Check Out the Secret History Behind 13 of Your Favorite Cocktails

It seems like a new craft cocktail bar opens every weekend, with mixologists scrambling to create the next coolest drink. As much as we love innovation, sometimes you really can't beat the tried and true mixed drinks that have been around forever. Besides, most of the new guys are just modern variations of what our grandparents drank with breakfast. Check out the hazy theories behind some of the most popular cocktails around, because while drinking them can be fun, knowing their history is even better.


It seems like a new craft cocktail bar opens every weekend, with mixologists scrambling to create the next coolest drink. As much as we love innovation, sometimes you really can't beat the tried and true mixed drinks that have been around forever. Besides, most of the new guys are just modern variations of what our grandparents drank with breakfast. Check out the hazy theories behind some of the most popular cocktails around, because while drinking them can be fun, knowing their history is even better.

  Old Fashioned

An Old Fashioned is made by muddling sugar with bitters and then adding whiskey or brandy, and ordering this will make you feel like a cool "old-timer." This one cocktail is known as being incredibly manly (Don Draper likes them), while also being your grandmother's favorite morning wake-up-call. Back when the term cocktail first started being used back in the 1830s, it referred to the combination of spirits, bitters, water and sugar. Once more people started mixing and using the term, they began adding more liquors, while the original combo then became "old fashioned." The first time the name was used to directly describe a Bourbon whiskey cocktail was apparently in 1881 at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, where it was said to have been invented by a bartender there.

Here's a recipe for the Knob Creek Smoked Maple Old Fashioned created by Michael Symon (James Beard Foundation Award-winning American chef, restaurateur, television personality, and author).

  • Pinch of raw sugar
  • Orange peel
  • 3 dashes bitters
  • 1 1/2 parts Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon
  • 1 part Calvados Boulard Apple Brandy

Drop a pinch of raw sugar, orange peel, and three dashes of bitters into a rocks glass and muddle. Add Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon and Calvados Boulard Apple Brandy, and stir with ice.

Photo Courtesy of Sauza
  Bloody Mary

Considered a restorative cocktail, meaning if you're hung-over you should test it out, the Bloody Mary has a murky history and has several stories around it. One of the most popular dates back to the ruthless Queen Mary I of England, with the tomato juice signifying blood and the vodka as means of execution. Bartender Fernand Petiot claimed he created the drink in 1921 while working in Paris at the New York Bar — which later turned into Harry's New York Bar and became a favorite of Ernest Hemingway and other expatriates.

Wherever it came from, it's definitely one of the most complex cocktails around, if not the most complex. Though the Bloody Mary needs to have vodka and tomato juice, how you spice it is pretty much up to you and can be anything from Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce to cayenne pepper, lemon juice, and horseradish — there's even a Latin version that uses tequila instead of vodka. 

How to make the Bloody Maria from Sauza:

  • 1 1/2 parts Sauza Blue Silver 100% Agave Tequila
  • 1 part tomato sauce
  • 1 squeeze of Sriracha chili sauce
  • Dash fresh black pepper
  • Dash Worcestershire sauce
  • Dash celery salt
  • Dash paprika
  • Dash cumin
  • Juice 1 lemon
  • Chili powder and cucumber slice for garnish

Rim glass with chili powder. In a shaker filled with ice, combine all of the ingredients and shake well. Pour into tall glass over ice and garnish with a cucumber slice. 


The Vesper martini was created and named by James Bond in the Casino Royale novel (1953) — also seen in the 2007 film starring Daniel Craig. The drink was named after the woman he falls in love with, Vesper Lynd, and differs from his usual martini of choice in that it includes gin and vodka, Kina Lillet instead of dry vermouth, and a lemon peel instead of an olive.

In the books, Bond only orders this drink in Casino Royale and only once, moving on to standard vodka or gin martinis in later novels — Ian Fleming probably did this because of the doomed way the story ends. However, in Quantum of Solace (the film follow-up to Casino Royale), Bond orders several Vesper martinis, which was a choice made to reference the character's continued deteriorating emotional state over losing his love — just one of the many ways the James Bond reboot has worked to humanize the character.

How to make it, according to Bond himself:

  • 3 measures of Gordon's
  • 1 measure of vodka
  • 1/2 measure of Kina Lillet

Shake with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a large thin slice of lemon peel. 


As a pretty popular French cocktail, Kir is generally drunk as an apéritif before enjoying a meal or a snack. It originally came from Burgundy, France and is named after the priest Canon Félix Kir — who was a hero in the French Resistance during WWII and also acted as the mayor of Dijon from 1945 to 1968. He apparently pioneered twinning, which is a kinship between towns, and used to offer the drink to visitors.

