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Your guide to the most popular cocktails

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From the bustling bars of New York to the sandy shores of the Caribbean, cocktails have become a universal symbol of leisure and relaxation. Whether you're a seasoned mixologist or just love mixing drinks at home, the art of crafting cocktails offers endless opportunities for creativity and innovation.

In this blog, we'll take you on a journey through some of the most popular cocktails. We'll delve into their fascinating origins, explore why they're so popular, and, of course, share how to make them.

The Old Fashioned

Origins: The Old Fashioned is often hailed as the original cocktail, dating back to the early 19th century. Legend has it that this classic was crafted at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1880s, possibly to honour bourbon distiller Colonel James E. Pepper. He’s said to have taken the recipe to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City, where it took off. The term "cocktail" was described in print as early as 1806, mentioning a mix of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar – essentially the Old Fashioned. While this is one of the earliest known references, it's not definitively the first mention of the cocktail.

Why it's so popular: The Old Fashioned’s appeal lies in its simplicity and strength. It’s a whiskey lover’s dream, putting the spotlight on the spirit. Its timeless charm and straightforward ingredients make it a staple in any bartender’s repertoire. Plus, it's versatile enough for personal touches like an orange twist, a cherry, or even a lemon twist. Some enthusiasts also enjoy garnishing with a Luxardo cherry, a cinnamon stick, or burnt orange peel for added flair and flavour. Read more about the best drinks to make with Bourbon here

The Old Fashioned recipe

• 2 oz/ 60 ml Bourbon or rye whiskey
• 1 sugar cube
• 2 dashes Angostura bitters
• Few dashes plain water

In a chilled Old Fashioned glass (also known as a rocks or low ball glass), muddle the sugar cube and bitters with a splash of water. Add whiskey and ice, stir, and add your garnish of choice.

The Margarita

Origins: The Margarita has a colourful origin story, with several versions of its creation. One popular tale credits Margaret “Margarita” Sames, a wealthy Dallas socialite, who crafted the drink for her guests in Acapulco in 1948. Seeking a refreshing poolside drink, she combined tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice, eventually perfecting the recipe. Her famous guests, including movie stars like Lana Turner and John Wayne, helped spread the Margarita's popularity.

Another story attributes the creation to Carlos "Danny" Herrera, a Tijuana bartender in the late 1930s, who supposedly invented the Margarita for a customer allergic to all spirits except tequila. Tijuana, known for its lively bar scene, provides a fitting backdrop for the birth of such a legendary cocktail.

Why it's so popular: This refreshing cocktail is a staple at summer parties and Mexican restaurants worldwide. The Margarita’s appeal lies in its perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, showcasing the versatility and flavours of tequila. Its adaptability allows for countless variations, from classic to fruity, spicy to frozen, making it a favourite for any occasion.

Margarita recipe

• 2 oz/ 60 ml tequila
• 1 oz/ 30 ml lime juice
• 1 oz/ 30 ml Cointreau or Triple Sec

Shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a salt-rimmed Margarita glass or a rocks glass filled with fresh ice, and garnish with a lime wheel.

A Margarita cocktail, garnished with a bright green lime wheel

The Margarita’s appeal lies in its perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty, and bitterness.

The Negroni

Origins: The Negroni, with its roots in 1919 Florence, Italy, boasts a tale as rich as its taste. Count Camillo Negroni, tired of the mild Americano cocktail, asked the bartender at Caffè Casoni to give it more punch by swapping soda water for gin. The result? A cocktail that instantly dazzled with its robust, bittersweet charm.

Why it's so popular: The Negroni’s popularity is all about its bold, balanced flavours – a harmonious mix of strong, sweet, and bitter. This classic has become a symbol of sophistication with its striking red colour and complex taste, finding a permanent spot on cocktail menus worldwide. It’s inspired many variations, like the Negroni Sbagliato, where prosecco replaces gin, adding a bubbly twist that recently caught the limelight thanks to a playful mention by House of the Dragon stars Emma D'Arcy and Olivia Cooke. 

Negroni recipe

• 1 oz/ 30 ml gin
• 1 oz/ 30 ml Campari
• 1 oz/ 30 ml sweet vermouth

To make a Negroni, fill a mixing glass with ice and add gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. Stir the mixture until it’s well chilled, then strain it into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with orange peel, making sure to express the oils over the drink for an extra aromatic touch. For the best results, stir the ingredients for about 30 seconds to achieve the right dilution. Feel free to experiment with different gins and vermouths to tailor the drink to your taste. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the Negroni Sbagliato by swapping the gin for prosecco and enjoy the bubbles!

The Mojito

Origins: The Mojito's roots can be traced back to 16th century Cuba, evolving from a drink known as “El Draque,” named after the English privateer Sir Francis Drake. Drake and his crew, are said to have used a similar concoction of aguardiente (a precursor to rum), lime, sugar, and mint as a medicinal remedy. Fast forward to the 20th century, rum replaced aguardiente, giving us the Mojito we know today. While the exact origins are debated, the iconic La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana claims to be the birthplace of the Mojito, famously praised by Ernest Hemingway.

Why it's so popular: The Mojito’s refreshing taste and combination of mint, lime, and rum make it a popular choice for hot summer days. This cocktail captures the essence of Cuba in a glass, representing the island’s vibrant culture. Its fresh ingredients make it a perfect thirst-quencher. Over the years, it has garnered widespread fame, even featuring prominently in the 2002 James Bond film, "Die Another Day," solidifying its status as a modern classic.

