12 Classic Cocktails With A Twist

Classic cocktails are a lot like a good murder mystery, where the same cast of slightly eccentric characters is mysteriously trapped together. What makes them interesting is when there’s a twist you didn’t see coming.
Mezcal Margarita

A good twist takes something we know, something familiar, and turns it on its head. This is especially true with classic cocktail recipes, where a small change in ingredients or technique can completely transform the familiar into the unexpected. Here are twelve of our favorite classics with a twist to remember.

What Makes a Classic Cocktail

Classic cocktails are a lot like a good murder mystery, where the same cast of slightly eccentric characters is mysteriously trapped together in a country manor for the weekend. You know what you’re going to get when you pick one up but it’s so good that as soon as it’s done you grab another.

What makes one memorable is when you think you know what’s coming and out of nowhere there’s a twist. Whether it’s an innocent butler, an extra frothy egg-white, or an unusual type of bitters there’s something that stays with you, that lingers in your mind and makes you wonder what other possibilities lurk around the corner. 

Time for a Twist

The clink of the ice as it ricochets around the shaker, the swirl of smooth brown liquid as it fills your glass, Sinatra playing softly in the distance. There’s something reassuring about a  classic cocktail that makes it a comfortable indulgence.

The bartender’s confidence as they mix their thousandth Manhattan, the effortless way they peel an impossibly thin slice of lemon to add just the right burst of flavor and color to that Extra Dry Martini. 

It’s a confidence that comes from reproducing the same drink over and over until even the most skilled bartender can mix them in their sleep. The challenge is finding a way to interpret them anew without losing sight of the original.

A New Way of Being Old Fashioned

Sometimes referred to as the first cocktail, the Old Fashioned started out as a style of drink that could be made with lots of different spirits. According to Robert Simonson, cocktail purists started asking for old-fashioned cocktails in the late 1800s “when the whiz-bang bartenders of the post Civil War days started getting too fancy with their add-ons.”

Over time it’s become a bourbon or whiskey drink with just a few ingredients. Our Classic Old Fashioned recipe gets its distinct flavor from muddled orange and some top-shelf cherries.

To really mix things up trying replacing the whiskey with an aged rum. The rum’s deep caramel flavors and spice notes come together to create an Old Fashioned Cuba Libre. The result is a tawdry little affair between a classic Cuba Libre and a much younger mid-century Old Fashioned. 

Old Fashioned Cuba Libre

One of the most creative takes we found on this eternal favorite is this Pine Old Fashioned. It uses a simple syrup made from pine needles that have a subtle pine flavor that make this cocktail perfect for long winter nights.

Pine Old Fashioned 5

There are a lot of ways to play with classic whiskey cocktails. This Cranberry Whiskey Sour uses whole cranberries and cranberry juice to add flavor, color, and texture to what can be a pretty pedestrian drink.

Cranberry Whiskey Sour Picture 2

An Amazing Amero

One of the easiest ways to add complexity to a cocktail is to add an amaro to the mix. An Amaro is potable bitters from Italy. Unlike bitters such as Angostura, that are added a few drops at a time to a drink, almost like salt and pepper are added to food, amari are often consumed on their own or as part of a drink. Learn more in Amaro 101: An Introduction to an Italian Tradition.

The most famous amaro based cocktail is the Negroni. If Campari is a little too bitter for you try making an Aperol Negroni, which is a light, refreshing take on a classic negroni that uses Aperol, instead of Campari, to add bright summer flavors and luscious orange color.

Aperol Negroni Orange Peel
Garnish the cocktail by airmailing a small slice of orange peel over the top

A Boulevardier is built around rye whiskey and Campari. It’s an underappreciated classic worth rediscovering for its complex flavors and smooth texture. We were intrigued during our research to come across this Smokey Boulevardier recipe that uses a smoking gun to infuse the drink with intense flavor.

Boulevardier Smokey 4 Web

Mixed up Margaritas

If you’re looking for a cocktail with range, there’s no better choice than a margarita. Whether it’s slumming it in a mixer or a sublime affair made with fresh-squeezed fruit juices there’s a version for any occasion.

One of our favorite variations substitutes mezcal and its smoky goodness for tequila. This Mezcal Margarita has complex flavors and a smokiness that lingers as it’s sipped.

Mezcal Margarita

This sweet-tart Rhubarb Margarita uses a homemade rhubarb syrup to develop its deep red color. The recipe is even written for large batches, making it easy to entertain a group of friends.

Rhubarb Margaritas AFarmgirlsDabbles AFD 5

Shake a Little Vodka and Stir a Little Gin

Vodka with its clean flavors and gin with its combination of botanicals creates an eager palate for cocktail enthusiasts. What makes them so useful is how they can be hidden behind other flavors or take center stage.

This Orange Vesper Martini is a playful interpretation of James Bond’s cocktail of choice, using a little orange juice to add color to its distinct flavor.

Orange Vesper Martini 3

One of the most popular cocktails the past few years has been the Moscow Mule, a simple cocktail made with lime juice, vodka, and ginger beer. This Blood Orange Moscow Mule replaces the lime juice with juice from a blood orange. 

Blood Orange Moscow Mule 1

If you’re not familiar with blood oranges they’re an intriguing ingredient that is usually in season for a few weeks during the winter. Their name comes from the distinct crimson color of their juice, which is a little more bitter than regular oranges.

Another creative use of blood oranges is this Blood Orange Gin & Tonic that uses fresh-squeezed blood orange juice for a new take on a classic gin and tonic.

Blood Orange Gin and Tonic

If you’re looking for something refreshing and light take a few sips of this Grapefruit Salty Dog. A play on a traditional Greyhound with salt on the rim and some Elderflower liqueur to add floral notes.

Grapefruit Salty Dog 6

One of our favorite drinks is a good Bloody Mary with a bit of heat, a ton of olives, and a couple of beef sticks to stir everything up. One of the most creative and visually stunning versions we’ve ever seen is this Golden Beet and Tomato Bloody Mary

It uses golden beets, yellow tomatoes, and a blender to create an unforgettable Bloody Mary mix.

Golden Beet And Tomato Bloody Mary 3

More About Classic Cocktails

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of cocktails or just want to try some fabulous recipes from days gone by pick up a copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book, it’s one of the most famous cocktail books ever written. Considered a classic post-Prohibition tome written by Harry Craddock, who left America during Prohibition to work as a cocktail barman for The American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel.

For an even more eclectic collection take a read through Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails: From the Alamagoozlum to the Zombie, written by historian, expert, and drink aficionado Dr. Cocktail. It’s one of our favorites.
For more recipes and stories check out Umami’s Classic Cocktail section.

Learn More

Find more recipes, tips, and ideas about these techniques, ingredients, and cuisines.



Originally Published on December 19, 2019

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  1. Johnny

    Is it a “murder weapon” if you use blood orange instead of orange juice in a screwdriver?

    1. Not sure, but pretty sure I’d be careful how I ordered one at a bar ;}

  2. Awesome post! Keep up the great work! 🙂