One fateful night in San Francisco, I stepped up to the bar and ordered a gin gimlet. My bartender nodded, shook up the cocktail, poured it into a chilled glass… and then topped it off with a float of Jack Daniel’s. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me — that is, until my tastebuds confirmed the reality. The drink was absolutely terrible.
On the other hand, there are plenty of wonderful additions, substitutions, and variations for the stalwart standards we know and love. And sometimes your home bar is embarrassingly under-stocked, so you simply don’t have every ingredient you need to make the Aviation your vest-wearing friend just requested. This is when, like a seasoned chef, you can spice things up by swapping in one key ingredient for another to produce something entirely new. After all, necessity is the mother of invention, and an empty bottle is just a detour to the next full bottle.
The simplest drinks are often the most riffable, and a classic Negroni is no exception. With equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, it leaves a lot of room to play. You can start by adjusting the ratios (I suggest upping the gin content), but then go on to explore these adventurous offshoots.
- Boulevardier: for whiskey lovers, use bourbon instead of gin.
- Old Pal: an even spicier rendition, with rye taking gin’s place.
- White Negroni: ditch the red vermouth in favor of a dry white, and you’ve got a summer brunch superstar.
Some say a mojito is best when the mint is muddled with granulated sugar, while others insist that simple syrup leads to a better consistency. Some people also say you should only make a mojito with Bacardi Silver, so you probably can’t trust anyone. Get creative.
- Southside: a dapper twist using gin instead of rum.
- Dark Mojito: featuring dark or aged rum, and sweetened with turbinado, demerara or muscovado sugar.
- Tequila Mojito: exactly what it sounds like.
It’s hard to go wrong with a whiskey ginger, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do better. Sure, you may love your Jameson or Jack Daniel’s or whatever you usually reach for, but take a baby step out of the box and go to Scotland.
- Presbyterian: Scotch and ginger ale. Don’t waste the good single malt, but pouring a decent blended Scotch with a quality ginger beer will bring plenty of complexity to a searingly simple concoction.
At this point, customizing a bloody mary usually means piling as much garnish on top as possible. And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with balancing an entire slider and a pickled veggie skewer on top of a brunch standard. But vodka doesn’t always need to be the star of this show.
- Red Snapper: ask for gin in your bloody, which plays well with all the savory flavors and adds an extra layer of herbal goodness.
- Bloody María: you’ll wonder why you haven’t been using tequila in this drink all along. Take it a step further and chase it with a Negra Modelo.
We’ve already gone over the many subtle, fussy options inherent in the martini. Now go for extra fancy bonus points by carousing with some of the martini’s old-school cousins.
- Gibson: a standard gin or vodka martini, but with tiny cocktail onions instead of olives or lemon peel.
- Dorflinger: if the vermouth has gone off, toss it and use absinthe instead. Don’t forget a shake of orange bitters.
- Vesper: the James Bond special. Lillet Blanc takes over for standard white vermouth, and a nip of vodka is added to a hefty measure of gin.
There are hard-drawn and contentious opinions on how to make the perfect version of this storied classic. Most of the Sazeracs I’ve had are made with rye whiskey, a spritz of absinthe, and some Peychaud’s Bitters. But depending on where you go, some elements of the drink might be different.
- Cognac: I’ve heard many say that the original recipe is actually made with Cognac, not rye. If you’re not sure which to choose, get one with each.
- Bitters: there’s debate about whether it’s best to use Peychaud’s Bitters, Angostura Bitters, or a mixture of both. Again, please investigate.
- Absinthe: some people omit the absinthe, and to those people I say: why?
For a moment, let’s set aside the frozen marg. Let’s also set aside (throw out) any sugar-soaked margarita mix in a plastic bottle. A good margarita needs five things: tequila, fresh lime, agave, ice, and a glass. Still, if you want an extra bit of sweetness, it’s fun to add orange liqueur to the mix. Find your fave.
- Grand Marnier: sweet and heavy, it’s the star of the Cadillac Margarita when floated on top.
- Cointreau: a glorious liqueur from France with a big burst of orange oil.
- Triple Sec: lower proof, higher in sugar, and easier on the wallet. Made with a blend of sweet and bitter orange peels.
- Curaçao: made from the peel of the laraha, a bitter little descendant of the Valencia orange.
