Pondering the history and future of blue drinks.
Blue is the new black. Just ask any bartender and they’ll give you an earful about blue drinks, from the Aviation and the Blue Hawaii—among the earliest blue-hued cocktails—to New York newbie Porchlight's Gun Metal Blue, the most-Instagrammed colored cocktail of the moment.
A vast majority of these ocean-blue drinks take their color from blue Curaçao, an orange liqueur dyed blue with food coloring. Despite the rising trend to celebrate #bluedranks and their place in the backlash against the baroque, privately most bartenders will confide: blue Curaçao sucks. But that doesn’t stop them from using it. And, quite a few are finding ways to blue out drinks in other ways, providing telling signposts about what the wide blue yonder may hold for these cocktails.
The History of Blue Drinks
Jacob Briars, global brand ambassador for Bacardi, has become the patron saint for blue drinks since 2007 when he created the Corpse Reviver Number Blue for a cocktail competition in Queenstown, New Zealand. According to Briars, the original blue drink craze dates back to Victorian England, circa 1850, when an affinity for artificial colors—particularly royal purple—extended from articles of clothing to edibles. "Blue was created out of coal tar," Briars explains, "not particularly pleasant and not good for you."
While the French had perfected the art of the cordial—think complex, proprietary "secret formulas" like Benedictine and Cointreau—in the 19th century, the Dutch unleashed generic flavors like crème de bananes, crème de menthe and crème de ciel, aka blue Curaçao, made with oranges from the then Dutch-owned island of Curaçao in the southern Caribbean sea. By the 1890s, liqueurs, including blue Curaçao and "a whole rainbow of liqueurs" from Europe, had made their way to America, becoming a full-fledged craze on both sides of the Atlantic.
By the 1890s, liqueurs—including blue Curaçao and "a whole rainbow of liqueurs" from Europe—had made their way to America, becoming a full-fledged craze on both sides of the Atlantic.
Although Prohibition (1920-1933) tamped down access to most liquors and liqueurs for Americans, Europe had no such restrictions. Briars recalls a Brisbane newspaper article he uncovered in his research which noted briefly that blue drinks were "all the rage in Europe." Marvels Briars, "it was so common, that people casually remarked on them as if they were a trend—no one wrote down the recipes!"
Blue Drinks Through the Years
The pre-Prohibition drink known as the Aviation has been enjoying a modern-day comeback for some years now at revered cocktail dens like Pegu Club in New York and Weegee's Lounge in Chicago. Cocktail historian David Wondrich tracks one key version to bartender Hugo Esslin, who published his Aviation recipe in the 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks. The recipe called for one critical ingredient: crème de violette, a violet-flavored liqueur that tints the drink a pale sky blueish purple, in addition to gin, lemon juice and Maraschino liqueur. However, Briars notes that crème de ciel was imported to the U.S. around the early 20th century, and speculates that it may have been used in making the Aviation: "It’s a more natural fit than crème de violette."
Wondrich’s updated edition of Imbibe! also flags this lesser-known blue drink, the Blue Moon, from the same era, served at Joel’s, a Times Square, New York-area bar and cabaret open from 1900 to 1925. This cocktail was "some kind of blue and rather strong," Wondrich notes, made with gin, French vermouth, orange bitters and Crème Yvette, then strained and topped with Claret.
Emerging from the Prohibition years and the Depression, a handful of blue drinks followed in cocktail bibles of the era. Briars points to the Blue Bird, Blue Train and Blue Monday, but quickly calls out that most of them are forgettable. But the second World War, which saw servicemen deployed in the exotic Pacific Islands, helped stoke a watershed event for blue drinks in the years that followed: the rise of the Polynesian drink and tiki culture.
Early tiki tomes don’t skew blue, and the 1947 Trader Vic’s book doesn’t even mention blue Curaçao. But things changed in 1957 when Bols sales reps attending a liquor convention in Hawaii asked bartenders there to create new drinks that featured their blue Curaçao liqueur, which they were trying to break in America. Harry Yee, legendary head bartender at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki, created the Blue Hawaii, a blue piña colada of sorts. (He also gets credit for popularizing tiny umbrellas in drinks.) In 1961, Elvis Presley released Blue Hawaii, setting off a fresh wave of enthusiasm for faux-island culture, and the drink that shared its name with the film, too.
In the decades that followed, blue drinks languished in the netherland of tiki-tacky. Most people associated "blue" with sweet rum drinks. You could order them on vacation, but that was about it. And when cocktail culture revived in the early aughts as gin-soaked speakeasies, blue drinks were banished from most cocktail menus.
Blue Drinks Today
Of course, there are always exceptions. UK bartending legend Dick Bradsell—known for creating the espresso martini that spawned a thousand imitations, among other drinks—created the Bikini Martini (gin, peach schnapps, blue Curaçao, lemon) in 1999 for an Agent Provocateur swimsuit launch.
