In the beginning, there was the old fashioned.
That was pretty much the one cocktail around for a while. And back then it was just called a cocktail.
Now, there are countless cocktails. That’s great because it gives bar owners and bar managers a chance to define themselves and offer value to their guests with unique drink menus. But it can be overwhelming to choose 8–12 cocktail recipes out of thousands. And even more so when money and jobs are on the line.
This guide, then, is a path forward. As a beverage inventory management company, we have access to lots of folks in the bar and restaurant business. After consulting with them, we put together this guide of how to easily put together a profitable, popular cocktail menu. Most of it has to do with capitalizing on seasonality and simplicity.
In the first section, we’ll go over the can’t-miss drinks for each season. Then we’ll cover some market research about cocktails in the U.S. and, finally, provide a list of the cocktails we think every bartender should know.
Popular Cocktail Recipes by Season
There are three primary types of cocktails you can put on your drink menu. The first are basic bartending drinks. The classics. These are the basic bar drinks and basic cocktail recipes that bartenders know like the back of their hand.
The second type of cocktails are seasonal. Seasonality is just as important as concept and clientele. Your guests will make different choices based on the time of year using different types of alcohol. Focusing on seasonal drinks is no longer restricted to the holidays when steaming toddies and buttered rums are enjoyed as a novelty. Our environment affects our decision making and that’s as true for purchasing decisions in bars as it is in clothing stores.
The third type are signature cocktails. These are the ones you and your bartenders and mixologists create. They can be completely original or tweaks of classics and seasonal drinks.
In the following four sections, we’ve combined the first two types of cocktail—classics and seasonal—to create a list of profitable, popular cocktail recipes for each season.
The best part about the seasonal cocktails in four sections below is that they’re not out-of-control seasonal monstrosities. They’re simple, tried-and-true classics. That makes them profitable for two reasons. One, you probably have most of the ingredients already. Two, they’ve proven over the years that there is consistent demand for them. You can put any of them on your cocktail menu during any season and see some success. But if you put them on your cocktail menu at the right time, you’ll strike a chord with your guests they didn’t even know they had.
Popular Cocktail Recipes for Spring
It’s like they always say, “April showers bring May cocktails.”
Spring cocktails, like all the other seasonal cocktails in this guide, are profitable when they’re popular and simple—there’s demand for them and their ingredient cost is low. Use a liquor cost calculator and you'll find it translates to a low pour cost and a higher bar profit margin.
So we put together a perfect list of spring cocktails. In it, we detail the recipes for each cocktail, along with some interesting history and context around the drink itself. While context may not seem necessary, it’s an important part of wringing all the profit you can out of these cocktails. The more information you or your bartender can provide around a drink—the more context you deliver—the more value you create. That makes them easier to sell or upsell as a bartender.
Our bartenders drink guide for popular spring cocktails includes:
- Harvey Wallbanger
- Sea Breeze
- Mint Julep
- Gin Fizz (gin being one of the rumored aphrodisiac drinks)
Popular Cocktail Recipes for Summer
Summer cocktails should pump (clap) you up. If your summer cocktail doesn’t get you jazzed for the energy of the season, then it’s not taking advantage of our built-in adoration of the sun. It’s not a good summer cocktail.
So we chose 10 simple, popular summer cocktail recipes that Ra himself would be proud of. Here they are, coupled with some great information about each cocktail. The more memorable information you can provide about a cocktail, the more they’ll sell.
Where other seasons juggle more nuanced flavors, summer is straightforward. Sour and sweet citrus flavors refreshingly explode in your mouth. Ice-cold liquor chills you from the inside out. Club soda brings a crispness to your mouth.
The recipes all use the most popular cocktail ingredients, so you’ve likely got them all already. That’s one part of what makes them profitable drinks. The other part is that they’re all basic bartending drinks, classics. People already know and love these drinks. Offer them when the time is right and you’ll make money.
Our bartenders drink guide for popular summer cocktails includes:
- French Martini
- John Daly
- Tom Collins
- Old Pal
- Whiskey Sour
- Cuba Libre
- Tequila Sunrise
Popular Cocktail Recipes for Fall
Fall cocktail recipes occupy a delicate middle ground between summer and winter. We don't feel the need for refreshment like we do in summer. Yet we don’t quite need the coziness and warmth of winter cocktails yet.
