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What Is Cocktail?: 17 Mixes of the Cocktail Definition

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The idea of a cocktail has been around for centuries. But what are cocktails, actually? From the first few Scots using malt and bitters to make whiskey up through recent years, cocktails are a widely appreciated take on consuming alcohol. 

But that doesn’t mean everyone knows what a cocktail is, or how to make one. Or, perhaps you’ve made one before but are now looking for the best cocktail recipe books. Unless you enjoy visiting new bars or a cocktail expert, the question of what are cocktails may be a big one for you. 

Between fall cocktails, winter cocktails, and seasonal drinks of all kinds, there’s a lot to explore. Keep reading this post to learn the basics about cocktails, plus common recipes.

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What Is Cocktail?

A cocktail is any beverage, appetizer, or hors d'oeuvres that’s made with two or more ingredients. Liquid cocktails usually have at least one kind of alcohol in them and food cocktails are typically finger food that’s served cold. 

The word cocktail comes from the Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud and the drinks he used to serve in New Orleans. Around the mid-1800s, Peychaud used to serve mixed brandy drinks in a French eggcup.

The French version of the word eggcup is coquetier, which Peychaud’s customers shortened to “cocktay.” Over time, this word was Americanized even further until it became “cocktail” and this version has stuck ever since. Based on this, the word cocktail refers both to the drink itself and the glass it’s served in. 

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What Is Cocktail Drink?

A cocktail drink is any mixed drink with at least two cocktail ingredients and is usually alcohol-based. Cocktails typically have a base liquor, like vodka or gin (see also: vodka cocktails), and come with other flavored ingredients like fruit juice. 

Some drinks are simple and only involve two liquid ingredients. Other cocktails are more complex, involving a base liquor, several fruit juices, spices, and a garnish. Still, other drinks have ingredients like dairy, such as eggnog or a Chocolatini. 

Popular cocktails include the Old Fashioned, Margaritas, Cosmopolitans, Bloody Marys, and Manhattans. These drinks range from sour to sweet, as well as peppery to smooth. Some cocktails make use of a bitters recipe while others are served with the recipe ingredients only.

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What Is Cocktail Hour?

There are two definitions for cocktail hour: the period between lunch and dinner, and the time between a wedding ceremony and the reception. Bars and restaurants use cocktail hour to attract patrons during the slowest time of day, and wedding cocktail hour keeps guests satisfied while they wait for dinner. Cocktail and happy hour times are between 2 PM and 6 PM, but the exact timing depends on the event context. 

Cocktail hour is sometimes called happy hour, depending on what kind of establishment is promoting it. As the name implies, cocktails are available but beer, wine, and whiskey are also served. The drinks available during cocktail hour depend on a bar’s par stock and customer demand on that day. 

What Is Cocktail Sauce?

Cocktail sauce is a tangy dipping sauce made with either ketchup or chili sauce and horseradish. It’s a sauce that’s commonly served with appetizers, including seafood, deep-fried mushrooms, and deviled eggs. 

Making a list of the supplies you’ll need for appetizer ingredients like this is helpful when you’re learning how to open a bar. It also helps you perform recipe costing too, so you don’t spend more than necessary on any one menu item. 

What Is Shrimp Cocktail?

A shrimp cocktail is a glass filled with cocktail sauce and cooked, shelled shrimp placed around the edges. Martini or Margarita glasses are typically used for this recipe, though it may also be placed in a small bowl. 

Shrimp cocktails continue to be popular hors d'oeuvres at formal events, weddings, and other public events. They make a good addition to appetizer menus for both bars and restaurants. 

Here are the essential ingredients for shrimp cocktails: 

  • Small or large shrimp
  • 0.5 tsp salt
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 2 tbsp horseradish

Place the non-shrimp ingredients in a Margarita glass or small bowl and stir them together. Once the sauce consistency is relatively thick and creamy, line the shrimp around the ridge of the glass or bowl. Serve immediately. 

What Is A Champagne Cocktail?

A champagne cocktail is a champagne-based drink that includes additional ingredients to amplify the flavor experience. Champagne cocktails include Angostura bitters, sugar, a bit of brandy, and an orange peel or maraschino cherry to garnish. 

If you’re reading the recipe and wondering, “What are bitters?” It’s a valid question. Bitters are any kind of concentrated liquid made by infusing herbs, spices, and botanicals in alcohol. They amplify the taste of a drink and increase the complexity of its flavor profile. 

These are the ingredients in a simple champagne cocktail: 

  • 3 oz Champagne
  • 1 Sugar cube or 1 tsp simple syrup
  • 0.33 oz Cognac
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

What Is A Paloma Cocktail?

Paloma cocktails are a combination of tequila, grapefruit-flavored soda, lime juice, and salt. While they aren’t as popular as other drinks, the Paloma is the national drink of Mexico, and is much-loved in texas.

Leading soda water brands like Perrier and Spindrift carry grapefruit variations, so Palomas are easy to make. Paloma cocktails are usually served on the rocks and make a refreshing spring or summer drink. 