Mojito recipe

• 2 oz/ 60 ml white rum
• 1/2 oz/ 15 ml lime juice
• 2 teaspoons sugar
• 6-8 fresh mint leaves
• Soda water

To make a Mojito, use a highball glass. Muddle the mint leaves and sugar with lime juice in the bottom of the glass to release the mint's aroma and dissolve the sugar. Add the rum and fill the glass with ice. Top off with soda water and stir gently to mix. Garnish with a sprig of mint and a lime wedge. For added flair, try using crushed ice instead of cubes for a frostier experience. Some experiment with flavoured rums or add a splash of fruit puree for a personalised twist.

A tall glass filled with ice, lime and mint leaves, and a mint sprig

The flavours of lime, mint, and rum offer a refreshing combination.

The Martini

Origins: The Martini's origins are shrouded in mystery, with stories tracing back to the late 19th century. One popular theory suggests it evolved from the Martinez, a cocktail served in San Francisco during the 1860s. Another claims it was named after the Italian vermouth brand, Martini & Rossi. Despite its unclear beginnings, the Martini quickly gained fame and became a symbol of sophistication and style.

Why it's so popular: The Martini is the epitome of elegance and simplicity. This iconic cocktail has graced countless black-tie events and classic movies, solidifying its status as a timeless favourite. Its versatility is a major draw, allowing for numerous variations – whether you prefer it dry, dirty, or garnished with olives or a lemon twist, the Martini caters to a wide range of tastes. And let's not forget its association with James Bond, who famously prefers his "shaken, not stirred."

Martini recipe

• 2 1/2 oz/ 75 ml gin
• 1/2 oz/ 15 ml dry vermouth

To make a classic Martini, start by chilling your martini glass. Fill a mixing glass with ice and add the gin and dry vermouth. Stir (or shake, if you’re channelling your inner Bond) until well chilled. For a traditional Martini, a good 30 seconds of stirring is ideal to achieve the right dilution. Strain the mixture into the chilled martini glass.

For the finishing touch, garnish with an olive or a lemon twist. If you prefer a dirty Martini, add a splash of olive brine along with the gin and vermouth.

Experiment with the ratio of gin to vermouth to find your perfect balance – some prefer a 5:1 ratio, while others enjoy it much drier. For a Vesper Martini, made famous by James Bond, replace half the gin with vodka and add a dash of Lillet Blanc.

A martini cocktail, garnished with an olive

Whether you prefer it dry, dirty, or garnished with olives or a lemon twist, the Martini caters to a wide range of tastes.

The Daiquiri

Origins: The Daiquiri was invented in the early 20th century in the town of Daiquiri, Cuba. While American mining engineer Jennings Cox is often credited with its creation (allegedly blending rum, lime, and sugar to cool down his workers), it was the legendary writer Ernest Hemingway who truly put this cocktail on the map. Hemingway discovered the Daiquiri at El Floridita in Havana and was so enamoured that the bar created a special variation for him, known as the Hemingway Daiquiri or Papa Doble, which included grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur alongside the traditional ingredients.

Why it's so popular: The Daiquiri is a beloved classic for good reason. With just three ingredients – rum, lime, and sugar – it showcases the quality of the rum and provides a crisp, tangy punch that's incredibly satisfying. The Daiquiri evokes images of tropical beaches and sunny afternoons, making it the ultimate summer drink. Plus, its versatility means there’s a variation for everyone, whether you prefer the elegance of a Hemingway Daiquiri or the fruity fun of a Frozen Strawberry Daiquiri.

Daiquiri recipe

• 2 oz/ 60 ml white rum
• 1 oz/ 30 ml lime juice
• 3/4 oz/ 20 ml simple syrup

To make a classic Daiquiri, start by chilling your cocktail glass. Shake the rum, lime juice, and simple syrup with ice until well chilled. Strain the mixture into the glass and garnish with a lime wheel.

The Cosmopolitan

Origins: The Cosmopolitan, or "Cosmo," skyrocketed to fame in the 1990s, thanks to its iconic role in the TV show "Sex and the City." Created in the 1980s, this cocktail was a modern, vibrant twist on the classic Martini, blending vodka, cranberry juice, lime, and triple sec to create a drink as stylish as its fans.

Why it's so popular: Synonymous with glamour and nightlife, the Cosmopolitan is celebrated for its striking pink colour and perfect balance of sweet and tart flavours. Its chic and trendy image has made it a staple in urban cocktail culture, embodying sophistication and a touch of sass. Its adaptability allows for endless variations, making it a versatile favourite among cocktail enthusiasts. Whether you're channelling your inner Carrie Bradshaw or just looking for a deliciously stylish drink, the Cosmopolitan is a perfect choice.

Cosmopolitan recipe

• 1 1/2 oz/ 45 ml vodka
• 1 oz/ 30 ml cranberry juice
• 1/2 oz/ 15 ml Triple sec
• 1/2 oz/ 15 ml fresh lime juice

To make a classic Cosmopolitan, shake the vodka, cranberry juice, triple sec, and lime juice with ice until well chilled. Strain the mixture into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime twist or, for a touch of extra flair, a flamed orange peel.

From classic to contemporary, these cocktails have stood the test of time and continue to be celebrated worldwide. Each one tells a unique story of its origin, cultural significance, and the mix of flavours that make it a favourite.

Learn more about WSET Spirits qualifications here.
For more ideas, read our top tips for making cocktails at home.

This blog post was written by Josh Beamish, Digital Marketing Manager at WSET. A devoted fan of Californian Pinot Noir and Italian Nebbiolo, Josh's holidays often revolve around wine regions. When not sipping wine, he enjoys craft beer or a well-made Negroni.