So what do we look for in fall cocktail recipes? Fruit, but not overpowering amounts. Spice, but not overwhelming spice. We want a comfortable, peaceful sort of moderation.
Our 10 fall cocktail recipes hit the mark. They walk the middle path from summer to winter. And even if people aren’t aware they’re looking for this type of seasonal connection with their cocktail, they are. Anything that reflects and acknowledges someone’s experience or feeling, be it a drink or a gesture, will resonate. That’s what these drinks do.
Like the popular cocktail recipes from other seasons, we included some great background information on each drink that will pique guests’ interest and increase your sales.
Our bartenders drink guide for popular fall cocktails includes:
- Bloody Mary
- White Russian
- Old Fashioned
- Corpse Reviver No. 2
- Cranberry Maple Rum Cocktail
- Dark ‘N Stormy
- Tequila Sour
- Long Island Iced Tea
Popular Cocktail Recipes for Winter
The basic bar drinks we chose for winter are, like the other lists of cocktails, classic cocktails. But these are at home when the temperature goes down.
The name of the game is warmth and comfort during winter. For some cocktail recipes, that translates to literal warmth and the drink is served hot. In most cases, it’s warmth from the flavor profile of spices. Clove, cinnamon, and anise are three of the most popular cocktail ingredients during winter and we’ve got them covered here.
Our bartenders drink guide for popular winter cocktails includes:
- Hot Gin Toddy
- Spiced Winter Mojito
- Ancient Mulled White Wine
- Winter Negroni
- Hot Buttered Rum
Offering basic cocktail recipes and bar drinks during the season they most reflect is the way to take advantage of their inherent simplicity and demand.
Before we get to the drinks we think every bartender should know, though, there is some more context we can add to this conversation. And that’s market research about which cocktails are the most popular in the U.S. That, coupled with the above, are both invaluable tools to making your drink menu stand out and make money.
Most Popular Cocktails in the U.S.
The simplest way to increase drink sales is to meet existing demand out there. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. First, of course, utilize seasonality. And second, critically consider existing market research.
We put together some takeaways about the most popular cocktails in the U.S. based on Nielsen market research. The conclusions from that research will help beverage programs grow profitability. Because drinking behavior changes by region and time of day. Looking at a high-level summary of buying behavior in bars will help you rethink your approach to cocktail menus and drink specials.
To see every profitable conclusion we drew, and to get the full context behind them, check out the article above. But here are a few of the takeaways to give you an idea:
- At night, bars have a lower pour cost and their profit goes up. Night is when bars should offer their stiffest, priciest drinks.
- The martini is not affected by region. Martinis find success in bars in every part of the country. Given that, and given that martinis are also most popular during the time of day when people are spending the most money on drinks (night), bars should always have a traditional martini on their night time drink menu.
Based on that, we came up with a list of the drinks every bartender should know. They’re not broken down by season, though some of them are more attractive during certain seasons as we’ve outlined. But if you’re looking for a list of the most popular cocktails out there, you’re in the right place.
Basic Bar Drinks: A Bartending Drinks Cheat Sheet
Call them basic bar drinks, basic cocktail recipes, popular cocktail recipes, or anything else you want. The fact is that this cocktail list is basically a bartending drinks cheat sheet. If you’re not looking for seasonality, then this cocktail list is for you.
Here’s our list of the drinks every bartender should know, complete with the recipes, ingredients, and tips to make them like a pro. They’re the 18 most popular cocktails out there, and they are:
- Gin Fizz
- Aperol Spritz
- White Russian
- Moscow Mule
- Whiskey Sour
- Bloody Mary
- Old Fashioned
Basic Bartending Drinks + Seasonality = Profitable, Popular Cocktails
By choosing specific, seasonal cocktails you’ll increase your bar profit margin. Choosing simple classic cocktails and following a solid alcohol pricing strategy will lower power cost. Because you’ll have all the ingredients, and the recipes are easy. And if your bartenders are sticking to standard liquor pours and you’re calculating variance, everything will be in place.
Even if your guests aren’t entirely aware that they want a drink that meshes well with the season, they do. It’s the reality beneath the surface. They may not know what they want before they sit down at your bar, but they’ll know when they see it. If you can capitalize on that, you’ll sell a lot of profitable drinks. You can also check out some of the best bartending books for more inspiration.