Here’s what you need to make a refreshing Paloma:

  • 2 oz tequila
  • 2 oz fresh grapefruit juice, plus wedges for garnish
  • 0.5 oz lime juice
  • 0.25 oz agave nectar or simple syrup
  • Salt for glass rims
  • Ice (optional) 

What Is A Cosmo Cocktail?

Cosmo is short for Cosmopolitan, which is one of the longest-standing and popular cocktail recipes. It’s a tart-tasting, vodka-based cocktail that’s known for its cranberry and lime juice. 

Here’s what you need for a Cosmo cocktail: 

  • 1.5 oz vodka
  • 1 oz cranberry juice
  • 0.5 oz Cointreau or Triple Sec
  • 0.5 oz lime juice
  • Lime, lemon, maraschino cherry, or orange wheel to garnish

What Is In A Cosmopolitan Cocktail?

A Cosmopolitan cocktail has some ingredients that are required, and others that are flexible. Necessary ingredients include vodka, cranberry juice, lime juice, and Triple Sec or Cointreau. These latter alcoholic beverages add a little orange flavor to the drink while helping all of the ingredients mix well with each other. 

Optional ingredients include ice and garnishes. You can garnish the drink with an orange peel, maraschino cherry, or lime wheel. Customers may also request their Cosmo with or without crushed ice. Both are great ways to enjoy this drink, but it’s traditionally served with ice. 

What Is A Manhattan Cocktail?

The Manhattan is one of the oldest cocktails and is one of the drinks every bartender should know. As the name implies, it was invented around 1880 in New York’s Manhattan Club and has been widely consumed ever since. 

Here are the ingredients to make a Manhattan: 

  • 2 oz rye, whiskey, or bourbon
  • 0.75 oz sweet or dry vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • Cherry or olive to garnish

Combine all ingredients in a glass, garnish it up, and serve. 

What Is An Old Fashioned Cocktail?

The Old Fashioned is the first cocktail ever created, and it’s still incredibly popular. In fact, it’s the most popular cocktail in Chicago and the third most appreciated across the United States. 

An Old Fashioned cocktail was originally made with sugar water and bitters, but has since grown to include other ingredients. Today’s Old Fashioned recipes include whiskey or brandy plus an orange slice or cherry garnish. 

Make your own Old Fashioned with the ingredients below: 

  • 1.5 oz whiskey or brandy
  • 1 sugar cube or 1 tsp simple syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 tsp water
  • 1 orange slice or maraschino cherry

What Is A Gibson Cocktail?

Gibson cocktails are similar to Martinis because they make use of the same types of alcohol--gin and vermouth. They’re extremely simple to make and have a light, refreshing taste. 

Here are the ingredients needed to make a Gibson: 

  • 2.5 oz gin
  • 0.5 dry vermouth
  • Cocktail or pickled onion to garnish

What Is A Highball Cocktail?

A highball cocktail is any combination of an alcoholic beverage with a flavored one. Popular highball variations include whiskey and ginger ale, gin and tonic water, or types of rum and Coke. Most highball cocktails can be made with well liquor, which helps keep recipe costing low.

Ginger ale is the most common drink mixer for highball cocktails, so our example will center on this drink. Take a look at our whiskey highball recipe below: 

Put the ice in the glass first, then the whiskey, then the ginger ale, and you’re all set. 

What Is Juice Cocktail?

A juice cocktail is any cocktail made with fruit juice and other ingredients. Juice cocktails may or may not include extra sugar, but almost all are mixed with some amount of water. Common juice cocktails include cranberry, orange, and vegetable juice cocktails.

A cranberry juice cocktail typically has cranberry juice concentrate, water, and sugar. If you’re drinking one that’s premade, it may also have ascorbic acid or another preservative in it. On the other hand, many people have made their own juice cocktails, often imitating the taste and texture of a smoothie. 

Here’s a simple cranberry juice cocktail you can use: 

  • 1 quart water
  • 4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 0.75 cups sugar
  • 0.25 cup lemon juice
  • 0.25 cup orange juice

Add all ingredients to a blender, mix them up, pour a glass, and serve. Juice-heavy drinks like these make great summer cocktails, too. 

What Is A Craft Cocktail?

Craft cocktails are a type of drink made from scratch, with fresh ingredients and no artificial flavors or additives. A craft cocktail is never fashioned with pre-made ingredients or well liquor, which is the standard alcohol at any bar. Instead, it's made with call liquor, or any brand that a customer requests by name.

Craft cocktails are also defined by the individual attention that goes into making one. An experienced bartender can make drinks like this because they understand the nuances of combining specific ingredients. 

Given the nature of craft cocktails, there is no standardized recipe for them. These drinks are one-of-a-kind and make use of special ingredients. That being said, you can still find craft cocktail recipes online. 

Here is the straightforward recipe for a Trinidad Sour: 

  • 1.5 oz Angostura bitters
  • 0.5 oz rye or whiskey
  • 1 oz orgeat syrup
  • 0.75 oz lemon juice

What Is A Sidecar Cocktail?

The sidecar cocktail is an orange-flavored drink made with Cognac and Cointreau. Its name allegedly comes from an American army captain who used a motorcycle sidecar in Paris during World War I. 

