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How to swap spirits in classic cocktails

Mix up classic cocktails with spirits that fit your taste.

Words by: Gina Pace Infographics by: Danielle Grinberg
David Chow
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Classic cocktails earned that distinction for a reason, but just because they’re tried-and-true recipes doesn’t mean they’re perfect for your palate. The Bar is here to level up your drinks knowledge by teaching you how to seamlessly swap spirits so you can enjoy cocktails you truly love that are uniquely yours.  

Knowing the flavor profile of key spirits and a few basic recipes allows you to customize drinks to your preference and impress your friends with your creative home bartending skills. Here’s how you can take a few standards and tailor-make them for nearly endless possibilities.  

Old fashioneds

Thebar Infographic2 Internal Old Fashioneds

If you like to keep your old fashioned old school, stick to American whiskey. Use bourbon if you prefer vanilla and caramel notes, and try a rye whiskey to spice this classic up with black pepper notes; a peated scotch lends a smoky, woody edge to the cocktail. 

If whiskey isn’t your kind of spirit, no problem. Opt for a new take on an old fashioned by using an aged rum. The rich notes from the molasses transform this classic into something richer and honeyed — it will appease your sweet tooth without losing any bold flavor. If you’re an agave lover, an añejo tequila’s earthy base and bright spice notes work wonderfully with the bitters and orange zest. For the ultimate smoke show, use mezcal.  


Thebar Infographic2 Internal Martinis

Martinis are one of the easiest cocktails to customize. More vermouth increases the herbaceousness of the drink, and preferences vary: A 1:1 mix of London Dry gin and French vermouth creates a lighter version of the classic martini, while super dry versions contain just a splash of vermouth. A gin base adds complexity, but the gin you choose can impact the flavor in a big way. Use Tanqueray No. TEN for a citrus-forward martini or Tanqueray London Dry for more of a herbal, juniper-forward martini. Vodka martinis are more simple and straightforward. Garnishes are another way to make the martini yours, whether you prefer it “dirty” thanks to the salinity of olives and olive juice or bright with a lemon twist.  


Thebar Infographic2 Internal Margaritas

If tequila isn’t your favorite spirit, but you still want a margarita, we’ve got options for you. Swap tequila for whiskey and you’ve got yourself a sour — the lime juice works especially well with the vanilla notes of the whiskey. Vodka serves as a great base, especially for flavored margaritas like mango or strawberry, thanks to its smooth, clean profile. For a margarita with a little extra kick, use mezcal instead of tequila. The smoked quality of mezcal lends itself especially well to spicy or sweet fruit margaritas, like pineapple, with a chili-salt rim. Speaking of rims, there’s no need to limit yourself to just salt or sugar — feel free to experiment. This is a great way to customize from herbal tea leaves to chocolate sauce. 

Neat drinks

Thebar Infographic2 Internal Neat Drinks

Sipping a spirit neat is the simplest way to appreciate it for exactly what it is. Though Scotch whiskey usually comes to mind when you think of a neat sipper, there are plenty of alternatives that can be enjoyed neat. In fact, añejo tequila shares a lot of the same characteristics as a whiskey, like rich caramel and vanilla notes but with an added earthiness and candied yam component from the roasted agave. In Mexico, it’s traditional to sip a blanco tequila neat, and many tequileros consider this the perfect way to experience pure agave flavor: bright citrus notes, grassiness and earthy minerality. Since rum is distilled from sugar cane, it has an inherent flavor of toasted sugar that makes sipping it neat, well, sweet. 


Thebar Infographic2 Internal Negronis

The gin classic, a negroni, is complex and citrus-forward, but subbing bourbon makes for a honeyed, rounder cocktail called the boulevardier. The sweet notes from the bourbon play warmly with the vermouth and bittersweet taste of the apéritif. Swapping gin for mezcal will give this cocktail a touch of minerality and smoke.  


Thebar Infographic2 Internal Manhattans

The tried-and-true combination uses rye whiskey, Italian sweet vermouth and aromatic bitters, but the whiskey you pick will dictate the final result. Bourbon provides the sweetest option, whereas rye adds a bit of spice and scotch contributes a brine-y, smoky flavor. Swapping in an añejo tequila adds caramel earthiness, while mezcal lends grounded minerality and a hint of smoldering goodness. 

Bloody Marys

Thebar Infographic2 Internal Bloody Marys

One of the most popular vodka cocktails offers tons of room for customization, from the spices you choose to the endless amounts of liquids you could incorporate — a Bloody Bull cocktail uses beef broth; a Bloody Caesar cocktail uses clam juice. Blanco tequila turns this into a Bloody Maria and adds a vegetal earthiness that stands up well to a spicy mix. Whiskey provides a complex backbone with a hint of smoke that plays well with the tomato juice. For a savory, more herbal taste, sub in gin.  

Whiskey sours

Thebar Infographic2 Internal Whiskey Sours

A sour is a classic template that offers a single-serving variation on punches that combine spirits, citrus juice and a sweetener. A classic whiskey sour has lemon juice that brightens up the vanilla and caramel notes in bourbon. Another brown spirit that works well is rum — simply exchange the lemon juice for lime and you’ve got yourself a rounded and complex daiquiri bursting with notes of brown sugar. 

If you prefer clear spirits, use gin for something more botanical. Blanco tequila provides a mineral, earthy element, and adding orange liqueur transforms the drink into a margarita. Want to go a step further? Use vodka instead of tequila and add in a splash of cranberry, and you’ve got yourself a cosmopolitan.  

Happy mixing!

Once you’ve got the basic flavor profiles down, feel free to experiment. Swapping spirits is an easy way to customize a cocktail and explore what flavors work for you, just how you like them. It’s time to get mixing.  

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