Cocktail categories explained: discover the easiest cocktail classification to remember hundreds of recipes
I have the memory of a goldfish. So, how can I possibly remember hundreds of cocktails at all time? The answer is simple: I learned how to create cocktail categories in a way that makes sense to me and that helps me remember them. This is what I’ll share in this article: my personal cocktail categories classification and a glimpse into the beginning of my bar-tending journey.
I decided I wanted to work in a bar because it was fun. I wanted to shake up cocktails and have a good time every night! But I didn’t know where to start.
First of all i didn’t even know what i should have remembered, which one were the most basic cocktails, the most ordered, which ones were the classics, which ones were the ones i should have kept on my mind by default…
So, young and hopeful, I went into a bookshop in Camden town and picked a colorful book with a title similar to ‘100 cocktails for every occasion’ thinking to myself that there must have been some good recipes in there.
…To even my surprise, turns out the book wasn’t totally rubbish and among the many overly sweet recipes calling for juices, artificial grenadine and Nutella, I managed to find a few gems like the Bobby Burns, the Margarita, the Hemingway daiquiri and a complete list of possible garnishes for a martini.
After that, when i got my first job as a bartender in a grim but fun tiki bar in Shoreditch, I was constantly studying the specs for the 33 drinks on the menu: on the tube, while walking, on the bus, everywhere. They all seemed so many and so different one from the other.
It was very hard for me but the fun i had shaking them all up and basically going to a party every night made it all worthy.
However, I only stayed there for a couple of months before moving on to a better place.
This time i was working with real professionals who thought me a lot about the trade. In fact, they taught me about spirits, they made me try different flavors, they put me to read books.
One of the first lesson i learned was about cocktail classification: in short, all cocktails can be grouped in few different categories that share something in common.
This was brilliant because it made remembering specs so. much. easier.
As a result of this, more confidence came and I started exploring and experimenting with creating my own drinks and letting people taste them. Scary experience but it paid off eventually.
There are a few different category systems out there but I always feel that they are either too detailed or too simple and that few categories overlaps.
With this in mind, I’ll introduce you to my personal cocktail categories classification method in order for you to have all the basis covered to make a surprisingly high number of drinks with minimal mnemonic exercise.
Starting from a single ‘mother’drink, you’ll have access to a multitude of variations and therefore to a multitude of different drinks.
Below, I’ll explain each category and i’ll link them to a few cocktail recipes examples to clarify the general idea.
My name is Lulu and I am a cocktail creatress, menu developer, consultant and blogger based in the wonderful Scottish highlands.
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SPIRIT. SUGAR. BITTERS ---> SPIRIT FORWARD/ DIGESTIF
The most famous and classic 'Old Fashioned' has bourbon at its core but you can actually swap the base with literally any other spirit and still have an old fashioned style of drink.
Under this category I group all cocktails that call for a strong spirit base, a sweetening or flavoring syrup and bitters.
The whole point of an Old Fashioned is to highlight and improve the main spirit of choice so If you change any of the three elements in the drink, you'll end up creating a totally new cocktail like, for example ,my 'Real McCoy'.
CLEAR SPIRIT. MODIFIER. (ACCENT) --->SPIRIT FORWARD/ APERITIF
A martini is a very personal affair. It’s almost unbelievable how many variations one could get from just 2 simple ingredients. Under this category i group all cocktails that call for an un-aged spirit as a base, have no citrus and are mixed with one or more modifiers and an optional accent ingredient.
They are strong, clear and pure.
Examples include the Alaska, the Gimlet, the Pink gin or my Hollywood-land.
AGED SPIRIT. MODIFIER. ACCENT. --->SPIRIT FORWARD/ DIGESTIF
The most iconic american cocktail.
Under this category i group all cocktails that call for an aged spirit as a base, have no citrus and are made up of a spirit, one or more modifiers and an accent ingredient -bitters, tinctures-.
Examples include the Brooklyn, the Bobby Burns, the Green Point and my Death or Glory.
SPIRIT. MODIFIER. BITTER INGREDIENT. --->SPIRIT FORWARD/ BITTER/ APERITIF
The defying element of this category is the bittersweet flavor of the drinks.
This is usually thanks to an Italian bright red bitter aperitif called Campari, but the possibility are endless and experimenting with different amari is always fun.
I named this category after its most famous example, a drink born in the 20th century in Milan- to this day the best aperitif.
