I get asked this question all the time and to be honest, I don’t think that there is a right answer. This is surely something to ponder while sipping on your favourite gin. I would say that even though it may seem the words “mixed drink” and “cocktail” are interchangeable, technically, the two mean something different.
A mixed drink is any beverage that combines two or more ingredients. These drinks are often simply just poured over ice, for example, a Citrus & Spice Aperitif or a regular Gin and Tonic. Though it’s often assumed that a mixed drink contains alcohol, this is not always the case. Non-alcoholic drinks like the Shirley Temple or the Symmetry Shake would classify as mixed drinks as well.
A cocktail is a mixed drink that is traditionally made up of a combination of liquor(s), a sweetener, bitters, water and/or diluted ice. By this definition, a negroni is an example of a cocktail, as is the martini, even though it contains no sweetener.
The modern definition of a cocktail is broader than it was in the first days of the bar. It can be said that cocktails are the fancier mixed drinks that require a little more work to construct.
At the end of the day, a cocktail is a mixed drink, but a mixed drink may not always be considered a cocktail. It doesn’t really matter though does it, as long as you enjoy whatever you have in your glass.