Food & Drink

What to Order on Your 21st Birthday, According to Bartenders

It’s here, at last. After checking off those all-important life checkpoints—being able to get into PG-13 movies, getting your license, becoming a legal adult—you’ve finally reached the age at which you can lawfully enjoy your first alcoholic beverage in a bar. It’s the last big birthday milestone (unless you include renting a car, which you shouldn’t). Now lies before you the biggest decision of your life: What are you going to order first? Will you get a beer? A cocktail? Wine? The choices are endless. Fortunately, we asked some of the best bartenders around for their suggestions on what you should order.

​​​​​​Celebrate With Champagne

“My first drink when I turned 21 was a really nice glass of Champagne. I still think this a perfect way to celebrate any momentous occasion. Other than that, I would recommend either something you have been curious to try, whatever that may be, or a big crazy tiki drink, preferably on fire and shared with friends. These make for great memories and fun pictures!”— Sierra Kirk, Hale Pele, Portland, OR

"Good Champagne with family and friends!  You have a whole lifetime to try other things." Jesse Harris, Leyenda, Brooklyn, NY

Get Your Gin on With a Southside or a Tom Collins

"Not only is the Southside a widely popular classic cocktail that any bar with fresh ingredients will be able to make, it is also a friendly introduction to gin. I've met so many people who have not had a great first impression of this spirit simply because they've been exposed to unbalanced drinks that use it too aggressively. Earning a new imbiber's trust with a well-balanced gin drink will open them up to all sorts of more complex possibilities down the line.” Amanda Edler, Pouring Ribbons, New York, NY

“When I was 21, ordering a drink at a bar was terrifying. I didn't want to look like an idiot, I didn't want to take too much time, but I didn't like the taste of alcohol yet and I wanted something I knew I could drink. So let's keep this easy—something almost any bar can make and almost anyone will love—a Southside. It's a shaken, refreshing classic cocktail of gin, mint, lime, and sugar. It's not sweet, and the mint blends well with the herbal gin notes to ease you into an appreciation of gin. It's a grown-up cocktail even a 21-year-old can appreciate.” — Lana Gailani, Seamstress, New York, NY

“Look, we all know that you are going to ruin the first thing you drink when you turn 21 because you are going to overdo it and then forever throw up a little in your mouth when someone hands you a Gin & Tonic. I think your choice of 'first drink' should be a great introduction to cocktails, relatively harmless, delicious, and doesn’t destroy an entire category of spirits like tequila, rum, or gin when you inevitably have too many of them. That’s why I suggest a Tom Collins made with Old Tom Gin. The juniper isn’t too aggressive for your immature palate—so you cannot blame it on it ‘tasting like a pine tree’—and isn’t prominently featured on every back bar or menu so you won’t have to worry about avoiding it unnecessarily for the next 10 years. The addition of some fresh lemon juice will also help heal your liver functions for the day after you turn 21.” — Nick Bennett, Porchlight, New York, NY

Opt for Something Decadent

Raspberry Chocolate Martini! It is a great celebration for your 21st birthday. Made with chocolate and a balanced mix of Kahlúa, Chambord and cream, it is the Choco-tini that will change your mind about Choco-tinis.” — Irem Eren, Ayza, New York, NY

“When I turned 21 I thought I was being sophisticated and always went for red wine, but being 21 and broke, [I drank] cheap red wine. The Two-Buck Chuck was my best and worst friend; it was affordable, but would come back to haunt you the next day. Over the years I have grown to love great wine and all spirits. Good drinking habits come with time, just as wine is better with age.” — Megan Daniel, Whitechapel, San Francisco, CA

Try a Gingery Classic

“I think I'd say Dark 'n' Stormy is a good starter cocktail—it's simple, delicious and you can get a decent one at almost any bar. At first look, it's not too different from the liquor plus soda that a lot of people drink in college, but you'll learn really quickly about the importance of quality ingredients and balance once you have them with fresh juice versus not, and so on.” — Brian Hawthorne, The Wayland, New York, NY

Go Hard and Strong

“I don’t think you can go wrong with a classic Boilermaker: a shot, and a beer. It will be a friend that will accompany you through many moons. In good times and in sad times, a shot and a beer will keep you warm.” — Alejandro De La Parra, Tear Drop Lounge, Portland, OR

Order the King of All Cocktails: the Daiquiri

“You can always tell if someone is young because they order kid drinks: lots of Long Islands and Amaretto Sours. So as a 21-year-old opting to go to a decent bar that serves cocktails and not just a pub for a Jager Bomb, I would suggest they have a Daiquiri. It's a classic. It's not vodka. It's a sophisticated enough drink that you wouldn't come off as a 21-year-old. It's good for both girls and boys, and it's delicious. There's no way a 21-year-old knows what a real Daiquiri is, but once they try it, they won't be disappointed. Win, win, win.” — Antonia Joannides, The Bar Room, New York, NY

“Rum, lime, sugar—simple, not too strong. The Daiquiri teaches you the perfect balance between strong, sweet and sour, and is a base to many other cocktails.” — Nico de Soto, Mace, New York, NY

“I think there should be some deference to the fact that newly-legal drinkers don't necessarily have the most sophisticated palates, or the deepest knowledge of cocktail history. I like to encourage them to try something classic that will still be easy and fun to drink. My go-tos are Daiquiris—often with Plantation Pineapple rum, which is delicious and a little different—and proper Amaretto Sours, made with Luxardo Amaretto, fresh citrus, and egg white. Unless they explicitly say they want something spirit-forward, I avoid dry, boozy cocktails like Gin Martinis in favor of something a bit easier to knock back like an Aviation or Manhattan.” — Allison Kave, Butter & Scotch, Brooklyn, NY