, add a couple ounces of vodka, top with ginger beer and a squeeze of lime, then give it a little stir.
Spirit of Choice: Russian Standard Vodka is smooth and affordable, and pairs well with the spiciest ginger beers you can find.
The Upgrade: Experiment with other spirits instead of vodka, or add a bit of muddled fruit or herbs to the recipe. It’s hard to go wrong with this mixing-friendly cocktail.
The two-ingredient cocktail has been around for as long as spirits and carbonated water have. But it took a Japanese touch to really bring the Whiskey Highball to its perfect expression.
Pour two ounces of a Japanese whiskey over ice in a tall (highball) glass. Top with soda, and stir gently—but not with a metal spoon. I use a chopstick instead, as it will help maintain as much carbonation as possible.
Spirit of Choice: Suntory’s Toki Whiskey is specially designed for Whiskey Highballs.
The Upgrade: Scotch, bourbon, or rye all make excellent substitutions for a Japanese whiskey. Try to mix with something nicer, in the $30 to $50 per bottle range.
When you think of cocktails and Mexico, no doubt the Margarita comes to mind first. But head to Mexico to see what the locals drink, and you’re more likely to find a Paloma on the dinner table or at the club.
A simple combination of blanco tequila and grapefruit soda with a salted rim, it’s a perfectly refreshing cocktail that can be made as strong or as weak as you’d like. If you’re using a particularly sweet soda (like Squirt), consider squeezing a lime in to balance the drink.
Spirit of Choice: Espolon Blanco Tequila is good enough to sip straight, but even better mixed into a cocktail like the Paloma.
The Upgrade: Milagro Silver Tequila is a bit pricier, but it has a much more pronounced flavor and a smoother finish.
In the days before “cocktails” were even a thing, the venerable Old Fashioned was known by a different name: The Bittered Sling. When the new fashion for mixed drinks swept the nation, many proto-cocktails were being forgotten; so drinkers would call for “one of those old fashioned drinks.”
Perhaps no other cocktail has sparked as many variations as the Old Fashioned. Its simple combination of whiskey, sugar, bitters, and a citrus twist is incredibly open to interpretation—but in my mind, the classic is still the best.
To make one, add two ounces of whiskey over ice in a rocks glass. Stir in a spoonful of simple syrup (1:1 sugar and water, stirred to dissolve), then add a few dashes of Angostura bitters. Give it a final stir, and garnish with a twist of orange peel.
Spirit of Choice: Four Roses Bourbon offers the best bang for your buck as a mixing whiskey.
The Upgrade: Four Roses Single Barrel is even tastier, and a longtime favorite of the writing staff here.
The Martini, as we know it today, is a far cry from the original recipe. Forget the giant glasses, fruity concoctions, and olive juice and garnishes—the most old school Martini is a totally different beast.
To make one, first put your Martini glass in the freezer for a while. Mix equal parts gin and dry vermouth with two dashes of orange bitters on ice, then stir it for around a minute to chill. Strain that into the chilled glass, and garnish with a twist of lemon.
Spirit of Choice: Nolet’s Silver Gin, with its subtle notes of rose, peach, and raspberry, adds a lovely new dimension to this old cocktail.
The Upgrade: Switch the dry vermouth for a splash of saffron-laced Yellow Chartreuse to turn the 50/50 Martini into a classic Alaska cocktail, with a boozy and herbal kick.
Bittersweet and bracing, the Garibaldi cocktail comes to us by way of Italy’s infatuation with Amari, their bitter herbal liqueurs.
Bright red Campari is the star of the show in the Garibaldi, where it lends a refreshing and stimulating jolt of bitterness and alcohol to fresh-squeezed orange juice. This cocktail can be an acquired taste, but once you get used to the bitterness, it’s one of the finest brunch cocktails in existence.
Make one by pouring two ounces of Campari over ice in a short glass, then topping with orange juice and giving it a stir.
Spirit of Choice: Campari is the only way to go.
The Upgrade: Top the Garibaldi with a splash of sparkling wine to give it a little Mimosa flavor and sparkle.
If you take a liking to the taste of Campari in the Garibaldi (above), the Negroni is the next step.
Legend has it that one Count Camilo Negroni would order his Americanos—a mixture of sweet vermouth and Campari topped with soda water—with a splash of gin. Other Italian drinkers took a liking to this, and started ordering their Americanos “in the Negroni way.” Over time, this transformed into the cocktail we know today.
To make one, mix an ounce each of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth over ice, and garnish with a twist of orange.
Spirit(s) of Choice: Ford’s Gin helps to tie together all the bitterness and botanicals of Campari and sweet vermouth.
The Upgrade: Try making your Negroni with a different spirit than gin. Bourbon or rye whiskey turns it into a Boulevardier, while using tequila lends it a savory character.
Cuba’s addition to the cocktail canon is admittedly my favorite of all. It takes a little bit more work than the previous drinks—you’ll have to shake it—but the results are well worth it.
Start with two ounces of a top quality white rum. Add that and the juice of half a lime to a shaker tin. Then add a dash of simple syrup and ice. Seal the shaker tin and shake it vigorously for at least 30 seconds, then strain it into a coupe or martini glass.
The trick to this cocktail is that there’s no one right way to make it. Give it a few practice runs, and you’ll get a feel for the right amount of lime and sugar for your particular tastes. As long as you always shake it long and hard, it’ll come out refreshing and easy drinking.
Spirit of Choice: Havana Club Anejo Blanco rum imitates the Cuban style of the rum originally used for this cocktail.
The Upgrade: Cana Brava rum is the brainchild of two cocktail bartenders, and it’s designed specifically to make the best dang Daiquiri in the world.