Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member

We’re getting back to basics here at A Bar Above, so we thought it was time to walk you through what Chris and Julia feel are the 6 main types of cocktail categories. Instead of memorizing hundreds of cocktail recipes, you’ll be able to make tons of drinks if you just remember these six simple formulas.

PODCAST HIGHLIGHTS:

2:22– Introducing cocktail families and techniques

4:50– The 6 main cocktail families according to Chris and Julia

(5:08– cocktail, 6:35– spirit-forward, 7:59– cobbler, 9:29– sour, 10:52– highball, 12:04– flip)

14:34– How to make any cocktail with these techniques

COCKTAIL FAMILIES: FROM THE FLIP TO THE HIGHBALL

Now, there’s lots of debate about cocktail families: How many there are, which mixed drink belongs where, if certain categories are even categories at all. But Chris has very strong opinions about these six formulas being the building blocks for all the drinks you could possibly want to create.

There are sub-categories under each umbrella (a daisy cocktail— or fizzy sour– within the sour cocktail family, for example), as well as lots of varieties that are often added to lists (such as punches, tiki drinks, and layered cocktails), but we’re just focusing on the basics today.

“As long as you understand the architecture and the techniques you could apply, the number of cocktails are limitless.” –Chris

Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member

Copyright A Bar Above

WHAT EXACTLY IS A COCKTAIL FAMILY?

Think of these categories as one step back from a recipe, as they are more vague. While recipes show specific ingredients for craft cocktails, the formula shows the type of ingredient.

For example:

  • Family– Sour cocktail: Base spirit, sweetener/sweet & sour, and acid
  • Recipe– Daiquiri: 2 ounces white rum, 3/4 ounce simple syrup, and 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • Recipe– Gimlet: 2 ounces gin, 1 ounce simple syrup, and 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • Recipe– Whiskey sour: 2 ounces bourbon, 1 ounce simple syrup, 1 ounce fresh lemon juice

“Sour” is the family, and each specific drink is a sour itself. See how they follow a pattern? Memorize the formula, and you suddenly know how to make all of these popular cocktails. 

“It is a framework where you can start to put substitutions into play, to expand the possibilities of cocktails. That is essentially what a cocktail family is.” –Chris

In this way, it doesn’t really matter if we all agree about how many categories there are for alcoholic drinks– As long as you remember the structure, you can make whatever you want!

1.  THE COCKTAIL

Wait, there’s a category called “the cocktail?” Why, yes there is. Also sometimes referred to “ancestorals,” this is the most basic, classic cocktail. (Makes sense, right?)

Originally, a “cocktail” was defined as a mixed drink consisting of “spirit, water*, sugar, and bitters.” If that cocktail recipe sounds familiar to you, it’s because it describes an old fashioned.

Shortened from the phrase “a whiskey cocktail made in the old fashioned way,” an old fashioned is a classic drink of bourbon, sugar, and aromatic bitters.

Legend has it, though, that the very first American cocktail was the Sazerac, created in the 19th century by Antoine Amédée Peychaud of Peychaud’s bitters. You can see the similarities between the two, as this classic recipe uses rye whiskey, sugar, Peychaud’s cocktail bitters, and absinthe. 

*The water generally comes from ice, which causes dilution.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member

Copyright A Bar Above

2. SPIRIT-FORWARD 

OK, this family causes some controversy because it could be considered a subcategory of “the cocktail.” However, it’s a little different because this type of cocktail combines the water and sugar into a fortified wine: vermouth or a liqueur

The formula for spirit-forward drinks:

  • spirit
  • bitters
  • fortified wine.* 

*Technically, there is also additional water, as you shake these drinks with ice, causing up to 30% dilution. 

Some of the most famous spirit-forward cocktails are the Manhattan (whiskey, sweet vermouth, and cocktail bitters), the martini (gin or vodka, dry vermouth, and orange bitters), and the Martinez (gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters).

Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member

Copyright A Bar Above

3. COBBLER 

This category is way more vague in its requirements! The formula here is slightly ominous:

  • spirit
  • sweetener
  • “something else”

I mean, that could be anything– even milk! Traditionally, though, true “cobblers” have come to include mainly fresh fruit. And don’t forget the crushed ice and straw. What a classy drink! Because of the ice and light, fruity flavors, a cobbler is the perfect cocktail for a hot summer’s day.

