Master These Basic Cocktails to Serve Drinks Like a Mixologist

If you want to learn how to make basic bar drinks but don't know where to start, consider this your starter pack of cocktail essentials.

While the world's best mixologists hone their skills over decades of shaking, stirring, and serving, you won't need an advanced degree to become well-versed in mixing a basic cocktail—or so the pros tell us. We've tapped six mixologists for their tricks of the trade so that even novices can have confidence in their mixed drink repertoire.

Which alcohol do you need to make certain cocktails? How about the best tools, need-to-know mixed-drink recipes, and the various types of glasses used to serve each? We've got the answers. You're about to become the best at-home bartender on the block.

bar cart alcohol drinks
Greg Dupree

Basic Cocktail Ingredients for Every Home Bar

Just as you can't make an incredible dinner recipe without a pantry staple starter pack, you can't make a delicious cocktail or mocktail recipe without essentials. Here's a breakdown of the basic cocktail ingredients you'll need for mixing drinks.


Whether you're aiming to host guests or just like to have all the basic cocktail essentials in stock on your bar cart, head to your local liquor store or an online retailer to stock up. You can often find high-quality mixing spirits for $40 or less, says Alex Barbatsis, head bartender at The Whistler in Chicago, Illinois. "Don't spend too much on spirits you're going to mix with," he says, "No need to put a $200 bourbon in a Whiskey Sour when a $15 bourbon works great."

  • The must-haves: Vodka, gin, whiskey (bourbon, scotch, or rye), tequila (or mezcal), rum, brandy
  • The nice-to-haves: Dry and sweet vermouth, triple sec, Kahlua, Aperol, St. Germain, Amaretto, Grand Marnier, Pernod

Bitters, the complex alcohol-based ingredient that sets off the flavor of many cocktails, will also come in handy as you stir or shake up many classic cocktails—and they last up to 5 years at room temperature. Because they last so long, consider stocking a variety of bitters ($91 for three, Amazon).


You'll also need some essential cocktail mixers.

  • The must-haves: Tonic water, ginger beer, club soda/sparkling water, simple syrup (DIY by boiling, then simmering equal parts water and sugar in a saucepan until it's syrupy), limes and lemons for juicing ("The squeeze bottle may be fine for dashing up a fish dish, but a freshly squeezed lime will drastically improve your margarita recipe," Barbatsis says.)
  • The nice-to-haves: Orange juice, ginger ale, cranberry juice, soda/diet soda


Showy finishing touches can elevate even the most basic cocktail ingredients, and amplify flavors, too.

  • The must-haves: Limes, lemons, and oranges for peeling, fresh herbs and spices (rosemary, mint, basil, cinnamon sticks), maraschino cherries, salt, sugar cubes, stuffed green olives
  • The nice-to-haves: Pearl onions, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and cream of coconut


Yes, we know this sounds super-obvious. But it can actually make a big difference, according to Ryan Mish, bar manager at The Graceful Ordinary in St. Charles, Illinois. He believes that subpar ice is the step where many home mixologists falter.

"Ice from a standard tray or ice-maker is cloudy, due to gases and impurities becoming trapped during the freezing process, as opposed to the more sophisticated, directional freezing method employed by professional ice producers. Because of this, when you shake or stir, the ice will break down faster and, if you aren't careful, it's easy to over-dilute your cocktail," Mish says. "Try ice made in large molds [$8, Target] to remedy this. Larger, harder cubes allow for a proper shake-time, which will aerate your sours, give them a nice frothy head, and really chill your stirred drinks without watering them down."

The Basic Cocktail Tools to Add To Your Kit

The proper bar tools are essential to mix complex or basic cocktails like a pro. So start collecting these bartending essentials to perfect your favorite drink recipes. Again, you don't have to invest much to stock your home bar.

"Don't get caught up in the hype of aesthetics and pricier kits; simply focus on quality essentials," says Rachel Becker, lead bartender at Little Wild rooftop bar at the Ace Hotel in Chicago, Illinois.

  • Jigger: Usually made of metal, this small hourglass-shaped double cup measures drink ingredients. One side is a 1½-ounce jigger; the other is a 1-ounce pony ($5, Bed Bath & Beyond). You can also use a shot glass marked with measurements.
  • Cocktail shaker: As the name suggests, cocktail shakers are used to shake or mix the ingredients. There are two types of shakers: the Boston shaker, which requires a separate cocktail strainer, like a Hawthorne strainer, and the standard shaker ($12, Walmart), which comes with a built-in strainer.
  • Muddler: A cocktail muddler ($12, Target) mashes ingredients, like the mint leaves in a mint julep, to release their flavors. It's also used to break up sugar cubes.
  • Long-handle metal bar spoon: Use this for stirring cocktails. You could also use it as a muddler in a pinch.
  • Blender: For frozen drinks, like daiquiris and margaritas, you'll need a high-quality blender for crushing ice.
Dark blue wall next to bar cart
Ann VanderWiel Wilde

The Basic Cocktail Glasses You Might Need

Before you start mixing cocktails, you'll need some vessels to share them in. We love scouring vintage and thrift stores for unique, beautiful barware. "No more solo cups for you! Every cocktail looks and tastes better in its intended glassware," Becker says.

Here's our guide to the types of cocktail glasses you may want to start collecting, plus drinks you can serve in them.

