The holidays are a great time for snacks, big meals, Christmas cookies, and perhaps best of all, classic cocktails.
Some drinks are ideal for summer, some are better for winter, and the best ones are great all year round. The best classic cocktails can be found at any quality bar or excitingly reinvented by talented bartenders.
Shaken or stirred, we’ve taken a hard look at some of the alcoholic drinks people love most and judge which ones are better than others. It’s bound to spark a hot debate, but someone had to do it. Arguing over the holidays is a tradition anyway. Cocktails always help with that too.
And for the record, we didn’t include the classic martini (even though it’s incredible) because it’s so simple that it’s hard to compare it against anything else. There are also so many different ways to make it — dry, wet, dirty, with a twist of lemon or otherwise. In fairness, we did pick our favourite variation on the martini and added it in.
Here are our picks for the best classic cocktails, ranked from worst to best.
12. The White Russian
There’s a reason you’ve literally never seen anyone order this in your entire life.
Combining vodka, Kahlúa, and cream, this thing actually tastes pretty good, but over time it’s been replaced by the Shaft, the Paralyzer, or the much less stomach-ache-inducing espresso martini.
We get it. The Dude from The Big Lebowski loved these things, but he loved a lot of things we should probably avoid.
11. Old Fashioned
Did you expect this to be first?
Yes, it’s controversial, but it just feels like the time of the Old Fashioned is over. Is it still a fantastic drink? Yes. But we feel the resurgence of this one has opened the door for other classic cocktails like it. The Old Fashioned walked so that the Negroni could walk.
It doesn’t help that the standard recipe of sugar, bitters, and bourbon is the best version, even though many places seem to think filling it with smoke, bacon wash, or root beer makes sit better. Those gimmicks are so 2015.
Sex and the City made it popular, and in return, we all made fun of people that ordered it. A quintessential New York drink served in a martini glass gets a bad rap, mostly because it’s pink. That’s unfair. It’s also easy to make it poorly, but if it strikes the right balance, this fun cocktail is great for more than just gossiping.
It’s made with vodka, Cointreau, cranberry juice, and lime juice…what’s not to love about that. It’s not super high on the list, but it deserves a spot and due respect.
9. Moscow Mule
Actually invented in the United States by a vodka salesman trying to make the clear spirit popular here, it’s not one of the most popular cocktails on restaurant menus.
Built in a signature copper mug, this uses vodka, spicy ginger beer, and lime to make a drink that’s ideal for any season. It might actually be the most all-season cocktail. Refreshing in the summer? Yes. Pour some cranberry into it, and you’ve got a festive treat. Theoretically, you could even just serve it hot on a cold day, and it would work magically.
One of the most fun drinks is also one of the best.
Even though it’s just fresh mint, lime, rum, sugar, and soda water, the skill to make this correctly is actually quite high. Everything needs to be mixed, built, and stirred the right way to ensure the mint blooms throughout the entire drink. This is a bright, herbal, refreshing, and dangerous cocktail.
This is probably the number-one cocktail of all time when considering the cocktail option — it’s basically just as good!
This is one example of a drink that needs to be ordered more than the Old Fashioned. It’s similar in that it’s sweet, has three ingredients, is whiskey-based, and is never shaken. It’s also a delightful play on a martini, with a base spirit and vermouth. It’s many things. It’s complex.
Using American whiskey and Italian vermouth (and bitters), this is a layered drink with a myriad of different ways to serve it — just like the martini.
Made even more popular by being ordered at the party in Marilyn Monroe’s 1959 classic Some Like It Hot, this is one of our faves.
This is probably the biggest wild card on the list.
It’s not very well known, and it’s rarely ordered — kind of like the White Russian. The major difference is the Sidecar is absolutely delicious. It’s a classic cocktail we have to rank high because it deserves to be a commonplace item on any menu.
Made with cognac, orange liquor, lemon juice, and a sugar rim, it’s a perfectly balanced cocktail that resembles a whiskey sour without the dilution of sugar and the added complexity of cognac.
The use of cognac is likely why this drink has stayed hidden away, but we hope the Sidecar is the next “it” drink.
Is it even a classic cocktail? Well, it is in Canada. And not just that, but the Bloody Mary is a classic cocktail and the added use of clam juice just makes it better.
Canada’s favourite cocktail was invented in Calgary back in 1969 by Walter Chell, and knowing the classic recipe is basically engrained in all Canadians at this point. It’s one drink where extravagant garnishes and wild variations actually add to the spirit of the drink rather than feel gimmicky.
Canada took an existing drink and made something fantastic, and we have to celebrate that by putting it at number 5.
4. Espresso Martini
Here is another martini variation that we just had to include. The espresso martini just seems like everyone’s favourite.
They taste delicious, you can drink multiple of them, they’re an indicator of having a fun night, and above all, there is coffee in them. The espresso martini is one drink that seems incredibly popular no matter where you are in the world, from Mexico to Australia, to here in Canada, and all over Europe.
Traditionally made with vodka, there isn’t an agreed-upon recipe for this one, which makes it even more interesting. Bartenders can choose multiple spirits (vodka, rum, whiskey, tequila, etc), different forms of coffee (cold brew, espresso), and different liqueurs and bitters to make it taste distinct but always feel familiar.
3. Whiskey Sour
The drink that so many others come from.
The sour is placed very early on the evolutionary chart of modern cocktails, and this simple drink has an element of spirits, an element of sweetness, and an element of sourness. It’s perfectly balanced, and from a gin gimlet to a margarita, so many of the best classic cocktails use the structure.
It’s also a drink you can easily screw up. You can leave them out, but it greatly benefits from a few dashes of Angostura bitters and an egg white, which also needs to be dry shaken first. Then, after an important double strain through a mesh sieve, you’ll have a dangerously delicious whiskey sour with a famously silky texture.
“What’s your drink of choice?”
“A Negroni. Sbagliato. With Prosecco in it.”
We all heard the exchange between Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cook, and we wholeheartedly agree.
Sure, we could have chosen the strong, bitter, and delicious Negroni cocktail here. We could have also chosen the similar-tasting Aperol Spritz for a lighter, more refreshing spin on the Aperol/Campari concept. But the Sbagliatio is a perfect mix of them all.
A Sbagliato is basically a Negroni cocktail (equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth), that subs out the gin for Prosecco. It’s the same flavour profile but much lighter. Here’s to hoping the viral moment becomes a trendsetting moment and more people try this amazing classic cocktail.
And finally, the top choice on the list: the Margarita.
In so many ways, it’s the perfect drink. It has all of the elements of the reasons why we love these other classic cocktails. It’s bright, well-balanced, welcomes variations, easy to make at home, and has a garnish that actually adds to the taste of the drink.
besides all of that, margaritas are just fun. They imply a good time. You can shake them up or blend them. They belong in both cocktail coupes and over-the-top hurricane glasses.
It’s almost unfair how great the margarita is, to the other drinks on this list, and on our headaches the morning after. That’s why it takes the top spot on this list.