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The New Classic Cocktail: Is There a New Breakthrough Drink Looming on the Horizon?

Posted on  | December 3, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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The Getaway by Derek Brown of Washington D.C.’s The Passenger

Will there ever be another Cosmopolitan or Mojito? These two simple but refreshing drinks once were served everywhere, national phenomena that appeared on menus in small bars, giant nightclubs and chain restaurants across the country, draining oceans of cranberry juice and harvesting acres of mint. In some areas, those drinks still ring the register, but now that many classic cocktails from the Golden Age of American drinking have been rediscovered, neither they nor other turn-of-the-century quaffs like the Lemon Drop or the Sour Appletini are highly sought after.

Instead, bartenders have turned to riffing on classic cocktail recipes and crafting new and interesting combinations in a seemingly endless profusion. Possibly as a result, it’s been some time since a single drink has created a national wildfire, so the question arises: what will be the new classic drinks that customers clamor for and every bar and restaurant must add to their menus?

Some contemporary recipes have traveled far—the Oaxacan Old Fashioned and the Gin-Gin Mule are two prime examples—appearing on cocktail menus across the country and often credited to their originators. Others, like the Scotch-based Penicillin cocktail, have emboldened bartenders to take on neglected ingredients. (For the record, Phil Ward is credited with the mezcal-based Oaxacan, Audrey Saunders with the Gin-Gin Mule, and Sam Ross with Penicillin.)

Crystal-balling the future is always risky, but in conversations with many of today’s cocktail cognoscenti, it’s clear that, while few new drinks are as ubiquitous as the Manhattan, Margarita, Martini or Piña Colada, certain cocktail techniques, drink styles and flavor profiles are becoming well established as essential components in contemporary cocktail programs.

Cobblers and Punches and Shrubs (Oh My!)

Take the Shrub, the fruit-vinegar-inspired refresher that emerged this summer from its cult status. Two examples: in New Orleans at the new cocktail bar Bellocq, a handful of variations were available at any one time; and in the Denver area at Phat Thai, chef Mark Fisher merged the Shrub idea with Southeast Asian influences in his Blueberry Lemonade (blueberry vinegar, muddled lemons and vodka) and Blackberry Bramble (blackberry vinegar and honey-infused bourbon).

“The one I see now everywhere is the Shrub,” says Derek Brown of Washington, DC’s The Passenger. “Simply a means of preserving fruit, it has become a standard technique/ingredient of ‘new classics,’” he says. Brown himself provides a rotating list of different Shrub variants throughout the year, including an early autumn Celery Shrub recipe that really pleased him.

Like Cobblers (spirit, citrus and fruit) and Punches, Shrubs provide creative bartenders a basic framework around which to build their own particular flavor palate with favorite ingredients and serving styles. With them, guests basically know what to expect—if you don’t like fresh fruit or the tang of vinegar in your drinks, you’ll never order a Shrub or Cobbler twice—but they anticipate the personal twist a bar provides.

In some ways, these three drink styles are perfect examples of the new classic cocktail—an antique drinking form refurbished by the cocktail renaissance and then tweaked with contemporary, perhaps seasonal, ingredients. No more, at least for the short term, do either customers or drink makers seem much interested in cookie-cutter beverages made exactly the same as at the bar down the road.

Mix & Match

“The modern classics today are things like the Negroni and the Lemon Drop, but they definitely are being made with a twist to them, to customize them for whatever restaurant they are served in,” says Kathy Casey, culinary and cocktail consultant at Liquid Kitchen.

St. Regis Deer Valley’s “7452″ Bloody Mary

Taking classic drinks and swapping out secondary ingredients with inspired substitutions is common in both cocktail-centric bars and in restaurants where the drink menu needs to fit the concept. For instance, Casey consulted with two Seattle-area Volterra restaurants where she installed on the menu three different Manhattan recipes; one classic and the others made with seasonal or unexpected ingredients. Volterra’s Nocciola Manhattan is made with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, sweet vermouth, Frangelico, vermouth-plumped Bing cherries and toasted hazelnut.