- Patrón Citronage: with a tequila base, this one blends very nicely in a margarita, but not so well in non-tequila cocktails.
The sidecar, a time-tested blend of Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice, is difficult to master. If Cointreau is not available, see the above list of orange liqueurs as substitutes. Or go a step further and play with the base spirit.
- Brandy: if you don’t have true Cognac, other brandies will work.
- Rum: a decent aged rum makes for a lovely sidecar as well.
If your lemon juice is overpowering things, add a small measure of rich simple syrup to help tame the citrus and lend a richer mouthfeel.
As another one of those three-booze classics like the Negroni, changing one ingredient in this drink changes everything. A rye Manhattan has a different attitude than a bourbon Manhattan. Punt e Mes kicks things up a notch over regular red vermouth. Here’s a few other spins to consider.
- Dry Manhattan: use white vermouth instead of red for a drier, more herbaceous take, with a slightly lighter body.
- Perfect Manhattan: by using equal parts red and white vermouth, a cocktail becomes “perfect” (whether or not you agree with the deeper implications).
- Distrito Federal: if you’re not in a whiskey mood, try this tequila-based Manhattan. You can do it.
Everyone has their own version of this tried-and-true cold-buster. And that’s a good thing, because when you’re laid flat with the flu, a rollicking trip to the liquor store is probably not at the top of your list. Work with what you have on hand.
- Spirit: standards tend to be whiskey or brandy, and rum is also popular, but anything boozy will do the job.
- Water: the only requirement is that it should be hot. However, adding a tea bag makes this drink all the more enjoyable. Try something robust like masala chai or cinnamon-orange.
- Sweetener: honey is ideal for its throat-coating qualities, but if you’re in a pinch, a spoonful of sugar will suffice.
- Spices: drop in some clove, allspice, star anise, or a cinnamon stick for some additional aroma and flavor.
Although this drink was created to showcase Cock’n Bull Ginger Beer and Smirnoff Vodka, you can make a Moscow Mule with any combination of fresh lime, vodka, and ginger soda. Once you’ve got that down, you may want to give the vodka a rest and take your mule on a world tour.
- London Mule: gin
- Tennessee Mule: Jack Daniel’s
- Kentucky Mule: bourbon
- Jamaican Mule: rum
- Irish Mule: Irish whiskey
Long Island Iced Tea
Don’t make this drink. But if you do, at least try to do something new with it.
- Long Island Lemonade: use lemon-lime soda instead of cola. Save the Coke for the Cuba Libres.
- Electric Long Island Iced Tea: add tequila, because you weren’t going to regret this drink enough already.
- Blue Motorcycle: A Long Island lemonade with blue curaçao instead of triple sec. It’s pretty. And pretty terrible.
Anything with Absinthe
As we all know, there was a dark time when the magical Green Fairy was banished from the land. What did people do during this time? They drank Pastis. It’s more or less the same formula, but without the wormwood that everyone erroneously thought was causing hallucinations. You can still use it as an alternate in your cocktails with solid results.
Gin vs. Vodka
There are many, many drinks in which either gin and vodka can fit the bill. If you’re ordering one of the items below, be sure to specify to your bartender which you prefer — because they don’t always ask.
- Gimlet: with sweet lime cordial.
- Tom Collins: with lemon, sugar, and soda.
- Greyhound: with grapefruit juice.
- Salty Dog: a Greyhound with a salted rim.
- Orange Blossom / Screwdriver: the first is orange juice with gin, and the second is with vodka.
- Martini: it all depends on how you like it. Don’t get me started.
There are also a few families of cocktail “types,” each of which can be made with any base spirit you want. So if all the premium mixers have been snatched from the house party fridge, or you’re itching for a cocktail between paychecks, here’s a few simple wildcards you can whip up with the spirit of your choosing.
- Sour: combine lemon juice, sugar, spirit.
- Daisy: same as sour but topped up with soda.
- Buck: basically the mother of the mule. Mix ginger soda, citrus, and spirit.
- Old Fashioned: despite what Don Draper may have to say, this is not exclusively a whiskey drink — at least not historically. It used to be a term referring to the basic treatment that turns any spirit into a cocktail. Just add sugar, bitters, maybe a touch of soda water, and perhaps a twist of citrus.