Under this category I group all cocktails that call for a strong bittersweet ingredient, no citrus and a simple structure.
SPIRIT. CITRUS. SUGAR. (EGG WHITE) ---> REFRESHING/ ALL DAY
One of the most veratile categories to master.
This is the simple formula on which some of the most classic cocktails of all time are based: the Daiquiri, the Whisky sour, the Amaretto sour, the Brandy Crusta...and so on.
Under this category I group all cocktails that call for citrus, sugar and optional egg white to be combined to a base spirit of choice.
SPIRIT. LIQUEUR. CITRUS. (EGG WHITE) ---> REFRESHING/ ALL DAY
Sister category to the sour. Modified sours use liqueur instead of syrup to sweeten the drink.
Under this category I group all cocktails that call for citrus, a liqueur and optional egg white in addition to a spirit base of choice.
Examples of this are the Cosmopolitan, the Sidecar, the Dauville and the Margarita.
SPIRIT. SPARKLING SOFT DRINK. (CITRUS). (MODIFIER) ---> REFRESHING/ LONG/ ALL DAY
Tall, cold and sparkling...What's not to like?
This is an 'umbrella category' that covers many classic sub-categories and variations like Fizzes, Collins, Fixes and Mules.
Under this category I group all cocktails that call for a sparkling soft drink (soda, tonic, ginger beer..)to lengthen their base.
Examples include the Gin Fizz, the Dark and Stormy, the Gin and Tonic and my Fields of gold highball.
SPARKLING WINE. (SPIRIT). (SUGAR). (CITRUS). (MODIFIER). (JUICE). ---> ELEGANT/ APERITIF
Self explanatory category. The modifier, in this case, can be anything from a spirit, to fruit juices, to citrus, to bitters and more, in any number and combination.
Under this category I group all cocktails that call for any sparkling wine as one of their ingredients.
Examples include the Classic Champagne cocktail, the French 75, the Bellini and my Lindy Hop.
SPIRIT. SUGAR. MODIFIER. CITRUS. (JUICE). (TEA). (ACCENT). --->REFRESHING/ FUN/ ALL DAY
The word 'punch'comes from a Sanskrit word meaning 'five'. This refers to the five elements that make up a classic punch recipe: Strong -spirit-, Sweet -sugar or syrups-, Weak -water, juices or tea- , Citrus -lemon, lime or other- and Spice -(accent)nutmeg, cloves, bitters-.
The classic party drink, this cocktail is usually served in a large bowl and meant for sharing but one can also create single serves using those ingredients.
Under this category I group all cocktails that contain a significant portion of a non-alcoholic, non-sparkling ingredient in addition to their spirit and modifiers base.
Examples include the Clarified milk punch, the Planter's punch and my Goldmund's cup.
SPIRIT. MODIFIER. DAIRY or DAIRY SUBSTITUTE. (SUGAR). ---> RICH/ CREAMY/ DIGESTIF
Liquid desserts. These drinks taste like melted ice creams. The milky ingredient gives a rich and creamy texture to the drink that is perfect for an after dinner treat.
Under this category I group all cocktail that use dairy or dairy substitutes as an ingredient.
Examples include the Brandy Alexander, the Grasshopper and the White Russian.
SPIRIT. MODIFIER. SUGAR. WHOLE EGG ---> RICH/ CREAMY/ DIGESTIF
Liquid desserts part 2. These drinks taste even more like melted ice creams. You might be put off by the idea of having a whole raw egg in your drink but trust me, once you shake everything up, the whites become nice and fluffy and the yolk gives a delicious creamy texture to the final serve.
Under this category I group all cocktails that use a whole egg in their recipe.
Examples include the Rum flip, the Port flip, the Sabbath cocktail and my Zoot Suit.
(SPIRIT). (LIQUEUR). LIQUEUR ---> RICH/ SWEET/ DIGESTIF
The easiest cocktails to make. As the name might. suggest, they only involve two bottles in their preparation.
Under this category I group all cocktails that use only two ingredients. They can be a mix of two different liqueurs or a spirit and a liqueur.
Examples include the Godfather, the Rusty Nail and the Whisky Mac.
And that’s it. In conclusion, I hope my list of cocktail categories will come in handy for you! I know it’s always relevant and helpful in my bar-tending life, helping me structuring menus or simply as a guide to create new recipes.
Let me know what you think of all this in the comment section below!