Almost from the moment the first drops of liquor dripped from the end of a still, humans have been mixing these potent spirits with wines, fruits and other substances in pursuit of bibulous glory—or simply a tasty tipple, depending on your priorities. Over the centuries, many different styles of mixed drinks have emerged; some have faded, some have evolved, and some have endured for generations.
I've gone through a number of classic and contemporary bartender's guides and come up with categories for some of the major styles of mixed drinks. Of course, not all drinks fit cleanly into one of the categories (how the hell do you categorize a Bloody Mary?), and others could fit into several (is a mojito a highball, a julep relative or a tropical swizzle?)—and no matter how a rule is defined, there are always, always exceptions. But to set the stage for further discussion—perhaps best conducted over a drink or two—here's my list of the major categories of mixed drinks.
"These are among the original, early 19th century-style cocktails"
These are among the original, early 19th century-style cocktails, listed in vintage bar guides as simply "Whiskey Cocktail" or "Improved Gin Cocktail" and the like. These drinks are composed of a base spirit lightly adorned with sugar (in some cases, the sweetener appears in the form of a dash or two of liqueur such as maraschino or curacao), bitters, and water (usually in its frozen form), and served either straight up or on the rocks.
Enduring examples include the Old Fashioned (without the muddled fruit and club soda found so often in today's bars) and the Sazerac. In some craft-cocktail bars and cocktail-astute households you can get a nice Improved Gin (or Whiskey, or Brandy, etc.) Cocktail, sweetened and flavored with a teaspoon or so of curaçao, maraschino and/or absinthe. These are simple and strong, and when properly executed they're exceptionally tasty.
"citrus juice in a starring role."
As the name implies, these drinks feature citrus juice in a starring role. The juice is usually lemon or lime, sometimes grapefruit, and we'll include orange juice by citric default, even though orange juice usually carries little of a sour bite. Sours are typically single-serving drinks, as opposed to some larger-scale punches that they may greatly resemble, and are usually shaken in a cocktail shaker and served straight up.
Sour drinks tend to break down into a couple of subcategories: Simple Sours, made with a base spirit, citrus juice and sugar (sometimes egg white is added for body and foam), such as a Whiskey Sour or a Daiquiri; and Complex Sours, in which the sugar is substituted in whole or in part by syrups, liqueurs and/or fortified wines; examples include the Clover Club, the Margarita, the Sidecar, the Corpse Reviver #2, the Last Word and the Cosmopolitan.
One of the great innovations in mixology took place around the 1880s, when vermouth and other fortified wines were mixed into the Ancestrals to subdue the alcohol's bite and to add complexity of flavor. Spirit-Forward Cocktails are usually composed of a base spirit with a modifier of vermouth, or another fortified wine such as sherry, quinquina, or port, often accompanied by other ingredients such as bitters or small doses of liqueurs or syrups. These drinks are properly prepared by stirring the mixture with ice (rather than shaking it in a cocktail shaker), and are served straight up or, less frequently, on the rocks. If fruit appears at all, it's either as a small amount of syrup, or in the form of a twist of lemon or orange peel, or as a cherry on a pick as garnish.
Duos and Trios
I'm stealing Gary Regan's name for this category from his The Joy of Mixology, because it's so apt. Duos are drinks composed of a base spirit with a modifier of a liqueur (and sometimes a dash of bitters); depending on the recipe, they can be sweeter than the Spirit-Forward Cocktails, but just as powerful (if not more so). While some Ancestrals follow a similar model by using a teaspoon of liqueur as a sweetener, the distinguishing factor is a matter of degree: Duos and Trios deploy the liqueurs as a major component, often in quantities of a half-ounce or more. Examples include the Alaska Cocktail, the Stinger, and the Revolver.
To convert a Duo into a Trio, add cream or cream liqueur; as you can guess, Trios are usually dessert-style drinks, and examples include the Brandy Alexander along with that essential accessory of Dude-ness, the White Russian.