If you love orangey drinks or have a customer who has requested one, this is the perfect fit. Take a look at the simple sidecar cocktail recipe below: 

  • 1.5 oz Cognac
  • 0.75 oz Cointreau or Triple Sec
  • 0.75 oz fresh lemon juice
  • Sugar-crusted rim and orange slice to garnish

Pour all ingredients into a mixer, shake, pour into a glass, and then garnish. 

What Is An Aviation Cocktail?

The Aviation is a gin cocktail that--while first invented in the early 1900s--fell out of vogue for several decades. Its claim to fame is crème de violette, which can be any neutral grain spirit with violet flavor and coloration.

Some crème de violette brands use real violet infusions, whereas others simply imitate the flavor. Aviation cocktails are on the sweeter side and include lemon juice and maraschino (cherry) liqueur. 

Here’s a straightforward Aviation cocktail recipe you can use today: 

  • 2 oz gin
  • 0.5 oz maraschino liqueur
  • 0.25 oz crème de violette
  • 0.75 oz fresh lemon juice
  • Brandied or maraschino cherry to garnish

Combine all liquid ingredients in a mixer, and ice is optional but recommended. Shake well and pour into a cocktail glass. Garnish with fruit of choice and serve. 

Frequently Asked Questions About What Is Cocktail

If it’s your first time learning about cocktails, chances are you have several questions. The cocktail world is filled with phrases and norms that bar staff take for granted, but anyone can learn. 

We looked up the most frequently asked questions about cocktails so you can master the basics. Take a look at our answers below: 

What Is An Example of A Cocktail?

Examples of cocktails include a whiskey highball, Paloma, and Moscow Mule. A cocktail is any beverage that mixes one or more alcoholic drinks and other flavors. 

Each of these cocktails has a liquor, like whiskey or tequila, and includes other flavored liquids. Palomas feature grapefruit soda, Moscow Mules have ginger beer, and whiskey highballs make use of ginger ale. 

Why Do They Call It A Cocktail?

The story behind how cocktails got their name is fairly interesting. An apothecary named Antoine Peychaud and his New Orleans customers are to credit for this interesting name. 

Peychaud served mixed brandy beverages in eggcups, which in French is called a coquetier. Customers at Peychaud’s business began loosely calling his drinks “cocktays,” which eventually became “cocktail.” So, the word has a French origin but is an Americanized version referring to both the drink and the cup. 

What Are The 6 Basic Cocktails?

The 6 classic cocktail recipes are the Old Fashioned, Martini, Sidecar, Daiquiri, Flip, and Whiskey Highball. Let’s briefly break down what each recipe consists of. 

The Old Fashioned is the oldest cocktail in existence and consists of bitters, water, and sugar. The Martini is vermouth and gin, sometimes garnished with a lemon twist or olive. Sidecars are made with Cognac and orange liqueur, sometimes lemon juice.

A Daiquiri consists of rum, lime juice, and simple syrup. You can make a Flip with any full-bodied liquor like whiskey or brandy, plus a whole egg and sugar. The drink is shaken dry and garnished with a sprinkle of nutmeg. Finally, a Whiskey Highball is made with whiskey, ginger ale, and ice. Between all of these classic recipes, you’ll always have a drink to choose from.

What Are the Main Components of a Cocktail?

A cocktail typically comprises three main components: the base spirit, mixers, and flavoring agents. The base spirit forms the drink's alcoholic foundation, while mixers, such as sodas or juices, add volume and dilution. Flavoring agents, including bitters, syrups, or liqueurs, provide complexity and balance. The combination of these elements, often complemented by ice and garnishes, results in a well-crafted and flavorful beverage.

The art of mixology lies in achieving a harmonious blend that caters to personal taste preferences and elevates the drinking experience.

What Is the Difference Between a Cocktail and a Mixed Drink?

The terms "cocktail" and "mixed drink" are often used interchangeably, but there's a subtle distinction. A cocktail refers to a specific category of mixed drinks crafted with precision, balancing various ingredients for a nuanced flavor profile. In contrast, a mixed drink is a broader term encompassing any beverage made by combining multiple ingredients, alcoholic or not. While all cocktails are mixed drinks, not all mixed drinks meet the refined and balanced criteria associated with a classic cocktail. The term "cocktail" implies a level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that may not be present in every mixed drink.

What Are Some Classic Cocktails?

Classic cocktails include:

  • Martini
  • Old Fashioned
  • Negroni
  • Mojito
  • Margarita
  • Manhattan

These drinks have stood the test of time and are widely recognized. They commonly come up as an answer to the question "what are cocktails?"

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A Meal With A Drink Is Whiskey Business

With over a dozen simple cocktail recipes at your disposal, the sky is the limit. Whether you’re learning how to increase restaurant sales or researching ideas for your next dinner at home, these have you covered. 

The best part about cocktails is you can experiment with them. Like yours a little sweeter? Add a touch more simple syrup. Want to make the drink more complex? Include a few drops of a complementary bitters flavor. No matter the occasion, remember to have fun with it and drink responsibly. 

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