Interestingly, the cobbler cocktail also gave rise to the cocktail shaker, perhaps even lending its name to the cobbler shaker

Cobblers are very similar to juleps and smashes, and we’re kind of including them all under the umbrella of “cobbler” here. (Please don’t come at me with pitch forks.)

If you’re like me, you could fall down a real rabbit hole trying to figure out the differences. Honestly, I don’t recommend it– I have two professional bartenders working with me to make sense of all the subtle differences, and it’s still confusing to weed through all the arguments smashes vs. juleps vs. cobblers. 

But this is where subcategories come in and why there is so much debate about the official list of cocktail families.  

Julep: Spirit, sugar, muddled mint– served in a julep cup with crushed ice and fresh mint leaves (or in a Collins glass if a tin is not available– presentation is quite important here!)

Ex: The classic mint julep is the most famous julep around, and it’s the official drink of the Kentucky Derby! A simple bourbon cocktail, it consists of bourbon, sugar (cubes or simple syrup), a bunch of mint sprigs, and crushed ice.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member

Copyright A Bar Above

Smash: Originally introduced in A Bartenders Guide by Jerry Thomas, a smash is very similar to a julep– it actually marries a fruity cobbler and a julep, in fact. The formula here is spirit, sugar, herb (typically mint, although we’ve made a strawberry mezcal smash with basil on our blog), fruit, and crushed ice.

4. SOUR

Just what they sound like, sour drinks are one of the most popular on our list. The classic formula for this one is easy:

  • Base spirit
  • sour (often lemon, lime, or other citrus juice)
  • Sweetener

“You’re basically making a lemon- or limeade and essentially replacing the water you would usually use with booze.” –Chris

A classic margarita (tequila, fresh lime juice + sweetener or sweet and sour, and triple sec/orange liqueur) is probably the most iconic example of a sour. 

One fun twist (no pun intended, I swear) with sours is that you can add an egg white to many classic recipes. I know that can freak out some people (like my dad who recoiled in horror when I once ordered an egg white sour from a local craft cocktail bar), but there are plenty of sour recipes with and without, so you can choose your own path there.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member

Copyright A Bar Above

Other sours:

  • whiskey sour (whiskey– typically bourbon– lemon juice, simple syrup, and optional egg white)
  • Tom Collins (gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, sparkling water/club soda)
  • Amaretto sour (bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, Amaretto liqueur, egg white)
  • White lady (gin, Cointreau/orange liqueur, lemon juice, egg white)

5. HIGHBALL

Also known as the two-part cocktail, the highball is simply spirit and mixer. Typically the mixer is carbonated– such as tonic water or carbonated water/soda– but some would argue that juice is an acceptable pairing with your liquor (gin and juice is a thing, after all).

The most well-known example may be the gin and tonic. But let’s not forget the rum and Coke and the whiskey-soda (my personal go-to alcoholic drink)!

Note: You can modify these with a squeeze from your lime wedge (or lemon) garnish.

Note 2: While the highball glass is named after the beverage, the drink doesn’t have to be served in that particular cocktail glass. A rocks glass is common for two-part cocktails as well.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member

Copyright A Bar Above

6. THE FLIP

Not for vegans! Flips (and the subcategory of nogs, which add milk or cream) use a whole egg, including the yolk. If you’re just using egg white in a sour, you can easily substitute it with aquafaba (chickpea juice), but we’ve yet to find a truly solid substitute for the whole egg.

With the use of egg, this type of drink can be a bit polarizing, although we at A Bar Above do find them delicious. Let us know in our community group if you have a good non-dairy alternative. Almond milk? Soy milk? 

The flip formula:

  • Base liquor
  • Egg
  • Sweetener
  • Spice
  • Note: Nogs add dairy

The most famous example, of course, is eggnog— which is clearly a nog that uses cream, as the name suggests. In Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book The Bartenders Guide, he introduced a hot gin flip, which I can’t find a recipe for online. (Send it to me if you have it, yeah?) 

