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Essential drinks every cocktail lover should know how to make at home

By Washington Post
Martini. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

By M. Carrie Allan

Since the beginning of the craft cocktail renaissance, weíve been gifted (and occasionally cursed) with a massive creative explosion of new drinks. Good drinks, bad drinks, a few great drinks. New classics that spread around the globe, and drinks doomed to be forgotten because they were mediocre, or too complicated to catch on, or required ingredients we could source only at the top of a particular mountaintop in Sweden, or simply because ó holy gin fizz, Batman! ó there are so many drinks now that itís impossible to keep track of all of them unless youíre some kind of maniacal bartending robot from space.

I want to be clear: I love the creativity of this industry. This is not a rant against making new drinks. Itís merely a plea to get to know the classics first, to understand the rules before attempting to shatter them. There are bartenders whose weirdness I trust, whose raspberry-dill-sherry fizz, or fat-washed cold-brew and slivovitz Old-Fashioned, or yuzu and pickle juice sour I will try without hesitation. Those bartenders are, without exception, the same bartenders I am utterly confident can make me a perfect daiquiri.

If youíre trying to get into cocktails, start by learning the canon. There are reasons these drinks have survived and become essential: Theyíre good, theyíre simple to make and theyíre replicable almost anywhere that has a booze store and access to basic grocery items.

Note: All of these recipes serve 1, and unless otherwise noted were adapted from various recipes by M. Carrie Allan.

Martini

Dates to: late 1800s

Everyone agrees the martini is an essential drink: Its glass has become the universal sign of the cocktail. And yet for such a canonical beast, the martini is perennially personalized, a drink everyone dials in to their own tastes. Gin or vodka? Purists will argue for the former, but vodka has plenty of advocates. Vermouth-to-base-spirit ratio? Debated endlessly, but if youíre using good, well-cared-for vermouth, itís not to be feared. Shaken or stirred? The latter is the rule, but shaking has advocates. (Theyíre outliers. Even Bond, James Bond.) Add bitters? Garnish with a lemon twist or an olive? Your call. Try this recipe, adjust to your liking, and then be prepared to adjust and argue about it with every new drinker you encounter for the rest of your life.

Ice

2?Ĺ ounces dry gin, such as Plymouth, Beefeater or the citrusy Tanqueray 10

Ĺ ounce dry vermouth, such as Dolin

1 or 2 dashes orange bitters

Twist of lemon peel, for garnish

Chill a cocktail (martini) glass or coupe.

Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the gin, vermouth and bitters (to taste). Stir gently for 20 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass.

Garnish with the twist of lemon peel.

Negroni

Dates to: 1919, most likely

Supposedly no one likes a Negroni the first time they taste one, and some drinkers never come around on this bright red flag of a drink. Itís an Italian liqueur that brings that fiery color and throws down the gauntlet: Campari, the deeply bittersweet, orangy and herbal aperitivo that complements equal portions of dry gin and sweet vermouth. Itís boozy, itís strange, itís a high-wire balancing act, and once your palate adjusts to the bitterness, you may come to crave it ó and regard it as the gateway to a spectrum of drinks incorporating bitter flavors.

Ice

1 ounce Campari

1 ounce sweet vermouth, such as Cocchi or Dolin

1 ounce dry gin

Twist of orange peel, for garnish

Chill a cocktail (martini) glass.

Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. Stir for 20 seconds, then strain into the glass.

Twist the orange peel over the surface of the drink to express its oils, then drop it into the drink.

Old-Fashioned

Dates to: late 1800s

Perhaps the first and most genre-defining of cocktails, the Old-Fashioned has been carried back into heavy sipping rotation by the craft cocktail renaissance and smart bartenders who stopped treating it as a vehicle for transporting bad fruit salad. Good bars opt to leave out the pile of pineapple and neon cherries that were once all too common. You may want a twist of citrus for its fragrant oils, but thatís all the embellishment thatís called for. A little sugar, good whiskey (it can be bourbon- or rye-based, depending on your preference) and the spice of bitters button up the whole thing nice and neat.

1 teaspoon sugar (may substitute 1 small sugar cube)

1 teaspoon warm water

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Strip of orange or lemon peel

Large ice cubes

2 ounces bourbon or rye

Combine the sugar, warm water and bitters in an old-fashioned glass, then add the citrus peel and muddle. Add some ice cubes, then the bourbon or rye, and stir to combine; make sure all the sugar has dissolved. Add a couple more ice cubes and serve.

Source: From Jason Wilson; adapted by M. Carrie Allan

Manhattan

Dates to: late 1800s

A boozy, classic deep dive into whiskey and sweet vermouth. These days, most craft cocktail types opt for rye, which has a spicier profile than bourbon, but the main thing is to pick a whiskey you like and a vermouth thatís worthy of it. (Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino is terrific; Carpano Antica can be a little dominant, but if you like its heady vanilla-spice pow, it can also be delicious.) Small but interesting tweaks can happen via new types of bitters (chocolate or pimento make for a nod toward autumn, Peychaudís or cardamom will bring out other notes), but orange and Angostura are reliably on point.

Brandied cherry, for garnish, such as Luxardo or Amarena Fabbri brand

Ice

2 dashes Angostura and/or orange bitters

2 ounces rye or bourbon whiskey

1 ounce sweet vermouth

Twist of orange peel (for its oils; optional)

Chill a cocktail (martini) glass, adding the brandied cherry garnish.

Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the bitters, whiskey and vermouth. Stir for 20 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass.

Twist the orange peel, if using, over the surface of the drink to express its oils, then discard it.