I've never been a big fan of ridiculous cocktail menus. Actually, that's not quite true - I happen to love a ridiculously huge menu because I find them thoroughly enjoyable to peruse and really figure out what I want but I don't like it when I'm out with a group of friends. While I tend to be that guy when ordering a drink, I find that simple is much better. I also find that knowing what kind of cocktails I'm drinking helps me pair my food choices and tempers my drinking.
The other big thing is that considering there are thousands of cocktails, drinks and shot recipes out there, there are, theoretically, a whole lot of classifications for cocktails. If you trust Drinksmixer.com's databse, there are some 22,000+ different drinks out there. From the Savoy Cocktail Book to the works of Dale DeGroff and Gary Regan, there are a whole lot of cocktails out there. All of these cocktails end up falling into different groups, 15 groups actually. All of these groups are classified around the obvious characteristics that these drinks share. There is definitely some overlap between categories, but these are the best way to classify drinks.
Types of Cocktails:
Ancestral Drinks: These are the proverbial Ur-Cocktails of the drinking world. Many of these cocktails originated in the early 19th century and are considered some of the most vintage drinks in a bartender's arsenal and are required drinking for anyone who drinks. These drinks are simple to make. It's a base liquor adorned with a little bit of sugar or a dash or two of a liquor like Maraschino, Curacao, or Cointreau, bitters and water. These drinks are the basis for so many of the drinks enjoyed today and many of these ancestrals are still drunk today. The Sazerac and the Old Fashioned are both fantastic enduring examples of the Ur-Cocktail and are required drinking by all.
Sours: These drinks are very citrus-centric. Called Sours because of their reliance on the sour flavors the citrus, these drinks are a mainstay category; everyone has a favorite sours drink. These cocktails fall into two basic categories, simple and complex. These drinks all start with a base liquor and a sour component and are generally defined by that very fact. What differentiates the simple and the complex is what gets added on top of that. Simple sours just add sugar to that. Drinks like the Whiskey Sour and the Daiquiri because they rely on nothing else. Complex sours don't use straight sugar or sugar syrups, favoring liqueurs, fortified wines, juices and non-simple syrups instead. Some of my favorite complex sours include the Margarita, the Sidecar and the Corpse Reviver #2.
Spirit-Forward Cocktails: This classification is the great step forward from the Ancestral Cocktail. Just like the classification says, these cocktails are meant to push the flavor of the primary spirit above all else while subduing the bite of pure alcohol. What draws this group together is that all spirit forward cocktails are made with a liquor, a fortified wine such as vermouth, sherry, or port, and a dash or two of bitters or a liqueur to bring the cocktail together. These cocktails, many of which are classics and should be a mainstay in any drinkers repertoire, include the Manhattan, the Negroni, the Bijou and the Martini.
Duos and Trios: The name gives all the clues away for this group. These are drinks that are made with two and three ingredients. Not every drink is a duo or a trio though. If that was the case, then the Kamikaze would be considered a Trio and not a sour. What makes these drinks unique is that they are cousins of the Spirit-Forward Cocktail. Duos are the combination of a base spirit and a liqueur. What makes this different than the Spirit-Forward Cocktail, and even the Ancestral, is that these drinks really aim to display the liqueur and use it as a major flavor component. Some of the best known examples of this style of drink are the Rusty Nail, which is scotch and Drambuie, the Godfather, which is whiskey and amaretto, the Stinger, which is brandy and Creme de Menthe, and the Black Russian. To make a Trio, all we need to do is add cream to our Duo. Cream changes the composition of a drink, turning a Duo from a wonderful before dinner drink into the perfect dessert drink or accompaniment for a night out bowling, smoking weed and finding rugs that tie the room together. The most well-known example of the Trio from the last 15+ years is the White Russian, which just requires adding cream to a Black Russian. And yes, the Dude abides.
Champagne Cocktails: This grouping is pretty self-explanatory. They all involve the use of champagne. These are drinks made one of two ways. First, champagne is used as a primary ingredient such as in a Kir Royale, the Mimosa or the Champagne Cocktail. Second, champagne is used to top a drink like the French 75.