A more modern option for cocktail makers– and Chris’ flip drink of choice– is the Guinness flip, which adds Guinness beer to a traditional flip for an even richer drinking experience. You can see that, although flips and nogs may be polarizing, they certainly have stood the test of time given that they’ve remained popular since the 1800s.

HOW TO MAKE A COCKTAIL OR 50 WITH THESE TECHNIQUES

Cocktail families are just a starting point. Things get more interesting when you start using bar techniques with those cocktail families. Then you can really make a delicious combination of drinks!

Use your creativity, and don’t be afraid to combine flavors or sub out ingredients. Once you know that family formula, you’ll be able to make a yummy cocktail within the framework of your desired drink’s category.

Use these expert recommendations from Chris to help you make a variety of interesting drinks.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member

Copyright A Bar Above

1. SUB OUT INGREDIENTS

If the cocktail family’s formula requires sugar, there are lots of forms of sugar for you to explore! Just because the recipe says simple syrup, it doesn’t mean you have to stick to that sweetener, after all.

Ex.: In an old fashioned, sub regular sugar out for maple syrup, agave syrup, barley syrup, brown sugar, or honey– anything sweet that brings other, richer components to your classic cocktail.

Think about changing the mixer of the highball or even combining two mixers (Ex.: ginger beer + juice, soda water + lime juice).

As I talked about with flips and nogs, swap the egg in a flip for another dairy product, like milk (either dairy-based, nut-based, or soy milk). And don’t forget to let us know if you have good, tried-and-true alternatives!

“There are groups of cocktail families, and once you understand that, you can substitute ingredients and have a different cocktail.” –Chris

You can also add ingredients— like how my family loves a little orange juice in our margaritas. Try adding fresh pineapple juice (or perhaps another fruit juice) or cinnamon to your whiskey sour. Add a couple dashes of bitters to your highball.

Heck, even adding a wedge of lime can change your drink a little!

2. SPIRIT SUBSTITUTION

Instead of changing up the other ingredients, swap out the base spirit instead! Just because the recipe says you’re supposed to use vodka doesn’t mean you absolutely have to. 

Try interchanging vodka, gin, and light rum in your recipes. Sub whiskey, dark rum, and tequila for each other for a different drinking experience. In a whiskey sour, swap the traditional bourbon for Irish whiskey to make an “Irish sour.” 

Or take this technique a step further with a “split base” where you do half-and-half of two different kinds of base spirits. I love using half-mezcal, half-tequila in a margarita for a delicious combination of smoky mezcal and slightly sweet tequila.

Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member

Copyright A Bar Above

3. INFUSIONS

Before making your cocktail, consider infusing your base spirit. This is an easy way to change the cocktail without changing the family. Once made, you can also use your infused alcohol to make a variety of drinks in any cocktail family. 

Ex: Try tea-infused gin in a gin martini.

4. MAKE FLAVORED SIMPLE SYRUPS

There are several ways to make delicious syrups that will change your drinks! Instead of a straightforward simple, you can make fruit syrups to add flavor by simmering or macerating your fruit. Check out this article Julia wrote about syrups for some more expert recommendations on making syrups.

MAKE ALL TYPES OF COCKTAILS WITH THESE TECHNIQUES

So now you know the starting point for making a variety of cocktails without learning a million separate recipes. If you’re excited to learn more, consider joining one of our online mixology certification courses, which will help you level up your drink-making abilities tremendously!

Don’t forget to also join us over in our Facebook group to share all your new creations. And if you need any fancy new bar tools to make your drinks, we definitely have you covered. Until next time, happy mixing!

Photo courtesy of Mary Jo M Coan, Craft Cocktail Club member

Copyright A Bar Above

“[Your drinks are] only limited by your own creativity and being able to push boundaries, so once you understand these techniques, the cocktail families, and what you can operate in, those thousand cocktails […] millions, billions. It truly is limitless.” — Chris

Melanie Tornroth

Melanie Tornroth

A former English teacher, Melanie optimistically embraces the struggle that is work-from-home parenthood as the in-house writer for A Bar Above. When not responding to “Mom” and writing articles for ABA, she also runs Goodnickels Photography, loves to cuddle her cats, and is perfecting the art of keeping her pandemic “fermentation babies” alive.