There are several theories around how he came up with the cocktail, one being that he wanted to disguise the area's inferior white wine by combining it with crème de cassis. Another theory is that after German soldiers confiscated all of the local red Burgundy during WWII, Kir created the drink as a way to deal with the overabundance of white wine.

There are several variations now, some made with cider instead of wine and others made with flavored liqueur, while the Kir Royale is drunk on special occasions since it uses Champagne instead of white wine. You can make one yourself by combining nine parts white wine with one part crème de cassis.


Thought to have been created towards the end of WWI in London or Paris, the exact origins of the Sidecar isn't known — though the Ritz Hotel in Paris takes credit for the drink. The Sidecar appears in literature written as early as 1907 and may have been named after the motorcycle sidecar. The first recipe appears in 1922, in Harry MacElhone's Harry's ABC of Mixing Cocktails and Robert Vermeire's Cocktails and How to Mix Them. It also appears in David A. Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks from 1948. MacElhone cites Pay MacGarry, a bartender from London's Buck's Club, as the inventor, but later names himself, while Embury names an American Army captain in Paris during WWI as the man behind the drink (this theory is where the motorcycle story comes in since he apparently rode in one on his way to the bar). Another idea is that it was made in New Orleans in the 19th century and the name simply comes from the term bartenders used for leftover liquor. 

People can't seem to agree on how to make it either, even though it's shaken and contains only three ingredients (Cognac, Cointreau, lemon juice), because there are so many proportion variations out there. The French style is equal parts across the board, and the English version is two parts brandy and equal parts Cointreau and lemon juice. From there, adaptations explode. 

  Moscow Mule

Hipsters love the Moscow Mule — not only does it come served in cool copper cup, but shows like Mad Men have helped it make a serious comeback. The buck (or mule) cocktail is made with vodka, ginger beer, and lime, and first became popular back in the 1950s in the United States — the name referring to popular consensus that vodka is a Russian drink. Invented in 1941 by friends John G. Martin of the East Coast spirits and food distributor G.F. Heublein Brothers, Inc. and "Jack" Morgan of Cock 'n' Bull Products and owner of Cock 'n' Bull restaurant in Los Angeles that was frequented by many celebrities.

How to make it:

  • 1 1/4 ounces vodka
  • 3 ounces ginger beer
  • 1 teaspoon sugar syrup
  • 1/4 ounce lime juice
  • 1 sprig mint
  • 1 slice lime

Photo Courtesy of Basil Hayden
  Mint Julep

Forever connected with the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep is a super old bourbon-based cocktail associated with the American South. Just like many of these other drinks, its origins are hazy but can be traced back to 1784 and was mentioned in a John Davis book in 1803 — julep actually refers to a sweet drink and was used as a medical treatment. It's made with just four ingredients: mint leaf (typically spearmint in the Southern states), bourbon, sugar and water.

They've been served at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, since 1875 when they were sold for 38 cents in souvenir glasses. The iconic sterling silver julep cups were introduced in 1951, feature a small horseshoe, and hold 12 ounces — about 120,000 of them are served at the race each year. Since 2006, they've also been making special custom-made juleps that are served in gold-plated cups with silver straws and include mint imported from Ireland, spring water ice cubes from the Bavarian Alps, sugar from Australia, and Woodford Reserve bourbon — they cost around $1,000. 

Check out the Basil Hayden’s Jockey’s Julep, a fun updated recipe from Molecular Mixologist Rob Floyd (Los Angeles, CA):

  • 2 parts Basil Hayden's Bourbon
  • 8-10 mint leaves
  • 8 blueberries
  • 1 part fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 parts simple syrup

Muddle mint leaves and blueberries in a mixing glass. Add remaining ingredients and shake over ice. Fine strain into a rocks glass with crushed ice. Garnish with blueberries and a sprig of mint.

  White Russian

As the Dude's favorite drink, this classic cocktail is made with vodka, coffee liquor and cream, served in an Old Fashioned glass. The drink (which is called a Black Russian if you skip the cream) first popped up in 1949 and isn't actually Russian — it just got that name because vodka is associated with Russia. The White Russian was first mentioned in California's Oakland Tribune in 1965 as a recipe insert and was probably created as a marketing ploy by Coffee Southern liqueur, since the recipe called for their product. The drink had a couple of boosts in popularity, but was relatively unknown until The Big Lebowski was released and launched the White Russian to the level of legend.

