5 of the world’s most popular cocktails and how they made history

Updated on May 25 2018

We have a history lesson for you today. For those who’ve read that first sentence and are ready to close the tab, please stay with us, we promise it’ll read nothing like classroom material because this is going to be a quick chronicle about alcohol. Cocktails, more specifically.

To hone in even further, the ones you find yourself ordering every weekend at your bar of choice with little knowledge of how the drink you hold in your hand was invented a century or more ago and has withstood the tests of modernity. Fighting extinction is not easy, especially when you consider the frightening plagues that hit the spirits sphere in our lifetime: the Angostura bitters shortage, our current tequila drought, as well as the rise of rainbow-coloured, glittery “unicorn” cocktails (replace all adjectives with “asinine”). And that’s just a small slice of the turbulent pie.

Read on to find out how these have earned their status as some of the world’s most popular cocktails, according to Drinks International’s annual census. Even if you aren’t in for the whole educational ride, we promise that even the smallest nugget you retain will make that first sip on a Friday night so much better.

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Old Fashioned

history behind classic cocktails
An Old Fashioned is made with bitters, cubed sugar, whisky (usually rye or bourbon), and an orange peel with a maraschino cherry to garnish.

Don Draper may be credited for making the Old Fashioned trendy again, but the drink’s status as the first classic cocktail is something that requires no pop culture concessions.

Aside from the possibility that it might have germinated in Louisville, Kentucky, the origins of the Old Fashioned are hazy, perhaps because its creators realised they hit jackpot and knocked down one too many before they could find pen and paper.

Its composition adheres to the earliest recorded definition of a cocktail in 1806 — that is, a cocktail is a mix of spirit, sugar, water and bitters — so one can assume it has been around since the turn of the 19th Century. Formerly known as a Whiskey Cocktail and served at breakfast time, the Old Fashioned only acquired its contemporary namesake after bartenders’ wild experiments with the initial rye-based recipe angered drinkers so much, they demanded the return of “old-fashioned whiskey cocktails”.

Its current popularity is hard-won, as the cocktail has fallen out of fashion through several eras, most notably during the Prohibition. But thanks to Mad Men and the establishment of cocktail cultures beyond America in the early 2000s, the Old Fashioned will remain an indispensable favourite for a century to come.

Negroni

history behind classic cocktails
Negronis are made with gin, sweet vermouth and Campari in equal proportions.

Before the Negroni, there was the Americano, a basic Italian aperitivo made with all the components of a Negroni, with soda water and lemon instead of gin and an orange slice. The nation was happily sipping the lurid orange libation in the early 20th century until an Italian count walked into Caffe Casoni in 1919 and made cocktail history.

Not content with his lightweight Americano, Count Camillo Negroni asked for the drink to be punchier, a request that the bartender responded to by replacing soda water with gin and swapping out the garnish, thus creating the bitter beverage that cocktail lovers now enjoy with a near-religious devotion.

This apocryphal story has never been fully verified, but there are documents that prove the Negroni dynasty capitalised on the count’s invention by opening their own distillery in Treviso that sold pre-made batches of their patronymic cocktail.

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Whiskey Sour

history behind classic cocktails
A simple whisky sour is typically made with whisky, lemon juice and simple syrup.

Sailors don’t invite an immediate connection with cocktails, but many of the simple tinctures we gulp down today are a product of seafaring life, including the Whiskey Sour. It wasn’t invented to be a ticket to a good time, despite what the Drunken Sailor shanty suggests, but a defence against scurvy.

Alcohol was widely believed to have medicinal properties in the 18th century, and one wise American captain decided to mix lemon juice (when mixed with sugar, this could keep longer than the citrus fruit), sugar and bourbon together to keep his men happy, as well as free of scurvy. His tactic worked, at least until refrigerators were invented and brought on board ships. Today, the Whiskey Sour is the third best-selling cocktail in the world. We reckon the number would be higher if it weren’t so easy to shake up yourself.

Dry Martini

history behind classic cocktails
A dry martini is made with gin and dry vermouth, with the former in a higher proportion. We’ll let you argue the ratio amongst yourselves.

Has there ever been a cocktail as contested as the martini? Even before James Bond sparked the shaken-not-stirred debacle, the martini had already established itself as a cocktail royalty. As a marker of sophistication born in America, its popularity skyrocketed during the jazz age, and the martini has since thrived well into the 21st century like a beacon that bests any controversy thrown its way.

Its origin stories are murky, but the broad strokes are consistent — a gold miner wanted a drink in a bar, and a bartender mixed up the martini with the two ingredients he had on hand: Martini & Rossi vermouth, and London Dry gin.

The proportions of a dry martini have been commonly accepted to be one part white vermouth to one part gin, stirred in a shaker with ice then poured into a coupe, but the preference for bone-dry versions saw the ratio of gin climb to the standard 1:2 today, or even more. Vodka has also earned a place in martinis, but gin will always be the spirit that defines this classic.

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Daiquiri

daiquiri history
A standard daiquiri is made of white rum, simple syrup and lime juice, but has since evolved into a fruity slushie that’s a holiday staple.

A modern Daiquiri is like an ice cream sundae. There’s too much going on, toppings are involved, and the composition principle seems to be “more is better”.

This was not the case when the Daiquiri was created in Cuba, purportedly in the late 1800s by an American engineer near the Daiquirí iron mine. Jennings Cox was his name, and his original recipe was an elegant one — cracked ice, sugar, lime juice, and a healthy glug of white rum. It boomed into a popular summertime beverage after trade relations between North and South America improved during the World War II years and beyond, as rum was now easily imported. The shortage of conventional base spirits like vodka, whisky and gin due to the chaotic war also encouraged the rise of the Daquiri.

It might not invite the public same reverence as the other cocktails on this list, and yet the Daiquiri remains well-loved because it’s a fun, deceptively tame drink that is a mainstay at pool parties and long afternoons at the beach.