A Girlfriend's Guide to Cocktails: Fun Variations on Your Favorites

I was talking tequila at my local liquor store the other day and the owner said, "When I'm ordering a cocktail I just tell the bartender to swap in tequila for whatever base liquor."

It was a lightbulb moment that freed me from finicky recipes. Right away I Kondo-ed my home bar into a minimalist paradise. Who has the space or the money for five types of white spirits and a couple of flower-flavored liqueurs that you'll only use once a year? Learn these basic principles and save the complicated drinks for when a professional is mixing them for you.

First, consider which corresponding base spirits you prefer: Bourbon or rye? White rum or blanco tequila? Vodka or gin? Unless you are crazy about the flavor, you don't even think about having exotic liquors like Aquavit or Cachaça on hand. With two to four distinct spirits as your foundation, you can build a more-than-respectable range of cocktails.

The next principle of working with a minimally stocked bar is that "like replaces like."

Some of the most common basic elements in cocktails are: base liquor, vermouth or fortified wine, citrus or other tangy fruit juice, amaro, liqueur, aromatic bitters, and sugar. You can play around in each category.

Here's an example based on the ever-popular Negroni. A Negroni is made of three components: gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. A tequila Negroni is tasty. And what if you don't have Campari? Use another amaro such as Ramazzotti or Gran Classico. As for the vermouth? You don't want a dry vermouth (the kind that goes into a martini), but a fortified wine such as Punt e Mes or Port will do nicely. If you like to have Aperol on hand for spritzes, you can make a "white" Negroni (actually, it's a beautiful pink) with gin and a lighter fortified wine like Lillet or Cocchi Americano.

Negronis can come in many shapes and sizes

The margarita is another favorite that can be nudged different directions. It's also a three-ingredient wonder: a standard margarita contains tequila, lime juice and triple sec. To my taste, a margarita must include tequila. That's where I draw the line at subs. Well, unless it's made with mezcal—but then you are getting into "drink it at a restaurant" territory. You can use Cointreau or Grand Marnier instead of the usual inexpensive triple sec. They are pricier but delicious straight up as a nightcap (or for flavoring in baking and cooking) so more versatile. Only have a couple of limes? Mix in some fresh lemon juice. You could also swap in blood orange or pink grapefruit.

Or go even simpler.

The original margarita doesn't even use triple sec. It contains lime, tequila, and sugar syrup. If you use rum instead of tequila, you have a classic daiquiri—the type Hemingway swilled in Cuba. And a sidecar is made of cognac, lemon, and orange liqueur (or triple sec). I think you are getting the idea.

Still love a Cosmopolitan, that easy-sipping (but strong!), fruity martini that launched a thousand "girlie" cocktails? The basic version used Citrus vodka, lime, Cointreau and a splash of cranberry. Go more 1920s than 1990s by ditching the cranberry (and who needs flavored vodka at home?) and you'll have a gimlet. Gin works too.

Another twist? Lemon or lime, gin or vodka, and sugar or honey syrup shaken with lots of ice are basis for pantry-friendly Prohibition-era cocktails. Add a splash of whatever liqueur you have kicking around and/or infuse the syrup with fresh culinary herbs like mint, thyme, or lavendar that you might have in the back of the fridge or a kitchen window box.

Add variety with cucumber and jalapeñoInstagram

Prefer darker spirits? The ingredients for an Old Fashioned couldn't be simpler. You'll need bourbon or rye, sugar syrup, and Angostura bitters. Garnish with a slice of orange if you happen to have one. A fruity version involves muddling a sugar cube, orange slice, and cherry with the whiskey, Purists prefer the more streamlined version, which dates to the 1800s. If you have one bottle of bitters, make it Angostura, which you can buy at the most grocery stores. It brightens a number of classic cocktails (the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan, the Sazerac for starters) and a few dashes in blanco tequila is tasty. Serve the non-drinkers soda with a dash of bitters.

The website Vinepair suggests some other clever spins on classic mixed drinks:

Negroni Based

Boulevardier: use whiskey in place of gin

Old Pal: swap rye for gin

Bloody Mary Based

Red Snapper: swap gin for the standard vodka

Bloody María: an excellent use of tequila. Follow with a Negra Modelo

Martini Based

Sake martini: Sub out the vermouth for dry sake in a vodka version

Dorflinger: Use absinthe instead of vermouth and a drop or two of orange bitters

Vesper: half gin and half vodka

Sazerac Based

The standard Sazerac is made of rye whiskey, absinthe, and Peychaud's Bitters. If you aren't a rye fan, use cognac. Try Angostura Bitters instead of Peychaud's (Angostura is my preferred home bar staple, see above).

Manhattan Based

Like the Negroni, there are lots of riffs on the Manhattan. Use rye instead of bourbon or Punt e Mes for the vermouth. You'll be happy you bought the Angostura Bitters.

Dry Manhattan: favors dry white vermouth over sweet red

Perfect Manhattan: add equal parts red and white vermouth (sounds like someone was cleaning out their odd bottles, which is a great way to experiment with innovative cocktails)

Distrito Federal: Tequila does go with anything

Moscow Mule Variations

Photo by Wine Dharma on

A Moscow Mule is made of fresh lime, vodka, and ginger ale but the cocktail lends itself well to other spirits.

London Mule: gin

Tennessee Mule: Jack Daniel's

Kentucky Mule: bourbon

Jamaican Mule: rum

Irish Mule: Irish whiskey

The occasional weird brew is inevitable, so when you are trying a new concoction make a little tester to sample. Remember to chill the way you intend to serve (straight up, on the rocks, etc.). Be playful, have fun, and remember, this is exactly how classic cocktails are born.

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