Cocktail nerds like me love taxonomy. We’re forever discussing issues of classification and categorization. What’s the difference between a sling and a toddy? How exactly does one define a punch? Is a daisy related to a cobbler?
It’s all a little obsessive, because when it comes to classic cocktails, the differences often boil down to relatively minor tweaks: lime juice in lieu of lemon juice; mixing in the glass versus shaking and straining; an orange twist instead of an orange wheel.
These differences can be almost imperceptible, and mostly irrelevant, to regular folks. Even now, years into the supposed cocktail renaissance, many still call anything served straight up in a V-shaped cocktail glass a “martini.”
Cocktail people dissect the classic concoctions because they are the basis of nearly all of the great, often wildly experimental drinks you find on contemporary cocktail menus. Learn the classics, and you’ll soon be able to invent your own interesting, well-made drinks simply by substituting a little of this for a little of that.
Perhaps the most confusing family of cocktails is the group of classic long drinks enjoyed when the weather gets hot: the highball, the Collins, the fizz, the rickey and the buck. The drinks seem almost interchangeable; they’re all various combinations of spirits and soda mixers, served over ice in a Collins or highball glass. But when you look closely, the way a cocktail nerd would, you’ll start to see that small variations make for big differences in taste.
A highball is a spirit (usually whiskey) that’s served with a carbonated beverage (club soda or ginger ale) over ice. It takes its name from the glass. “If citrus juices are used, the drink becomes a Buck or a Collins or a Rickey and is no longer a Highball,” writes the foremost cocktail taxonomist, David A. Embury, in his 1948 guide “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.”
Moving on from the highball, a Collins and a fizz involve basically the same set of ingredients — spirit, lemon juice, sugar and soda water — either mixed all together in an ice-filled Collins glass (for the Collins) or shaken and then strained into an ice-filled glass and topped with the fizzy water (for the fizz). A rickey is basically a Collins that calls for a lime instead of a lemon.
And then there is the buck, perhaps the least-known member of the long-drink family. A buck, very simply, is a Collins that calls for ginger ale and no sugar. Or you could also say it’s a ginger-ale highball plus lemon juice.
Follow all that? Don’t worry: Making the basic gin buck, the most common of the bucks, is easy. Pour two ounces of gin into a highball glass; squeeze in a quarter of a lemon, then drop it into the glass; fill with ice. Top with ginger ale and stir. It doesn’t get any less complicated on a hot afternoon. (Moving from taxonomy to etymology, I must note that no one seems to know how the buck got its name.)
Those with a little bit more motivation can easily fancy up the basic buck. Perhaps you can try a high-quality ginger ale, such as Fever Tree, or a spicy ginger ale, such as Blenheim. Or even a ginger beer, which will have more bite than the usual Canada Dry. Perhaps you can use Meyer lemons for the citrus component.
Or you can experiment with different styles of gin, moving from the refined Plymouth or the juniper-forward Beefeater to the rich, earthy Old Raj. Or perhaps leave the London dry style behind altogether and opt for a malty Dutch genever such as Bols, as in the accompanying recipe for Bargoens (BAHR-goons) Buck. By including an Italian bitter aperitif, this buck recipe really pushes the boundaries of the definition.
But the basics are still there: gin, ginger ale and lemon.
While it’s technically accurate to call genever “the original gin” — it dates to the 17th century — in reality, genever often has more similarities to whiskey in taste and application than to contemporary gins. That’s because genever must always contain a small percentage of malt wine, which is a distillate of three kinds of grain: corn, rye and wheat.
Uh-oh. Here I go again with the taxonomy. . . .
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2010). He can be reached at