Modern Classic Cocktails

Ever since man invented the art of the mixed drink, cocktail creations have become extremely popular, just to sink into oblivion a decade later. That’s why bartenders use the term “contemporary classic” to describe popular drinks that are likely to stand the test of time. Angus Winchester has compiled a list of seven great drinks.
One of the best parts of my career is creating training modules and presentations to roll out at bar shows and education sessions around the world. One is either given a totally free hand or is trusted to come up with interesting and educational topics and information that will help inspire bartenders to be creative, bring their standards up or teach them valid lessons. I have found the key to this is to research heavily, to choose wisely and to have a structure that creates a flow and a credible dialogue. I never intend them to be slavishly followed and am happy when attendees bring up arguments or points I did not consider and love it when it creates ripples throughout the world of bartending (or at least the attendees).
I bring this up because I recently gave a talk at the inaugural Athens bar show entitled “The Seven Wonders of the Modern Cocktail World” in which I attempted to show that in the time I have been bartending and involved with the world of cocktails and bartending, there have only been perhaps seven drinks that have been created and are destined to be (or already are) cocktails that all bartenders from now on will need to know in the future. And as you can imagine it ruffled some feathers and started some pretty intense conversations.
From Clover Clubs to Mai Tais
My theory was this. Ninety years ago the list of “must know” or classic cocktails was very different to forty years ago and is different to now. At the turn of the 20th century drinks like Clover Clubs, Cobblers, Sazeracs and Silver Fizzes were the bartenders staples. Skip forward fifty years and Mojitos, Margaritas, Mai Tais and Bloody Marys were on everyone’s lips. Yet what drinks have been created in the last twenty tow years (I chose my bartending careers start date as one I could use realistically) will stand the tests of time and be added to the roll call of great cocktails?
As mixology has become more established, credible, creative and widespread so the number of “signature cocktails” has increased and surely there are many great new cocktails out there. Or are there? The key really (other than being a seriously dedicated and well-travelled bartender who has drunk a fair amount of new cocktails) was the criteria that I used to decide what made a modern classic.
The Rules for the Modern Classic
Firstly the drink had to have a practical side: it must use ingredients that are fairly common around the world or at least can be substituted fairly easily. Also on a practical nature it must have  a name that is easy to say and “call” in a bar and is funny or memorable.
Secondly it must taste great of course (often meaning that the exact proportions can be varied successfully to accommodate a range of palates. But this taste should also come due to innovation – either in new/irregular combinations of flavours or ingredients or new techniques being used to create those flavours.
Thirdly it must be popular by which I mean not just that drinkers love it but other bartenders copy it and thus it starts to show up around the world on cocktail menus. Too many drinks have been lost by bartenders keeping recipes secret and it is a feather in any bartenders cap when colleagues in other bars like a drink so much they drop their pride and ask for the recipe.
This leads to the fourth criteria I used to select the drinks: they must inspire bartenders to copy or tweak the recipe in much the same way that the great classics have done with twisted Negronis, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds.
Thus with those ideas in mind I give you the seven cocktail wonders of the world:

  1. The Bramble
  2. The Benton’s Old Fashioned
  3. The Tommy’s Margarita
  4. The Penicillin
  5. The Sweet Heat
  6. The Espresso Martini
  7. The Breakfast Martini

Now, I chose seven because it made a better sounding title for my talk and also because I honestly believe  that there are less than ten drinks that have been invented in the last twenty five years that will stand the test of time and fulfil my criteria. One of the downsides of modern bartending is new bartenders desperately clinging to the idea that totally new drinks are the key to guest satisfaction. I professionally have drunk literally thousands of “new” drinks that, tasty though they may be, are relatively  forgettable and, according to the market, are unworthy of the title modern classic.
If I had to add other drinks, then in the United States of America the Chartreuse Swizzle seems to be growing in popularity and in Europe the Gin Basil Smash is in demand (though I wonder if Sagatiba’s co-opting of it with the Brazil Basil Smash and John Gakuru’s travelling, if gin will lose out to Cachaca – only time will tell).
The list is not definitive as I stated at the beginning and I intended it only to show off some of the criteria that I think will aid bartenders create modern classics in the future as well as showcasing great drinks  that exist right now as well as reinforcing my selection by having bartenders push these drinks in the future. Now all I have to do is listen to my own work and create one myself! Though in the short term I look forward to hearing howls of protest and suggestions from you dear reader. Cheers!
This article was first published in MIXOLOGY Issue 2/2010.

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