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Six Classic Cocktails With Colorful Origin Stories


The origin stories of the world’s most iconic cocktails are as colorful and intoxicating as the drinks themselves. From the shores of San Juan to Paris’ ritziest hotel bars, from Sazeracs to Negronis, classic cocktails can trace their roots all over the map. Here are six of the world’s most famous cocktails and where you can drink them right at the source.

If there’s one quintessential cocktail city in the world, it’s New Orleans. Between Mardi Gras, its devil-may-care public alcohol laws, its world-class restaurant reputation and its historic watering holes, the city is certainly renowned for its drinking and dining. Particularly, it’s the birthplace of some of the world’s mightiest cocktails, like the Sazerac.

Sazerac - The Sazerac Bar, New Orleans

Traditionally a heady blend of Cognac or rye whiskey, absinthe, Peychaud’s bitters and sugar, the drink pre-dates any other cocktail in the U.S., having originated in the mid-1800’s at the Sazerac Coffee House (formerly The Merchants Exchange Coffee House) in downtown New Orleans. It got its name from the Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brand of Cognac originally used to make the drink, which the bar’s previous owner, Sewell T. Taylor, began importing from France. The bar changed hands a couple times before owner Thomas Handy jotted down a recipe in the late-1800’s. Things have shifted over the decades, including use of Herbsaint and other liquors in lieu of absinthe, which was banned in 1912. In 2008, the drink was named as New Orleans’ official cocktail, and it’s still being served in the same chic space where it originated, now simply dubbed The Sazerac Bar.

Piña Colada - Barrachina Restaurant, San Juan

The national drink of Puerto Rico, the piña colada has come to exemplify the tropical cocktail with its beachy blend of rum, coconut cream or coconut milk and pineapple juice, blended with ice to achieve a smoothie-like texture. As is the case with most classic drinks or dishes, the official origins of the piña colada have long been disputed by different bartenders laying claim to the inaugural recipe, but the place with the most tangible ties to the cocktail is Barrachina Restaurant. It’s here where bartender Ramón Portas Mingot is said to have created the drink, which sensibly translates to “strained pineapple,” in 1963. He simply mixed pineapple juice, coconut cream, condensed milk and ice together in a blender, topping it off with a pineapple wedge. For Puerto Rico, the tradition of mixing rum, pineapple and coconut together has a much longer history though, as native pirate Roberto Cofresí is said to have bolstered his crew’s morale by serving them rum drinks with pineapple and coconut. He never recorded a recipe before his death, leaving the lingering tradition in the hands of modern day bartenders.

Sidecar - Harry’s New York Bar, Paris

One of the murkier origin stories to trace is the Sidecar, a Cognac-based drink that’s evolved steadily over the years after drawing inspiration from New Orleans’ Brandy Crusta cocktail. This traditional brandy drink, with curaçao, bitters and lemon, beget the Sidecar, which started off with brandy, Cointreau and lemon before settling into its current Cognac state. Both Harry’s New York Bar in Paris and Buck’s Club in London claim to have first created and named the cocktail, with the former stating they made it on request for an army captain who rode in in the sidecar of a motorcycle. Meanwhile, the London bar proclaimed to have invented it at the end of World War I. During and after Prohibition, Cognac was substituted for brandy due to the unpredictable variations of brandy’s flavor.

Negroni - Caffé Giacosa, Florence

Italy’s most notable contribution to the world of cocktails, the Negroni is commonly dated to ca. 1919, when it was first mixed at Florence’s Caffé Casoni (now called Caffé Giacosa). The drink, quite simply, was an enhancement of the classic Americano, as bar patron Count Camillo Negroni requested the bartender amp up his drink by replacing soda water with gin. In doing so, bartender Fosco Scarselli differentiated the two similar cocktails by garnishing the Negroni with an orange peel instead of the Americano’s lemon. Over the years, and especially true today, the Negroni came to embody the Italian aperitivo tradition. The cocktail quickly became a pre-dinner sensation in Florence, with Caffé Giacosa regarded as the quintessential stopover.

Hurricane - Pat O’Brien’s, New Orleans

Another prime example of New Orleans’ multifaceted contribution to drinking lore is the Hurricane, an unabashedly boozy punch tied more to the city’s raucous revelry than its refined culinary traditions. Whereas the Sazerac is an elegant slow sipper, the Hurricane is the kind of boozy fruit juice you throw back at a jazz bash or a street fest. The colorful quaff is the handiwork of legendary bar owner Pat O’Brien, who began his namesake French Quarter bar as a speakeasy where the password, “Storm’s Brewin,” was required for entry. O’Brien developed the Hurricane by happenstance in the 1940’s, when he began pouring excess rum into hurricane lamp-shaped glasses and splashing it with fruit juice and grenadine. He basically gave it away to passersby and thirsty sailors as a way to clear shelf space for higher-end spirits. Little did he know that the drink would catch on like wild fire. Nowadays, hordes of patrons flock to Pat O’Brien’s for massive (and dangerously drinkable) Hurricanes. The bar also helped popularize the local tradition of pouring cocktails into plastic to-go cups for public consumption and boozy antics.

Old Fashioned - The Pendennis Club, Louisville

One of the ultimate classic cocktails, and one whose very name is intrinsically tied with the origin of cocktails in general, it’s no surprise that the Old Fashioned has ties to a city in the heart of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. Louisville’s historic Pendennis Club, a vintage gentlemen’s club which also gave birth to a lesser-known gin cocktail called the Pendennis Club Cocktail, is said to have at least coined the term “Old Fashioned” in regards to a bourbon cocktail made with a simple formula of spirits, bitters, water and sugar. One of the earliest recipes for the drink was formulated at the club in the late 1800’s for Colonel James E. Pepper. In 2015, the Old Fashioned became Louisville’s official cocktail, and it can still be sipped at the Pendennis Club, which is still a members’ club, but currently open to anyone.

Matt Kirouac

Written by Matt Kirouac

Matt Kirouac is a Chicago-based food and travel writer, editor and author. After graduating culinary school, he took his education in a different direction, writing for companies like Daily Candy, Kimpton Hotels, TripExpert, Flight Network, Time Out, Food Fanatics magazine, Brand USA and numerous others. Currently, he works for Zagat, Plate and other freelance positions. His first book, The Hunt Guides: Chicago, came out in 2016, and his next book, Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago, hits shelves at the end of 2017.

Read more posts by Matt Kirouac

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