This one's easy, mostly: a drink made with Champagne or sparkling wine, either as the base ingredient (as in a Champagne Cocktail or a Buck's Fizz), or splashed atop another drink, typically a sour such as in an Old Cuban or a French 75, but also applicable to some spirit-forward cocktails as with a Seelbach or an ancestral-style such as a Morning Glory Royale. For fun, try tapping a half-ounce or so of brut Champagne into a Manhattan sometime—really, it's delicious, dangerously so.
Highballs, Collinses, and Fizzes
To make things easy, I'm lumping almost everything with (non-alcoholic) bubbles into this catch-all category, along with a couple of bubble-free items that don't really fit anywhere else.
Simple Highballs are made with a base spirit leavened with ice and a lengthener such as club soda, ginger ale or cola. The ratio can range from 1:2 liquor to mixer, for the classic form, up to 1:4 if you're looking for a weaker drink. Examples include the namesake Highball, the Pimm's Cup and the Presbyterian (as well as the familiar Rum and Coke, but not the Cuba Libre, which with the juice of half a lime I'm putting into the Complex Highballs subcategory). In drinks such as the Screwdriver or the Cape Codder, the bubbles are eliminated in favor of fruit juice, but otherwise the model remains the same.
A Collins is a highball with the addition of lemon juice and sugar, such as in a Tom Collins (another way of looking at it is a Tom Collins is a (simple) Gin Sour with club soda and ice). Substitute lime juice for the lemon, and get rid of the sugar, and that Collins is now a Rickey.
And Fizzes? Historically, this is pretty much the same thing as a Collins or a Complex Highball, except the spirit and modifiers (not including the soda) are shaken with ice and strained into a small glass, then topped with an ounce or so of soda and served without ice. As you might expect, this kind of drink can quickly grow warm and flat; and as you probably figured out, they're intended to be knocked back in short order, before any such misfortune can occur. Examples include the Silver Fizz and the Ramos Fizz.
Juleps and Smashes
A necessarily limited category defined by a heavy emphasis on fresh mint, sugar and the base spirit in the presence of a lot of ice, and a relative scarcity of other modifying ingredients.
Obvious examples are the Mint Julep, the Champagne Julep and the Whiskey Smash, and depending on how hard you want to argue about it, the Mojito (which could also fit into the loosely defined highball category).
These are drinks that are, duh, served hot. In the days before central heating, there were a hell of a lot of different kinds of hot drinks in circulation; nowadays, we usually turn to only a few during the darkest months of winter. This catch-all category includes everything from coffee-based drinks such as an Irish Coffee, to a Hot Buttered Rum, a Hot Toddy and a Tom & Jerry (which could also arguably fit into the Flips and Nogs category).
Flips and Nogs
"This category comes down to one thing: whole eggs."
This category comes down to one thing: whole eggs. Egg whites pop up occasionally in sours and fizzes, but flips and nogs are defined by the inclusion of the whole fruit of the fowl. Flips can be elaborate, made with cream and beer and maple syrup and what-have-you, or as simple as a base spirit, an egg, and a little sugar or other sweetener, all shaken together with ice, strained into a glass and served with a scraping of nutmeg.
Examples include the Fort Washington Flip and the Colleen Bawn. Nogs are basically flips with better name recognition, typically made with eggs, milk or cream along with sugar and the base spirit; the classic example is the common holiday Eggnog.
Nineteenth-century Pousse Cafes were elaborately composed concoctions made of liqueurs and syrups, layered for a distinctive appearance. It's been ages since these sweet, dainty things were in wide circulation, but their recent descendants include those syrupy layered shots that got you (or, okay, "your friend") so wasted in college: the B-52, the Buttery Nipple, the Dirty Leprechaun, and all those other things most of us wouldn't be caught dead drinking nowadays. Hey, I didn't say all the categories were going to be for good drinks....
