From its humble origins as a way to make harsh alcohol more palatable, cocktail-making has now blossomed as a creative art form that bartenders and mixologists the world over seek to master. Learn about the origins of mixed drinks, what makes a cocktail great and how to mix your own creative concoctions in this comprehensive guide to cocktail history and science.

A Brief History of the Cocktail

Etymologists disagree on the origins of the term "cocktail." Some ascribe it to the mixed drinks made with whatever was left in casks after the liquor they contained was mostly gone. These remnants, or tailings, were mixed in a smaller cask that was then tapped with a spigot, otherwise known as a cock. Cock-tailings were later shortened to cocktails, suggest some researchers. 

Others give credit to a Mr. Peychaud, an apothecary who blended drinks in a coquetier, the French word for an egg cup. Over time, the word found its way into English as "cocktail," which was easier to pronounce and remember. Peychaud's bitters are still a popular mixer in many aperitifs and after-dinner drinks. 

Regardless of the name's origin, mixed drinks got their start at parties where punch, a blend of fruit juices or other mixers and liquors, was served. Rum and milk punches were two popular variations you may still find on a cocktail menu today. The apothecary's art also made its way into early mixology with a dash of herbal infusions or bracing bitters to cut the sweetness. By the early 1800s, cocktails had evolved into their own category of drink consisting of sugar, water and bitters, according to the Columbian Repository. 

The advent of refrigeration and readily available ice in the early 20th century dramatically changed the landscape for bartenders, who now saw tremendous demand for iced and shaken drinks. The boom in cocktail science slowed when America briefly flirted with outlawing all liquor sales and production during the Prohibition Era in the 1920s, although cocktails never truly disappeared, they were just pushed underground.

prohibition era

The end of World War II brought with it a cocktail renaissance all over the world, with a sudden fever for exotic Polynesian drinks and southeast Asian influences. The cocktail party brought the fun of mixed drinks into the home, where amateur bartenders created concoctions with outlandish and occasionally risque names. As the 1960s and 1970s rolled in though, cocktails were on the decline in favour of beers and wines. The turn of the century brought a resurgence of traditional drinks, and cocktail culture is once again on the rise.

The Most Popular Cocktails

You're probably familiar with at least a few classic cocktails such as Martinis or Mimosas, but bartending guides can contain hundreds of recipes using dozens of liquors and mixers. Whether you're building your own bar stock or just want to know more about what to order for a night out, start with the basics. Most bartenders can make a competent Cosmopolitan, but fewer will be able to serve up a proper Drunken Elf. 

While the list of the most popular cocktails through the ages changes as drinks go in and out of fashion, a few perennial favourites never leave the world of cocktails, including: 

Old fashioned: Made with whisky or bourbon, bitters, sugar and a twist of lemon, this classic is the grandfather of all rock glass cocktails.

Margarita: a well-composed Margarita features fresh lime, tequila and salt with just enough triple sec to sweeten it.

Negroni: Another short cocktail like the old fashioned, a traditional Negroni contains gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.

Whisky sour: Sours are a favourite category of drinks, and the most popular is the whisky sour with its simple trinity of whisky, lemon juice and sugar.

Mimosa: This elegant cocktail contains roughly equal parts champagne and orange juice and is a delight for brunch. Other sparkling cocktails play on this theme with different juices or sparkling wines.

Sazerac: Developed in New Orleans, a Sazerac brings rye whisky, a sugar cube, a dash of Angostura bitters and a nip of absinthe together in elegant harmony.

Daiquiri: Frozen variations as sweet as desserts exist, but the original Daiquiri is made with rum, lime juice and just enough simple syrup to balance the tartness.

