Learn with A Bar Above

What are Cocktail Families, and Why are they Important?

Photo by Dinner Series/ CC BY

Intro to Cocktail Families:

The concept of there being “Families” of cocktails is not new – it was actually introduced in 1862 by Jerry Thomas in his book, “How to Mix Drinks…” At a high level, the idea is that there are “types” of cocktails, and that pretty much every cocktail ever created could be described as being a member or variant of one of these “Families.”

Of course, more than a hundred years later there is still much debate on exactly which family some cocktails belong to – so it’s important to remember that Cocktail Families as a topic are part science and part art – and are definitely up for interpretation.

What Differentiates Cocktail Families?

Cocktail families tend to differ in the following ways (though this list is not exhaustive.)

  • Proportions of spirit, sweet & sour
  • Types of spirit used
  • Mixers and / or creams used

Cocktail Families vs. Cocktail Recipes: What’s the Difference?

The difference between a cocktail recipe and a cocktail family is in the details. A cocktail recipe should list very specific ingredients, flavors, proportions, and may even list garnish and glassware. A Cocktail Family on the other hand, may list general types of ingredients and proportions, but for the most part will not specifically list ingredients.

If it’s helpful, think about Cocktail Families as a framework or blueprint. It gives you a lot of information to tell you how to build the house – but you still have some flexibility on paint, details and decoration that can really make the house your own.

The Cocktail Families

As we mentioned, cocktail families are by no means agreed upon across the industry. You’ll quickly see when you look at the chart below, some are vary similar. What one person may consider a variation on one cocktail family may be considered an entirely different family by someone else. But I urge you not to get caught up in the specifics. Use this chart as a foundation on which to build your cocktails, and you’ll be starting in a great place.


Base Spirit Sweet Sour Bitters Other Garnish Typical Glass Other Comments
 Sling  2 oz  0.5-1 oz  Nutmeg Rocks
 Cocktail  2 oz  0.5-1 oz  1-2 Dashes  The Sazerac and Old Fashioned would be included in this category
 Toddy  1-2 oz  0.5 oz  0.5 oz  2-6 oz of hot water
 Flip  2 oz  0.5 oz  1 whole egg & 0.5 oz cream  Nutmeg  Bucket or Coupe
 Cobbler  2 oz Spirit or 3 oz Wine  0.5 oz  3 oz Soda Water and crushed ice  Fresh fruit  Bucket or wine glass
 Smash  2 oz  1 oz  Muddled fruit and other seasonal fruit poured over crushed ice  Mint  Highball  A Julep is a type of smash.
 Fizz  2 oz  1 oz  1 oz  3-4 oz Soda Water  Highball  Add an orance slice & a cherry and this is a Collins.
 Sour  2 oz  1 oz  1 oz  Citrus and cherry  Bucket or Coupe  May or may not contain egg white.
 Crusta  1-2 oz  0.5 oz each Cointreau and Maraschino Liqueur  0.5 oz  Dash  Sugared Rim  Coupe
 Buck  2 oz  4 oz Ginger Ale  0.5 oz  Highball
 Swizzle  2 oz  0.5 oz  1.5 oz  Dash  3 oz Soda Water, Crushed ice  Highball
 Rickey  1.5 oz  0.5 oz  Soda Water  Citrus  Highball
 Spirit-Focused  2 oz  1 oz Sweet Spirit  Dash  If you replace half the spirit with an Amari you’d have a Negroni.
Photo by mkorcuska / CC BY

How can Cocktail Families help with Drink Design?

We previously mentioned how you can think of cocktail families as drink “blueprints.” These blueprints are incredibly helpful as you start to design your own drinks. Instead of having to concept a cocktail from scratch, you can start with a blueprint and then adapt it to meet your needs. But first – how do you choose which cocktail family to start with?

Choosing a Cocktail Family:

The first step in designing your cocktail is, of course, deciding why you are designing it in the first place. What are the characteristics that you are looking for your cocktail to have?

  • Are you making a variation on an existing drink?
  • Do you have specific glassware in mind?
  • Do you want something that is more sweet, fruity, spirited or bitter?
  • Is there a specific way that you want to introduce flavor? (For example, muddled apples?)

Use these characteristics to narrow down the list of cocktail families provided in the earlier tab and eventually choose which to start with. Once you’ve selected a cocktail family the fun begins!