"At the height of the era where you could not make a blue drink if you wanted to be seen as a serious bartender, I created the Corpse Reviver Number Blue," Briars recalls. A blued-out riff on the classic Corpse Reviver No. 2 (made with London Dry gin, Lillet, blue Curaçao, lemon juice and absinthe, usually served in a martini glass), in part, this drink was made in reaction to a Facebook group called "A Jihad On All Blue Drinks."
Of course, there’s more to the story. It was concocted during a cocktail competition in Queenstown, New Zealand, where "blue drinks had not yet gone out of fashion." The Thai team had ordered two bottles for their entry, but two cases mistakenly arrived. "I said, 'what are we going to do with all this?'" In reaction to a fellow bartender who "kept going on about the Corpse Reviver No. 2." It was 2007, after all, and the Number Blue was born.
"It became a joke drink. Whenever I walked into a bar that took itself too seriously, I’d order one. It would get people to do a second take."
However, Briars admits that thanks to Facebook circa 2007, the blue drink took on a life of its own, as wide-traveling brand ambassadors ordered or made blue drinks with abandon—and irony—and gleefully tagged Briars as they posted blue drink photos.
"There were usually eight a day, and hundreds across the world," he recalls. "The rise of Facebook certainly helped fuel the rise of blue drinks." The tradition still lives on via Instagram. But this was the drink that helped bring back the blues.
"The rise of Facebook certainly helped fuel the rise of blue drinks." - Jacob Briars
The modern-day blue drink, Gun Metal Blue, is featured on the menu at New York’s Southern-themed Porchlight, restaurateur Danny Meyer’s first cocktail bar, which opened in March 2015. The libation, designed by head bartender Nick Bennett, incorporates mezcal, peach brandy, cinnamon syrup and blue Curaçao.
And it’s certainly not the only blue drink on high-end menus right now. Also in New York,
PDT is serving the Shark, a tiki-ish mix of butter-infused rum, pineapple juice, Frangelico and blue Curaçao, topped with a tiny umbrella; and new Thai addition Kiin Thai Eatery is pushing Koh Paradise, which is like the Long Island Iced Tea of blue drinks, with vodka, rum, tequila, blue Curaçao, lime and ginger ale.
Out in San Francisco, Dirty Habit has Son of the Beach, a fino sherry drink that incorporates gin and blue Curaçao. But Gun Metal Blue seems to be the face of its generation, sweeping the blue drink back into the spotlight. So what’s next for blue drinks? A whole new Crayola range of color, from cerulean to deepest azure. And none of it involves Curaçao.
A number of products can add a natural blue tint, Briars notes, such as purple carrots soaked in sugar or butterfly pea flower, which bitters-maker Letherbee previously experimented with to make a blue Curaçao variation (it’s not on the market at this time). However, Briars cautions, "citrus wreaks havoc on any of these drinks," turning the color to dull purple at best.
For all the backlash against Windex-hued Curaçao, like most vibrantly-colored booze, a fixative prevents oxidization and helps keep the colors bright. "If we drank everything in its natural state, everything would be the color of Benedictine."
That doesn’t stop mad-scientist types from trying to find a better blue.
At Gracias Madre in West Hollywood, California, beverage director Jason Eisner focuses on making drinks that are 100 percent organic, which leaves Curaçao out in the cold. Instead, for his Three Miracles cocktail, he uses St. George Absinthe verte mixed with "just a drop" of green chlorophyll, frozen with water into ice spheres for an opalescent light-turquoise effect. As it melts into the mezcal-based cocktail, the drink takes on "a slightly blue quality," Eisner says, and creates a "theatrical" effect.
At Quattro Restaurant within Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley in East Palo Alto, California, bartender Adam Chick calls on blueberry schnapps to impart a bluish hue. The gin-based Purple Rain is also goosed with Parfait Amour, aka Crème Yvette, while the Silicon Sky is vodka-based, rounded out with lemon, lemongrass syrup and a wine float, rendering it "similar to a deconstructed sangria."
The Future of Blue
Micah Melton, beverage director at Chicago’s experimental drinking den The Aviary, also has been riffing on the "cheesy" blue drink trend, using butterfly pea flowers sourced from Rare Tea Cellars. "The petals are crazy unbelievable blue," Melton says. Given maximum steep time, it becomes a "terrifying" deep purple-violet hue that seems like it should be "unnatural" for an edible product, he continues. Unlike previous experiments with the pea flower, which were hampered by the instability of the color once citrus was added, Melton is embracing that aspect. Guests will get the surprise of a blue gin drink steeped with spices and citrus peel that will turn pink as lemon juice is added (a violet-hued dessert at Alinea undergoes a similar transformation). At this point, the cocktail is unnamed and many of the details are subject to change. But one feature remains firm: it will be blue.