Martini: Like the Daiquiri, many drinks borrow the name, but the quintessential Martini contains only gin or vodka, dry vermouth and an olive. Martini cocktails may not have much more in common with this drink but the name and the shape of the distinctive glass. Jame Bond notwithstanding, purists typically prefer them stirred.

dry martini olives with copper shaker

Different Cocktail Types

Looking at popular drinks is only part of the story. To understand how to create unique cocktails like a mixologist does, you need to think in terms of types of cocktails rather than individual recipes. Being able to make an exquisite bloody Mary makes you a capable bartender at parties, but being able to mix your own concoctions on the fly can make you a legend. By understanding these cocktail types and what makes them perennial favourites, you can branch out on your own with new creations.

Short Cocktails

old fashioned tray

The most venerable cocktails are stirred or shaken drinks served in rocks glasses, usually consisting of a liquor and a mixer with a simple garnish. An Old Fashioned is an excellent example of a traditional stirred short cocktail; so is a Negroni. Despite its distinctive conical glass, the Martini is in this same family too. The original cocktails are still as popular as ever.

Highball Cocktails

mojito high ball cocktail

Tall and elegant, traditional highballs contain only two ingredients, usually with an emphasis on the mixer. Any pairing of a soda and a liquor is a highball, including a rum and Coke or a Cuba Libre. Highballs can be as potent as their server wants to make them, but they are typically friendly to sippers. Virgin cocktails in a tall, slim glass look like highballs and are a good choice for teetotalers who prefer not to disclose what's in the glass. 

Blended Cocktails

pina colada cocktail

Whether shaken by hand or put in a blender, this cocktail category takes more specialised equipment than the previous ones. Cosmopolitans, the fruitier counterpart of the Martini, is best served shaken to blend it thoroughly. Frozen cocktails, including fruity Daiquiris and Pina Coladas, also fall into this category and are perfect for summer. Many hybrid cocktails are also blended drinks, taking classic recipes and putting a twist on them by freezing, shaking or adding new liqueurs. 

Hot Cocktails

irish coffee

At the other end of the spectrum are hot cocktails. Irish coffee, buttered rum and apple cider are some examples of drinks best served hot. Many of the drinks in this category have old-world roots and are ideal as winter drinks. Enjoy them at holiday parties, but don't expect every bar to be able to accommodate your cravings for them; not every neighbourhood watering hole has the ingredients on hand. 

Tiki and Specialty Cocktails

tiki cocktails

These fruity, frothy cocktails with exotic names transport you to a beach on a tropical island paradise, which might explain their lasting popularity. One of the distinctive features of these Polynesian marvels is the variety of glassware in which they're served; novelty mugs shaped like Easter Island's stone heads, carved idols or lengths of bamboo are part of the fun of these specialty drinks. Some of the most popular are the Mai Tai, the Fog Cutter and the Singapore Sling. 

Shooter Cocktails

B52 shooter cocktail

Not every cocktail is meant for sipping. Shooter cocktails are designed to go down in a single flavourful gulp, and although they can be just as complex as their more sophisticated relatives, they have a sense of fun about them. Layered cocktails, including the B-52 and the cement mixer, look colorful in the shot glass and bring an element of texture when tossed back. Cocktail shooter mixologists typically cater to a younger, more adventurous crowd.

Healthy Cocktails and Smoothie Cocktails

tomato juice cocktail

Can you blend virtue and vice together? Healthy cocktail aficionados would say yes. By blending a liqueur or spirit with healthy ingredients such as fresh fruit and yoghurt, a cocktail can earn its halo of good health. Vegan cocktails skip cream and milk-based ingredients in favour of juices, while fruit cocktails are almost as much of a meal as they are a drink. 

Non-Alcoholic Cocktails

non alcoholic cocktail

Alcohol is in most cocktails, but it isn't a requirement. Many recipes can be made in virgin versions that are non-alcoholic, while others are designed without alcohol in the first place. The quintessential virgin drink is the Shirley Temple, a light, sweet mixture of grenadine, soda and lime to create a sparkling cocktail. 

Becoming an accomplished bartender or mixologist can take years of practise. Thankfully, the European Bartender School provides intensive training, check out our courses here.