“I’ll take a vodka buck,” said no one ever in a London bar.
Bucks, fizzes, juleps, daisies, slings, toddies, swizzles, cobblers and fixes – these categories of drinks are the backbone of the cocktail world. They’re the passcodes to a million variations and the safeguards of simple, classic drinking. They’re also still used to order drinks everyday on the other side of the Atlantic.
But Londoners don’t order vodka bucks, rum fixes or gin swizzles. We wouldn’t have a clue what might arrive in our glass if we did, although you may be surprised to learn a vodka buck is a Moscow Mule by another name. In fact, any cocktail using a spirit with ginger beer and lime is a buck – including the famous rum-based Dark N’ Stormy and Scotch-based Mamie Taylor. The buck also works just as well with smoky mezcal or a London dry gin.
So why don’t we shout across the bar for rum fixes or gin swizzles? Why aren’t we as clued up on cocktail categories and how simple it is to switch spirits within them?
While we may spend a lot of time denying the fact, cocktail culture is very American. Most of the classics were invented there, or at least a precursor to them was, and while prohibition there put cocktails on the map here, there’s no nation that understands mixed drinks quite like the USA.
But ordering your cocktails based on spirit and then category is actually really smart. Who doesn’t want to walk into a bar knowing exactly what they want and be able to get it really fast? Cocktail families may seem boring, but get to know them and you’ll quickly figure out what you like to drink and be able to order it quickly. Plus these families are much easier to remember than the ones in biology class – was it kingdom, phylum, class?
Spirit + ginger beer + lime, the buck has been an enduring, year-round staple since its creation in the late 1890s. Order a Mamie Taylor, a Moscow Mule or a Dark N’ Stormy before getting creative with the spirit element.
Spirit + citrus + sugar + soda water, the fizz is essentially a sour (with or without egg white) charged with soda water and served long, usually without ice. And just that small measurement of soda water changes the sour from something basic into a majestic drink. Originally there was some confusion between a collins and a fizz, both being long sours. However a collins is served over ice while a fizz typically isn’t. Of course America, the nation which brought us so much cocktail culture, invented this problem in the first place as they don’t seem to add egg white to sours and fizzes as much as the UK does. In London it’s very easy to tell the difference, one is frothy and silky, the other not.
Spirit + sugar + crushed ice, the Julep is possibly one of the most iconic styles of drink when made with bourbon and garnished with mint. But that’s not the only form you’ll find it in and in fact it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that bourbon became the most popular base spirit, surpassing gin, rum and brandy. Try it with Champagne for a low ABV alternative or try a Prescription Julep for a double does of rye whiskey and cognac. Punchy.
Spirit + crushed ice + citrus + aromatic flavour (aka bitters), the swizzle is characterised by being served over crushed ice and mixed in the glass with a swizzle stick. This is similar to a stirrer but manages to not disturb the muddled citrus at the bottom. Swizzles are inherently Tiki drinks and definitely look the part, but they’re also mostly made with rum because of this. Don’t let that stop you explore a swizzle made with something more exotic though – like a Chartreuse Swizzle which uses green Chartreuse, Velvet Falernum, pineapple juice and lime juice.
Spirit + orange liqueur + citrus, if cocktails come in families then the Daisy is definitely the most popular household on the block, and leading the pack is its famed Margarita. Some of the great drinks which fall into this family also include Between the Sheets, Calvados Cocktail, Corpse Reviver No 2, Cosmopolitan, Pegu Club Cocktail and the Sidecar. No matter what spirit it arrives with, a good Daisy holds its extremes of sweetness, sourness and bitterness in thrilling tenuous balance, making it a cocktail well worth discovering.
Spirit + sugar + fruit + crushed ice, the cobbler was once the most popular of drinks, launching into the word the straw and the three piece shaker. It works well using fortified wines such as sherry and port and, most famously, with gin making the Bramble the most iconic full-strength version of the cobbler.
Spirit + sugar + hot water, the toddy is a heated version of classics such as the Julep but often replaces the straight sugar for a sweetener such as honey. Its pared-down recipe offers a template that’s ripe for reinterpretation and for experimenting with as many different spirits as you can get your hands on.
Spirit + sugar + whole egg (or just the yolk), the flip is the kind of cocktail you only drink in winter. All that nutmeg and egg yolk is fine two weeks before Christmas but it’s rather cloying early August. In a line up of cocktails they’re in the squat, squared off Martini glass, with a lovely bubbly head and flecks of grated nutmeg on top and must have either a whole egg or just the yolk, sugar and a base spirit or liqueur inside. And in earlier times they also had ale as a crucial part of that mixture. However the earliest flip missed the egg yolk in favour of something more medieval: a hot poker. By heating the drink with a hot poker the sugar would be caramelized, adding structure and balance and making the beer component slide down effortlessly. Try with brandy, whiskey, gin or sherry.