10 Classic Cocktail Terms Everyone Should Know
First and foremost, the primary cocktail term that you should know is just that: cocktail. The earliest reference to the drink was in an American periodical called The Balance, in which cocktail was described as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” Following this strict definition, many of the “cocktails” we drink today are misnomers, as every true cocktail should have four components. We no longer make that distinction, though; today basically all mixed (alcoholic) drinks are considered cocktails.
The following 10 terms describe other common beverages that were siblings of the cocktail between the 17th and early 20th centuries. These terms are still used on menus and in cocktail books today, so you should learn to use and recognize them! The more familiar you become with them, the more comfortable you’ll feel making your own “twists” on these on the fly at home, as well as ordering at a bar or restaurant.
Sour is a category of cocktails prepared with lemon juice, granulated sugar, and the spirit of your choice (such as gin, brandy, etc.). It’s shaken well and strained.
A toddy is a short drink made with liquor, granulated sugar or honey, and water or juice. It is very similar to punch. It can be served hot or cold, but if it’s the former, it’s known as a hot toddy and served in a heat-resistant glass.
Flips are made with egg yolk, granulated sugar, and a spirit (usually rum, whiskey, or wine-based liquors like sherry, brandy, port, etc.). They are similar to egg nogs, except that they are not made with milk or cream.
Egg nog is a very historic, truly American beverage made with egg yolk, sugar, spirits (liqueurs and brandies), and cream or milk. It’s traditionally had in the South at Christmastime, though it’s enjoyed throughout the world—in Scotland, it’s known as Auld Man’s Milk.
In the aforementioned early definition of the cocktail, it was noted that the cocktail was “vulgarly called the bittered sling.” Therefore, a sling is a cocktail without bitters. The slings are made with a spirit, some type of fruit (such as citrus juice), water, and granulated sugar.
Shrubs are made with the rinds and/or juice of citrus fruit, mixed with granulated sugar and rum or brandy. They are in essence a basis for punch but are usually left for days or weeks to infuse.
Fizzes are made with three main ingredients: lemon juice, powdered sugar, and a spirit. Also shaken, they are very similar to sours but made with different sugars. Today, they are often topped with soda water as well, which makes them even fizzier.
Made with lemon juice, sugar, spirits, and soda, Collinses are basically tall fizzes—served in a Collins glass—that are stirred instead of shaken, and garnished with a lemon wedge and a cherry.
A rickey is made with ice, lime juice, sometimes lemon juice, a spirit or liqueur, soda water, and a lime or lemon garnish. It notably has no sugar, but variations of it are sweetened with things like grenadine and other syrups.
Juleps comprise two essential ingredients: aromatic mint and liquor. They originated in the South, where they were a welcome respite from 100-degree heat. They’re made with two sprigs of mint (about a dozen leaves) and served with crushed ice. There are a number of variations on the classic Southern bourbon mint julep—with the addition of Champagne, gin, etc.
What's your go-to cocktail? Tell us in the comments below.