Like art and pornography, you know a tropical-style drink when you see it. Also known as "tiki" or "exotic" drinks, these mixtures are designed to evoke some kind of South Pacific / Caribbean fantasyland.
Tropical-style drinks are mostly single-serving punch-style drinks featuring a base spirit, fruit juice and syrups or liqueurs, often deployed in various combinations. Unlike sours, these drinks are typically served with an abundance of ice—sometimes as cubes, sometimes crushed and with everything swizzled together, and sometimes everything is tossed in a blender and the bartender just lets 'er rip. Blurring the boundaries with Punch, some tropical-style drinks are prepared in a larger format, for sharing in a communal bowl.
The simplest tropical-style drinks are relatives of the Daiquiri with one foot in the Sour category—think Planter's Punch—while the more exotic can be amazingly complex, such as with the legendary Zombie. And while rum accounts for the base ingredient in a vast number of tropical-style drinks, there are some excellent drinks of this style made with tequila, bourbon or gin, such as the Singapore Sling.
This is where the party comes in. Almost all of the drinks in the other categories are usually prepared in single servings. Punch, which predates them all, is more of a group effort. Punch can be served hot or cold, strong or weak, with as much complexity and fanfare as you can possibly muster or as simple and as basic as can be.
There's so much that can be said about Punch, somebody should write a book about it. Oh, wait—someone has: check out Punch, by David Wondrich, for as much as you could possibly want to know about this expansive category of the drinks world.
Old (and Odd) Birds
The above categories cover almost all the mixed drinks you're likely to encounter in a lifetime. Almost. But there are other styles of drinks that were once popular but have faded over the years, or that really don't fit into any of the major categories. These include:
Cobblers: Dating to the earliest days of mixology, Cobblers are simply a base spirit or fortified wine such as sherry, mixed with a little sugar and served in a glass packed with crushed ice and garnished with an abundance of fresh fruit. Later versions swapped the sugar for a fruit syrup such as raspberry or pineapple, or a liqueur, and sometimes introduced muddled fruit.
Beer & Cider-based Drinks: Adding a bump to your beer is a tradition that goes back centuries, and the Stone Fence—hard cider with a shot of rum, brandy, whiskey or what-have-you dumped in it—predates the Republic. These drinks can be excellent, but recent fads notwithstanding, they're still not all that prominent. A great example to try is the Green Devil.
Bloodies: Can the Bloody Mary be considered a highball? I'm going to shrug on that one and just give the damn thing its own subcategory, because once you start adding celery salt and Worcestershire sauce to a drink, you're about as far from a whiskey-and-soda as you can get. These are easy, and flexible: tomato juice spiked with liquor, flavored and garnished with pretty much whatever floats your boat. In addition to the familiar Mary, there are her relatives—the Bloody Caesar (mostly found in Canada), the Bloody Maria with tequila, and so on and so forth. One rule about the Bloodies, which is way-too-often ignored: these are morning drinks (even if your concept of morning extends into the afternoon); once the sun is down, reach for something else.
Wine-based Cocktails: Other than Champagne cocktails, which remain in lively circulation, drinks based on wine are currently kinda scarce. The early years of mixology saw a greater preponderance of drinks based on fortified wines such as vermouth or sherry; today, not so much. That's too bad, because some of these drinks can be very pleasant; for examples, check out the Rose, the Adonis and the Bamboo.
Milk: Throw an egg in the mix and you've got yourself a nog, but leave it out and these drinks are in pretty short supply. One notable exception is the Milk Punch, which despite its name is usually a single-serving mixture. Make it with brandy, or dark rum, or bourbon, or some combination thereof, add some whole milk and sweeten it and flavor it with vanilla or nutmeg as you see fit.
There are certainly other styles of drinks that have appeared in the books over the years, but I won't labor those points, as Sangarees and Daisys are about as common nowadays as spottings of ivory-billed woodpeckers. Regardless, you should be able to fit almost any mixed drink you come across within these categories. Note that "almost" again—mix me a drink, and we can chat about the exceptions to the rule.