Classic Cocktails with a Twist

Making memorable cocktails is simpler than you think—not including simple syrup.


Jon Howard, lead bartender at the Henley in Nashville, Tennessee, believes every modern cocktail can be traced back to a classic. “First and foremost, what makes a cocktail ‘classic’ is that is it can be replicated in almost every bar in the world,” says Howard.

At Henley, Howard enjoys crafting Tom Collins for large groups. “There are so many really good sodas out there that all you need to do is squeeze from fresh lemon, add sugar, and a gin of your choosing, then find a flavored soda you enjoy,” says Howard. “I’m currently crushing on dry watermelon soda. Add some fresh wheels of lemon and slices of the fruit from the soda and you’ve got a really great party beverage.” Here are some ideas to add a modern twist to classic cocktails.

South of the Manhattan

“Most people are familiar with a standard Manhattan, but this twist on the original is a great conversation starter!” says Amanda Beckwith, Guest Experience and Education Manager at Virginia Distillery Company. “The drink is the distillery’s riff on the Classic Manhattan featuring sparkling apple cider, a product that’s often sourced from the apple orchards near the distillery’s home in the Virginia mountains,” notes Beckwith.

The Clean Shave

“A crisp, clean take on the Moscow Mule, The Clean Shave features ingredients like cucumber vodka and ginger liqueur that really up the ante on the classic cocktail. Not too heavy or alcoholic, it’s a refreshing addition to any meeting,” says Chuck Anthony, director of food & beverage Eleven Waters at Marriott Syracuse Downtown.

Lighthouse Lemonade

“More than your average Vodka and Lemonade, this refreshing cocktail features the addition of Prosecco for a bubbly and flavorful twist. Sprigs of mint and thyme provide an additional aromatic as the drink is enjoyed. Ideal for a meeting, the Lighthouse Lemonade can be prepared in larger batches and served via pitcher,” says Greg Fournier, food & beverage manager at Harbor View Hotel.

Paper Plane

Brahm Callahan, beverage director of Himmel Hospitality Group, notes this cocktail at Harvest was created in the mid 2000s by Sam Ross, when he was at Milk & Honey in New York. “It is perfectly balanced between, bitter (nonino), sweet (aperol), Sour (lemon), and spice (bourbon). It is so refreshing—the aperol gives it a little lift and lightness—and you can drink a bunch of them before you start dinner. They are lower in alcohol because of the use of aperol (11 percent) and high ratio of lemon juice. It is great in the summer but also somehow seems to fit the bill in the cold months as well.”

Ol’ Blue Eyes

Union Common created Ol’ Blue Eyes as a tribute to Frank Sinatra, utilizing Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select whiskey and Gentleman Jack. It’s served in a coup glass and prepared as part of the restaurant’s bar cart program, which allows guest to enjoy their cocktail service tableside. Beverage Director Rob Guimaraes says he has businesspeople come in requesting the service as a way to impress clients. “Not only is the presentation impressive, but it’s a classic cocktail built with high-end ingredients and connected to a well-known celebrity that is a great conversation piece.”

 Filipiña Colada

“With the creation of the Filipiña Colada, we’re combining Don Papa’s heritage and the classic expectations of rum together and creating a cocktail fit for lovers of both areas: the classic and the new,” says Chris Rigby, Don Papa's managing director of North America. “While Pina Coladas are traditionally made with white rum, substituting our tropically-aged Filipino rum adds richness and depth to the drink, along with telltale hints of vanilla and baking spice from our ex-bourbon barrels.  The bright fruit our noble cane lends the Don Papa 7 pairs perfectly with pineapple and coconut, while the unorthodox addition of ginger adds an element of spice and intrigue,” notes Rigby.

Manhattan Tea Party

“We start with a good quality Bourbon (we currently are using Woodford Reserve), a House Made Chai Vermouth (we infuse a good quality vermouth with Chai Tea and a blend of spices by slowly heating the vermouth and then letting the ingredients steep overnight) and Angostura Bitters,” describes James Nels, beverage director at BLT Prime by David Burke. “This cocktail would be an easy one to batch ahead for a party because the measurements are very easy to multiply.”