A return to craft
Modern-era bon vivants have been celebrating a cocktail renaissance of late. Gone are the days of generic, tasteless spirits, reconstituted fruit syrups and boring, spirit-backgrounded drinks. Bartenders now embrace and elevate classic drinks, like those documented by the inimitable barman Jerry Thomas—author of the first American drink manual, The Bar-Tender’s Guide (How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant’s Companion), published in 1862.
Thomas’ tome, and others like it (for a real read, check out William Schmidt’s 1891 book, The Flowing Bowl: What and When to Drink) clearly reveal America’s predilection for fortuitous, spirit-forward drinks. Yet, between then and now, somehow cocktails went by the wayside.
How did some of the great libations of yesteryear become maligned in the first place?
One of the first drinks to be railroaded was the old fashioned. Once simply called a whiskey cocktail (back in the early 1800s), this flagship drink was made with nothing more than whiskey, sugar, bitters and ice. Yet, as Prohibition roared, imbibers sought to disguise the smell and flavor of the booze. Eventually, the addition of garnishes like maraschino cherries, oranges and even pineapple led to those fruits being muddled in the drink. By the late ‘60s, the old fashioned was a skeleton of what it once was and had become a syrupy, fruity drink for frumpy men.
A Change of Spirit
Following Prohibition’s repeal, the spirits industry (and cocktail culture) began to rapidly change. Corporate America could indeed be blamed for ruining what was otherwise a good drink.
In 1938, Heublein Spirits acquired the rights to Smirnoff vodka. Heublein’s marketing office was ahead of its time: once they began marketing Smirnoff with the tagline, “leaves you breathless”—an allusion to vodka’s famously fragrant-absent smell—sales went through the roof. Heublein was famously responsible for the creation of the screwdriver, orange juice and vodka, which helped place liquor in the backseat when it came to cocktails.
“The success of the screwdriver was responsible for the growth in cocktails created by committee rather than by bartenders,” says Brother Cleve, a renowned bartender and cocktail historian in Boston. “Drinks then became created to market specific products.”
Similarly, drinks that used fresh citrus were either bastardized (with said citrus removed) or discontinued, often in the name of increasing profit margins.
One such drink is the cuba libre, whose original recipe called specifically for white Cuban rum, Coca-Cola and fresh lime juice. According to historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the cuba libre was born around 1900 when the Coca-Cola company began exporting to Cuba. Bacardi was the prominent Cuban rum distiller at the time and, by all accounts, their Superior Carta Blanca had a distinctive profile of sugarcane—much different from the virtually-tasteless, nearly vodka-like spirit they produce today (Bacardi changed the flavor profile of their signature rums in the late ‘50s so that they could compete with vodka as a drier spirit). Eventually, the cuba libre became the soulless rum & coke: A highball made with any rum, filled with any cola soda, and with the fresh lime juice omitted.
Replacing fresh citrus juice with mass-produced products like bottled lime cordial or powdered sour mix opened a Pandora’s box for other drinks to be ruined. A proper daiquirí should be made by shaking together fresh lime juice, a rich, brown (or demerara) sugar syrup, fine Cuban rum and crushed ice—not in a blender with cheap rum, lime cordial or “sour mix” and ice. It should be neither slurpy-like and syrupy, nor flavored with strawberry puree. (The daiquirí, properly pronounced “DYE-kee-ree,” has an illustrious history. Read more about it in Berry’s book, Potions of the Caribbean.)
In some cases, drinks became victims of their own success. Donn Beach’s zombie, invented in 1934, had a distinct profile—the result of three specific rums buttressed by proprietary syrups made from tropical fruits, barks and fresh citrus. Beach made his syrups and drinks behind closed doors to ward off imitators. Beach’s idea worked, but his desperate competitors soon started using just about any rums, juices and sweeteners to try and keep up. The result? A mess of drinks, all claiming to be zombies, yet without the distinctive flavor of the original.
A decade later, Vic Bergeron, proprietor of Trader Vic’s, invented the mai tai. Vic’s potion featured a 17-year-old Jamaican rum, fresh lime juice, orange curacao, and is sweetened only with orgeat, a floral syrup made from freshly pressed almonds and orange flower water. The mai tai’s popularity influenced other bar owners to attempt to imitate Vic’s drink, though without much success. Eventually the mai tai devolved into today’s version: a mix of light and dark rums, fruit juice (generally pineapple), sour mix and, sometimes, almond extract.
By the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, an extra, extra dry movement had taken hold. Vermouth and bitters producers had, more or less, been driven out of business. The martini which, up to that point, had been made by stirring together gin, vermouth and bitters, became a shell of its former self. Replacing the gin with vodka and removing both the vermouth and bitters effectively made the martini either a chilled shot (at its best), or a vehicle for selling vodka and a flavored spirit (e.g. vodka and Kahlua—a black russian).
New Takes on Old Favorites
Luckily, the 21st century’s cocktail renaissance has resurrected these drinks in full force. The classic daiquirí is fetishized amongst bartenders, made as a shot (Snaquirí) or as an aside (“Daiquirí Time Out” or “D.T.O.”). The mai tai is also now more-easily made, thanks to restaurants making their own orgeat or buying small-batch versions. (B.G. Reynold and Small Hand Foods both make excellent orgeats and other drink syrups.) The gin martini has found renewed interest, thanks to the rise of artisanal gins, specialty bitters and craft vermouths. Similarly, the modern plethora of specialty bitters and brown spirits presents old fashioned-lovers with limitless variations. Even the cuba libre has come into its own: any cola made without high fructose corn syrup (or a housemade sarsaparilla soda) can add a new dimension or two.
These drinks play homage to the classics, with a modern spin!
Jet Setter Old Fashioned
1 large brown sugar cube
2 oz St. George Terroir Gin
4 dashes grapefruit-chamomile bitters (e.g. Bittermen’s Boston Bittahs)
2 dashes pineapple bitters
Orange & Lemon peels
In a chilled mixing glass, douse sugar cube with both bitters and lightly muddle against thinly-cut lemon and orange peels. Add ice, followed by gin, gently rinsing sugar and bitters off muddler’s end. Stir slowly to incorporate. Strain over large cube in rocks glass and garnish with lemon and orange twists.
2 oz Rhum Barbancourt
½ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz cinnamon demerara syrup
3 dashes orange bitters
Add all ingredients to tin and fill with roughly cracked ice. Shake hard and double strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a lime wheel on rim.