Michael Harden

Margarita: perfect for quenching thirsts and lifting spirits.
Margarita: perfect for quenching thirsts and lifting spirits. Photo: Edwina Pickles

According to David Wondrich, US drinks expert and writer for American Esquire, “a cocktail at its best is more in the nature of a reward, one of the compensations that life grants us in return for the enormous pain of being an adult”. With that in mind, you’ll want to order right.

But what to order if you don’t know the first thing about cocktails? Here are five of the species: classic, stylish, tasty and, if made properly, foolproof concoctions that will do the trick and give you an aura of refinement, even if you don’t really have one.

Martini

One word for you here: gin. There are more complicated, fancy versions of the martini than you can shake a swizzle stick at but none of them – including the ones made with vodka – have the class and style of the original.

The classic martini is all about the gin, mixed with some dry vermouth and simply garnished with an olive or, if you must, a twist of lemon (or, if you really must, a cocktail onion but that turns the martini into a gibson). Mostly the vermouth is just a ghostly background presence, a wash that is discarded before the icy cold gin is poured into the glass.

It’s a wondrous drink, super dry, super chilled and perfect pre-dinner. But, if you are eating out, its best to resist the siren song of another round – the martini is a potent beast that can catch you unawares.

Manhattan

With a name like this you can feel suave just by ordering it and feel even more so if you specify your preference for rye whiskey over bourbon in the mix.

The classic manhattan is a blend of rye whiskey, vermouth and Angostura bitters that is shaken with ice and then strained into a chilled cocktail glass before being garnished with a twist of lemon or a maraschino cherry with the stem left on.

It’s a bold, fortifying drink and much better for the rye because bourbon pushes the drink to a sweeter place that seems to miss the point. Purists may blanch at the thought but it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a manhattan on the rocks, served in an Old Fashion glass.

Daiquiri

Put the blender (and the banana, and the strawberries) down. Those ham-fisted, clownish drinks are not the sorts of daiquiri we’re talking about here.

The original daiquiri is a much simpler, gutsier beast, the type that you would have caught Ernest Hemmingway knocking back.

It’s basically made with white rum, lime juice and sugar, shaken with ice and served, ungarnished, in a cocktail glass. It’s a refreshing, lively drink that riffs on the classic rum and lime combination, the basis for many a good time.

Negroni

Currently enjoying its "drink of the moment" status, the negroni built well is a thing of wonder, both savoury and sweet and with a nice lick of bitterness.

It’s powerful too, in a kind of iron fist in velvet glove kind of way that can have the uninitiated speaking in tongues by the end of the second round.

The classic negroni is a mix of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth either shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass or served in an Old Fashioned glass on the rocks. Either way, the twist of orange is not negotiable.

This is one drink where a little tinkering does not lose the drink its essential negroni-ness. For those after a more savoury experience, the vermouth can be ditched for more bitter brews like Punt e Mes or Cynar.

Margarita

While it does have something of a (not altogether undeserved) reputation as the drink of choice for the more hardcore partiers, the margarita made right is also a seriously good drink, perfect for quenching thirsts and lifting spirits after (or even during) a long hot day.

Again, forget about the icy sludge that emerges from machines in certain chain restaurants. The classic margarita is made with 100 per cent agave tequila, Cointreau and lime juice that is shaken with ice and then strained into a cocktail glass, the rim of which has been rubbed with lime juice and dipped in salt (preferably something with a bit of texture).

To fully appreciate the charms of the margarita, it’s always a good idea to have more than one.

Michael Harden is the editor of The Age Good Bar Guide 2012.