If you want to do a task well you need to understand what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and how to accomplish your intended result.

While a world-class bartender/mixologist will spend years refining their craft, the basic theory for mixing cocktails is simple. Follow the rules until you understand their purpose and learn how to make all drinks to the classic recipe. Once you can do that you can begin to improvise and experiment. But when someone orders an Old Fashioned you should make them a classic Old Fashioned, not your personal version.

Below are the basics of all cocktails, followed by links to classic whiskey cocktails worth learning. Enjoy.


It’s a bit of a simplified view, but the general idea with a cocktail is to combine all of your ingredients to create one single flavor. If all you can taste is one ingredient (alcohol especially) your drink is out of balance.


Sugar helps to mellow out the flavor of a drink, which is why it’s used in most cocktails. The first thing to know is that today’s spirits are often significantly better than the standard fare from 1911, you don’t need as much sugar as some classic recipes may suggest.

You can not add crystallized sugar to a drink with spirits added. If you do this the sugar will not mix and you’ll be left with an un-sweetened drink with a sugary sludge  at the bottom of the glass. If you’re using crystallized sugar you need to mix it with a few drops of water until it becomes a simple syrup before adding it to your drink.

It’s often easier to use syrup from the get go, just be sure it’s “neutral” meaning it doesn’t have its own flavor such as molasses, maple syrup or honey.


Start with Aromatic (Angostura) and Orange.

Start with Aromatic (Angostura) and Orange.

Bitters are used more for tying the flavors of the cocktail together, than actually making a drink bitter. Unless otherwise specified you should learn each cocktail with Angostura bitters, and always use just a dash.

What is a dash? It’s one “shake” from a bottle with a dasher top. Since the amount of liquid escaping in this motion will vary you’re really just going by feel here.


Some drinks ask for ice, some don’t. Some people like ice, others don’t. It really just comes down to preference, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. Only ever use ice without taste. If you filled your tray from the tap, your cocktail will taste like chlorine.

If you mix a drink to perfection and then pour it over the rocks, the drink will be diluded. Take this into consideration when making drinks. If you want to be a purest, but still serve your drink ice-cold chill your glass (fill it with ice while you mix the drink) and mix the drink in ice, straining it into the final glass on completion.

The best ice is a single hand-chipped chunk near the size of the bottom of the glass. Do this and you will look like a true stud.


A twist is a thin shaving of peel from a ripe, fresh and firm citrus fruit (almost always orange or lemon). The point of this is to get the oils from the skin infused into the drink and onto the glass. After shaving the twist you want to squeeze it to make the peel spray it’s glorious oil into your mix/inside of the glass.

After this you can discard the twist, or add it to the drink for asthetics.