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What Is a Craft Cocktail?

Nowadays it seems like just about everything is craft – whether it’s beer, cocktails, or the entire bar itself.

And if it has the word “craft” in front of it, usually you can expect the price of your cocktail to be at least a few bucks higher for each drink.

But what is a craft cocktail exactly?  Am I being bamboozled into forking over 20-50% extra for my drink?  Or is there really something to the craft cocktail?  We’ll explore all of that here, along with a few sure tell ways to tell whether a drink is truly craft or not.

What Is a Craft Cocktail?  The Short Answer

Simply put, a craft cocktail is a cocktail made with thoughtfulness, fresh ingredients, and plenty of care from the bartender making the drink.

The first definition of “craft” on is a noun which describes “an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill”.  I’d say this generic definition almost perfectly captures the spirit of what a craft cocktail is.

A true craft cocktail not only features incredibly fresh and high quality ingredient selection, it has a matching level of thought placed on presentation and glass selection.

It’s the sort of drink that you take your time consuming so you can pick up on every single intricacy and nuance.  So you can note and enjoy each detail and flavor note hitting your palate.

Signs That Your Cocktail Is Actually Craft

Since “craft” has turned into something of a buzzword over the past few years, it can be hard to tell which drinks are bona fide.  It can be especially hard to tell before you’re $12 deep into your tab and waiting to find out.

Here are a few tell tale signs that your drink is the real deal:

The Bartender Does the Drink Justice

If your bartender spends less than 10 seconds whipping up your drink… yeah, that’s not craft.  It’s not that hard to splash together gin and vermouth and call it a martini.

On the other hand, when you can tell that they slow down and pay extra care to their craftsmanship and technique it’s a good sign that you’re getting your money’s worth if craft is what you’re after.

Fresh Ingredients

Whether it’s muddled herbs or squeezed fruit juice, the ingredients in your cocktail should all be as fresh as it gets.  For more intricate cocktails, the best craft bars may also use ingredients that are specially made in house – such as small batch bitters or syrups.

On Point Presentation

Everything from glass selection down to how the cocktail is poured makes a big difference in how we perceive the experience of a drink to be.

We drink with our eyes just as much as we do with our palates – so a proper presentation matters, and it’s a sign that proper care was given to the creation of your drink.

It’s Not Craft If….

If you’ve been sold a craft cocktail but notice any of these things going on, your bartender might need to rethink his or her usage of the “craft” label:

The Drink Took 10 Seconds to Make

We’ve mentioned this above, but if your bartender is simply splashing simple ingredients together on some kind of cocktail assembly line behind the bar, it’s not craft – and shouldn’t be marketed as such.

And hey, I get it!  The line can stack up at your local dive bar and the bartend doesn’t want to give particular care to Mojito guy who just ordered a drink that’s holding up the line and incoming tips from everybody else.  So there’s a time and a place, but if you want craft – the reality is it’s going to take some tender love and care from the person mixing it.

There’s Only Well Liquor or Other Cheap Ingredients

Your bar doesn’t have to have hundreds of types of tequila, gin, vodka, or whatever else.  But if you look around and all you see is Smirnoff, Bacardi, and Fireball – don’t get your craft hopes too high.

Craft drinks don’t have to use premium spirits by any means, however, a certain level of quality is to be expected of the liquor when it comes to creating a beautiful cocktail.  A bar with a wide selection of spirits to choose from is a good start.

On a similar note, the orange juice carton shouldn’t have a Minute Maid logo on it.  Cheap mixers and store bought ingredients will come through in the flavor and presentation of the drink – so we want our juices fresh squeezed and our mixers made in house to the extent possible.

The Ice Isn’t Right

Alongside glass selection, getting your ice right is one of the most common concepts that new cocktail enthusiasts seem to gloss over but shouldn’t.

Proper ice can make your cocktail come together perfectly, and bad ice can send a good cocktail to average or poor quickly.

Any good craft cocktail bar is going to have their ice right.  They’ll know how to make beautiful clear ice because they know that the appearance of their cocktails matter – and ice plays a big part in that.

On the other hand if the ice is dirty, or even murky, basically anything that isn’t clear, that’s not a great sign for craft.  It also shouldn’t appear as if it came from an ice maker you’d find on your fridge at home.

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Final Thoughts

Look, the whole “what is a craft cocktail?” conversation feels a little bit pretentious – I know, I know.  But the fact of the matter is, many bars are hopping on the craft marketing locomotive and trying to inflate their prices without actually delivering a proper drink.

Almost no matter where you go out nowadays, you can expect to see your fair share of propaganda for hand-crafted cocktails and craft this and that.

So I take no shame in splitting the hairs between what’s a craft cocktail and what’s not.  And at the end of the day, there is no black and white answer – but it’s also one of those things that you just know intuitively when you see one.