The Real Difference Between A Cocktail And A Mixed Drink

It's almost summer and for many, that means backyard barbecues, nights on rooftop decks, and days spent by the pool! And, of course, the perfect accessory for a day of fun in the sun might just be a tropical drink from the bar. But what do you call that fruity umbrella drink you're sipping by the pool? Some might call it a cocktail, while others might prefer the term "mixed drink." While the two names are often used interchangeably, there is a difference — it just might depend on who you ask to figure out exactly where that line is drawn.

According to Drinxville, one rule of thumb for bartending is "all cocktails are mixed drinks, but not all mixed drinks are cocktails." Go Puff notes that most people consider a mixed drink to be one that includes one alcoholic beverage and one mixer — such as a fruit juice, soda, or tonic water. These drinks might be topped off with a garnish, but in general include only the two primary ingredients, whereas a cocktail includes three or more ingredients.

Technically, Drinxville notes, cocktails were originally defined in the 19th century as "a stimulating liquor comprised of spirits of any kind, with sugar, water, and bitters included," however, the term has become much broader over the years. Today, cocktails can include more than one type of liquor and often include flavored syrups and multiple juices.

A nuanced definition

While the general rule of thumb marks any drink with more than two ingredients over ice as a cocktail, some bartenders have more nuanced definitions depending on the complexity of the drink. Food & Wine asked two bartenders to classify drinks, and while they both agreed that a highball (whiskey and club soda or ginger ale) is not a cocktail, they were split about an Aperol Spritz (Aperol and sparkling wine, sometimes with soda water or sparkling water). 

A similar distinction was noted by bartenders interviewed by Cocktail Novice, who agreed that part of what makes a cocktail a cocktail is the amount of effort and presentation that goes into fashioning the drink. "For me, the term cocktail means an alcoholic beverage that requires care and effort in creating it," summarized a bartender identified as Bill. 

An example is offered by Drinxville, which explains that, by the technical definition of added flavoring, a classic martini is a mixed drink, but most people would consider it a cocktail because of the effort needed to shake it properly, and the typically more elaborate way it is served.

Although there may be a fine line between what qualifies as a cocktail versus a mixed drink, now you know technically what you're ordering the next time you visit your favorite patio bar this summer.