Super easy to make and really strong, the White Russian is typically made with one part vodka, one part Kahlúa, and one part cream — though the Dude used two parts vodka. 

  Cuba Libre

Often call a rum and coke in the United States (plus many other countries), the Cuba Libre ("Free Cuba") is a highball of cola, lime, and white rum. There are many different stories of where this cocktail came from, with one claiming it was invented in Havana around 1901 when patriots who were aiding Cuba during the Spanish-American War would mix rum and cola together as a toast to the Caribbean island. According to Barcardi, this popular drink was born in Old Havana when a group of off-duty U.S. soldiers were drinking when a captain ordered the rum and coke. Everyone tasted it, loved it, and apparently ordered several rounds, toasting to the newly freed Cuba.

There are tons of variations, but the Cuba Libre can be easily made using two ounces light rum, the juice of half a lime, and cola to taste. 

Photo Credit: Alice Gao



Bartenders probably hate making you Mojitos, because it takes longer than other drinks and can be a pain to clean up. That said, it's still a really great cocktail and is popular for a reason. The Mojito supposedly came from Cuba when rum was especially…potent and farmers needed to get a little creative with the hard-to-drink stuff. They played around with whatever they had already, like lime, sugar-cane juice and mint — all flavors that complement rum's kick. Once Prohibition hit in America, Havana ended up being one of the places Americans turned to for their alcohol fix and the Mojito was born as a trendy refreshing summertime cocktail.

The Mojito was one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite drinks and he made La Bodeguita del Medio a really famous bar by frequenting it and writing on the wall, "My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita." The sentence can still be seen in his handwriting on the bar's wall.

The most basic of recipes calls for mint leaves, .75 ounce of simple syrup (which is just one part water and one part sugar), .75 ounce fresh lime juice, 1.5 ounces of white rum, and 1.5 ounces of club soda. Shake well, pour into a highball glass, top it off with club soda and garnish with a mint sprig.

If you want to try something new, test out the below recipe for the Extra Dry Mojito from Brugal:

  • 2 ounces Brugal Extra Dry
  • 8-10 fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 lime, quartered
  • Club soda
  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar

Crush/muddle mint leaves, lime quarters and sugar in a tall glass. Add Brugal rum and fill glass with ice. Top with club soda, and stir well. Garnish with a lime wedge and fresh mint sprig.


One popular story says that the Manhattan was created for Jennie Jerome (Winston Churchill's mother) in 1874 in New York at the Manhattan Club, and another claims it was made at the Trafford Mansion in Hallet's Cove by people waiting for the Manhattan ferry — there's no real evidence for either. However, according to Dave Broom's book, Whisky: The Manual, we do know for sure that the Manhattan was the first drink to mix hard liqueur with vermouth. Broom speculates that when bartenders started playing with their new mixing style, other drinks were eventually born, like a gin Manhattan becoming the Martini we know now.

Here's Broom's suggested recipe for the Manhattan:

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 2-3 dashes of bitters (try a mix of orange and Angostura)
  • Maraschino cherry, to garnish


The Italian Bellini was created in 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, chief barman of Harry’s Bar in Venice. Cipriani named the fizzy drink after Giovanni Bellini, because the pink color reminded him of a saint's toga in one of Bellini's paintings. It quickly became a specialty at the bar and later on moved to Harry's Bar in New York as a way to create the trade of white peaches from Venice to NYC all year-round.

The generally accepted proportions are two parts dry sparkling wine to one part fresh peach purée — traditionally you should use Prosecco wine and white peaches. 

  Tom Collins

Last, but certainly not least, is the Tom Collins. Made using gin, lemon juice, sugar and carbonated water, this one has existed in some form since the 1860s. According to Business Insider, it's actually named after a really stupid joke from 1874 that goes like this:

A man would approach his friend and ask, "Have you seen Tom Collins?"

"Why no!" the second man would say. "I have never made his acquaintance."

"Perhaps you had better do so, and as quick as you can, for he is talking about you in a very rough manner — calling you hard names, and convincing people there is nothing you wouldn't steal short of a red-hot stove."

This would upset the second man, who would stomp off to go looking for this rascal Tom Collins, but — twist! — he didn't actually exist.

We know, it's not funny, but apparently the joke was super fun to do back then in New York and Philadelphia. So fun that it even got called "The Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874." Playing off the joke, a clever bartender decided to name a drink after it so that whenever anyone came in to ask for Tom Collins, they would be ordering a tall drink instead.

  • 3 parts gin
  • 2 parts freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 part sugar syrup
  • 4 parts carbonated water to taste

Add some cucumber slices for a nice twist.