  • Vodka/schnapps glass (1 to 4 ounces): chilled vodka, schnapps
  • Old-fashioned glass (8 to 10 ounces): old-fashioned, bloody mary
  • Cordial/liqueur glass (1 to 4 ounces): Kahlua, Amaretto
  • Highball glass (8 to 10 ounces): highball, rum punch, other tall drinks
  • Sour glass (6 ounces): whiskey sour
  • Margarita glass (6 to 8 ounces): margarita, daiquiri
  • Cocktail/martini glass (4 to 6 ounces): martini, grasshopper, Manhattan
  • Collins glass (10 to 12 ounces): Tom Collins, fuzzy navel, screwdriver
  • Champagne flute (6 to 8 ounces) or coupe glass (5 to 7 ounces): Champagne, mimosas, and other champagne cocktails

Basic Cocktail Recipes Everyone Should Master

Think of your early basic cocktail experiments as the pre-test rather than the final. It's OK—in fact, it's recommended—that you study and take pointers and inspiration from others.

"A common mistake made by bartending folks at home is trying to go at it alone instead of following drink recipes," Barbatsis says. "If you just try to make your own drinks right away without understanding flavor ratios, you are going to regret it the next day. Ask your local bartender for a cocktail book recommendation and follow the recipes there."

He loves Sasha Petraske's Regarding Cocktails ($35, Barnes & Noble). Seek out additional resources online, suggests Zachary West, bar lead at White Limozeen in the Graduate Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee: "Follow cocktail Instagram pages, like @cocktails_for_you, for at-home tutorials. There's a wealth of cocktail knowledge readily available online and on social media, if you're willing to look for it."

Mish says that the "popular classics" are where everyone should start when dipping a toe into basic mixed drinks. "More importantly though, understand the templates of these tried-and-true recipes because that's where you find balance. I try to think about not just what's in a drink, but why those ingredients are there, and the purpose they serve," he says. "With this approach, you become a way more adaptable bartender, capable of creating 'on the fly' with confidence in any number of different festive environments."

Here are the basic cocktail essentials, according to the mixologists we spoke to:

  1. Old Fashioned (1 sugar cube, 3 dashes bitters, splash of club soda, 2 ounces brown spirit)
  2. Martini (4 parts spirit, 1 part fortified wine)
  3. Daiquiri (3 parts rum, 2 parts lime, 1 part sugar)
  4. Margarita (3 parts tequila, 2 parts triple sec, 1 part lime juice)
  5. Spritz (1 part apéritif, 2 parts sparkling wine, splash of club soda)
  6. Sour (1 part sweet, 1 part sour, 2 parts spirit)
  7. Fizz (1 part sweet, 1 part sour, 2 parts spirit, splash of club soda)

Bonus Cocktail Tips from the Pros

Since we had an opportunity to "happy hour" with so many spirits specialists, we couldn't resist asking them for any final cocktail essential tips. As you prepare to shake and stir, remember:

  • Take stock. An organized and prepared bar is essential for hosting, Becker says. "Preparation makes all the difference when mixing drinks for groups of friends. Before I host, I check that my bar has everything I need. I have my juices, syrups, spirits, tools, bitters, garnishes, and glassware ready to go."
  • Set the scene. Before he picks up a single cocktail tool, Mish likes to focus on "mise en place," a French culinary term that means "everything in place." "Your glassware should be close by and chilling, if applicable. Your juices, syrups, and garnishes are prepped with your jigger handy and spirits fitted uncapped," he says. "Preparation and consideration will ensure the best possible expression of what you're trying to achieve in your home mixology adventures."
  • Taste test. "Just like a chef tastes a dish before it leaves the kitchen, taste your drinks before serving them to others," Becker says. (Try using a small straw to trap a little liquid inside, then drop it onto your tongue.) Too sweet? Add a little extra citrus or bitters. Too strong? Add a little simple syrup or bitters. "It's all about balancing the ratio of the drink's ingredients," she explains.
  • Get creative. Before you fully commit to one specific blend, ask yourself, "Is there a better spirit or flavor pairing that I'm not thinking of that would work better?" says Daisy Clark, bar manager at Hearth and Hill in Park City, Utah. Choose your spirit and flavors wisely: "With whiskey, perhaps you can use orange juice, brown sugar, cinnamon, and honey. These flavors are rich and deep. Playing with tequila or vodka? These spirits are more versatile and pair well with any flavors like lemon and lime, jalapeño, grapefruit, pineapple, and other fruits. Is gin more your thing? Try pairing it with some sparkling water and fresh herbs like basil, rosemary, or thyme." And don't forget to take advantage of the season, Mish adds. "The fresher the ingredients, the fresher the cocktail, so head to the produce section and look around. Try to think outside the box and grab things you haven't tried or haven't seen others try. Consider things that might complement your favorite meal. If it sounds good, it just might be, so don't be afraid to experiment!"
  • Know when to shake and when to stir. Anything that has citrus is shaken, anything without citrus is stirred, says Peter Muntyan, lead bartender at Prime + Proper in Detroit, Michigan. "Stir for 12 seconds or 30 rotations, and shake hard for 12 seconds," he suggests.

No matter what, "Just make sure you're having fun! Be passionate, and it will shine through your recipes," Mish says.

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