Technically, a true cocktail consists of 1) a spirit, 2) a sweetener, 3) bitters, and 4) water added from dilution. That’s it. Juices, liqueurs, and other mixers are called modifiers in the mixology world.
With this definition, perhaps many of the drinks that you call cocktails aren’t really. You know what? It doesn’t really matter (not fundamentally, anyway). What matters is that you begin to take steps towards bringing awareness into what, when and how you drink. All of those things are definitely more important than semantics:
1) What: Become familiar with the quality of the spirits you consume. Request a brand by name rather than settling for the house or well, which is often poor quality. Ask your bartenders if their cocktail program uses fresh juices and homemade mixers. If they don’t, seek out and support the places that do.
2) When: Did you know that all those late-night cocktails tack on extra calories to your evening meal? It isn’t the norm in this country (yet), but the earlier in the afternoon you can consume, the better. You’ll give your body more time to burn the calories from the alcohol and enjoy more restful sleep that night.
3) How: A cocktail made with fresh ingredients is best savored one sip at a time, just like a fine wine or delectable meal. The more you begin to learn about spirits with your company or bartender, the more you’ll want to let the flavors sit on your tongue so that you can talk about its characteristics.
The components of a fine cocktail aren’t solely up to the bartender. You have more control than you think about what, when and how you drink.