In another, Casey replaced orange liqueur in the traditional Margarita recipe with the Italian bitter Cocchi Barolo Chinato, resulting in a drink with more complex layers of flavor. “Some of these more interesting products, especially Italian liqueurs, add a unique twist while keeping the cocktail classic in approach,” she says.

Classics like Old-Fashioneds or Collinses are perfect fits for building seasonally-based offerings, with peaches, cherries and other tree fruits adding a signature touch required on many drinks menus, she says.

From Bitter(s) to Fresh

Introducing a bitter quality to established classics works for others as well; in DC, Brown’s customers are avid for a Daiquiri twist he serves called The Getaway (Cruzan Black Strap Rum, Cynar, lemon, simple syrup). While bitters—both potable and aromatic—were until recently used sparingly in cocktails, bartenders have embraced both varieties for their depth of flavor and creative possibilities, and they are enjoying an unprecedented surge, with new versions and European classics more widely available now. Long-time bitter booster Francesco Lafranconi, executive director of mixology and spirits education, Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada, says even hotel and chain accounts are open to taking on classic twists or craft-like drinks with bitters involved.

Giving classics a fresh twist is easier now that most bars hew to the drink-making tenet that commercial mixes and frozen juices are to be avoided at all costs. It almost goes without saying that cocktail bars will continue to opt for fresh ingredients whenever possible, and the wave has washed over a number of chain restaurants as well.

“For a chain with 205 restaurants, it’s actually quite aggressive to have all our mixes fresh now,” says Mary Melton of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. “We decided a couple of years ago to elevate what we offer at our bars to match our food. The trick is consistency, but we worked it out so our ingredients—our sweet and sour, for instance—are simple and fresh.”

While the inconsistent quality of the citrus supply nationwide and worries about execution are enough to deter many chains from in-house mixes, Melton notes that overall freshness won out in the end at P.F. Chang’s, if only to match current customer expectations.

Old Drinks Get New Life

The notion of signature house cocktails is hardly limited to solo establishments. Paying homage to the lore of the Bloody Mary being invented—as the Red Snapper—at the original St. Regis in New York in 1934, every unit in the chain is charged with creating its own signature version of the cocktail. For instance, the St. Regis Deer Valley’s “7452” Bloody Mary is named for the altitude of the resort (7,452 feet high) and is distinguished by black lava sea salt (a nod to the ski town’s mountainous geography) and a head of wasabi-celery espuma (symbolizing abundant snow).

Beverage Director Kevin Hines did not invent the 7452, but he is charged with ensuring its consistency; part of that involves having the wasabi cream base prepared fresh daily by the kitchen staff, after which it is dispensed at the bar via a whipped cream charger. Since the St. Regis Deer Valley opened in 2010, more than 10,000 7452 Bloody Marys have been sold.

Ice-ing on the Cocktail Cake

Ice has been a matter of conjecture and controversy, but according to Martin Cate of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, the large, clear ice block or ball is here to stay, especially as a way to enhance the profile of the evolved classic cocktail. “I don’t think they’re good for shaking or stirring drinks, but they create a great visual impact when you serve them, and guests respond well to them,” he says.

Of course, as a rum and Tiki maven, Cate keeps his eye on the growth of tropical drinks, and sees the concept of multiple rum drinks made with fresh juices and mixes built on classic models like the Mai Tai and Painkiller. “Many non-Tiki bars have Tiki drink sections on their menus, and these drinks are once again sitting alongside categories like flips, punches, juleps, etc…it’s great news in the continuing war to eradicate what happened to tropical drinks in the ’70s and ’80s,” he says.

In the past few years, many bars couldn’t resist the siren call of bottling or barrel-aging their own cocktails—now, carbonating cocktails and draft service systems have caught the attention of a number of bartenders. But those techniques haven’t been road-tested enough for anyone to know whether they are a passing fancy with limited appeal, like fat washing, or indeed the next big thing.

As for the dogged search for the new classic cocktail, though King Cocktail himself, Dale DeGroff, says the idea of a new classic is oxymoronic, he’s not opposed to tweaking oldies and cocktail geeks at the same time. For the launch of his new eponymous bitters, he offers the Manhattan Redux—made with Absolut Vodka, Cynar, Dale DeGroff Pimento Bitters and grapefruit zest. Sounds like it could be…a classic.  


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