Highballs, Collinses and Fizzes: These drinks are drawn together for one major reason. They are all part of a catch-all group that requires bubbles (or the rare bit of juice). The basic highball is really just 2-3 ounces of liquor poured into an 8-12 ounce tall glass filled with ice and then topped with soda. That's all the highball is. Rum and Coke, Vodka Soda and Pimm's Cup all fall into the basic highball. The basics also include drinks like the Screwdriver and the Vodka and Cranberry, where, despite swapping soda for juice, the model still remains the same. The next step up is the complex highball. The only difference between this and the simple highball is that in addition to liquor and soda, juices and other liqueurs may be added to help enhance the flavor. Complex highballs include the Cuba Libre and the Dark and Stormy. Continuing the ladder, we have the Collins. A Collins, which is named after its namesake drink the Tom Collins, is nothing more than a basic highball with lemon juice and sugar added to it, making it a nice hybrid of the sour and highball. And the Fizz? Well, take a complex highball or Collins and, instead of serve in a tall glass over ice, you take everything but the soda and throw it into a shaker and then shake. After straining, pour into a short glass with no ice and top with a little bit of soda. The fizz, called so for the nice fizzy sound and effervescent flavor, is meant to be drunk quickly and owes its entire lineage to the highball and Collins.
Juleps and Smashes: These drinks are really a one hit wonder. They are limited by the ingredients they use - mint, sugar and a whole lot of ice. That's it. Take booze, add these three ingredients and muddle if needed. The most famous of this particularly limited category is the Mint Julep.
Hot Drinks: Hot drinks are alcoholic drinks that are served hot. It's a simple category that can be both simple and complex. From a simple cup of coffee with some whiskey thrown in to the Hot Toddy, Buttered Rum or a nice mulled wine, these drinks are great for after dinner or on a cold night.
Flips and Nogs: This entire category is based on one key ingredient - the Whole Egg. While there is the occasional egg white in a good fizz or sour, the Flip and the Nog rely on the whole egg to make something to drink. These drinks can be simple or extremely complex and have a very unique flavor. Best exemplified by the Egg Nog, these drinks are very nice to imbibe once in a while.
Pousse-Cafe Drinks: These drinks were popular back in the 19th Century... and with the college crowd. The Pousse-Cafe, also known as the layered drink, was once loved for the look it had, but happens to be a pain in the ass to make. This style of drink takes advantage of specific gravity - the density of a substance compared to something... say water. Mixing oil and vinegar, or oil and water will, once it settles out, look like separate layers; instead of oil and water, the Pousse-Cafe benefits from the different specific gravities of the liquors involved to make it. Although it is most commonly served in shot form, there are occasional cocktails that draw from the Pousse-Cafe style of drinks. Drinks like the Black Velvet, B-52, Slippery Nipple, Dirty Leprechaun and Tequila Sunrise best exemplify this style of cocktail.
Tropical Style/Tiki Drinks: The name of the category says it all. It's one of those you know it when you see it and taste it drinks. These drinks are meant to evoke the feeling and flavors of the Caribbean, South Pacific and other exotic locales. These drinks are somewhat easy to make yet hard to master. They start with liquor and then add fruit juices, flavorful syrups and liqueurs to evoke that tropical feeling that Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber made famous. These drinks include everything from the simple - the Planter's Punch - to the interesting - the Mai Tai - to the complex and difficult to make - the Zombie. Surprisingly, not every Tropical Drink is a rum drink. Although rum accounts for the majority of the drinks, there are wonderful tequila, bourbon and gin drinks that embody this style. If you don't believe me, find a bartender that can make a Singapore Sling and then come back and talk.
Punches: The Punch. The communal effort. The throw it into a massive cooler and serve. Jungle Juice. Basically, this category is another catch-all. Go ahead and throw whatever you want in this thing and serve. They can be hot or cold, strong or weak, or whatever the hell you want to make out of it. These kinds of drinks include the Ti'Punch, the Planter's Punch, Jungle Juice and Sangria.
Shooters: This group is exactly what it sounds like. It's all the shots, mixed shots, straight shots and backs that we drink. If it comes in shot form, it can be considered a shooter.
Beer and Cider Drinks: These have seen a resurgence over the past few years. Like the name entails, these drinks are made from Beer and Cider. There are many great beer cocktails that are worth trying at least once. Such classics include the Black and Tan, the Snakebite, the Black Velvet, the Chelada, the Shandy, the Brass Monkey, and the Boilermaker.
Orphans and Oddities: This group of drinks really houses many of the drinks that have fallen out of favor or don't have their own groups to fall into. The orphans are exactly that - drinks without their own particular family. Drinks like the Bloody Mary family of brunch fare fall into this category since they don't quite fall into any specific group. The oddities, in particular, have a number of styles that have fallen out of flavor and come back in style multiple times of their long and storied history. These oddities include some of the more obscure wine cocktails, the cobbler and the occasional milk drink.
Many of these drinks fall into categories are pretty self-explanatory. Almost every drink falls into a category. If you think you have a drink that doesn't, try me and let prove that exception to the rule.