A cocktail’s path towards popularity can be tricky and unpredictable. Earning the title of "classic" usually involves a unique situation in which an outstanding drink is in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, a cocktail will become ubiquitous and breaks free of any imposed limitations until it eventually goes on to define an era.
Whether the drink gains recognition via word of mouth or association with a seminal bar, it must meet other criteria in order to make the classic leap. And tasting delicious is just a start. Any modern classic should primarily consist of ingredients that are commonly stocked and easy to prepare. This is why a recipe with ginger and grapefruit juice will always spread quicker and more ferociously than a cocktail with dehydrated Fernet salt (which I am pretty sure is not even a thing). In addition, it doesn’t hurt for the drink has a standout name. There’s no doubt that some of our favorite modern classics—such as the Cosmopolitan and the Penicillin—proliferated partly because of their memorable monikers.
Despite the odds, many cocktails of the modern era have managed to attain the classic title. Drinks such as the Old Cuban and the Bramble are made in bars around the world, and are so common that many imbibers mistake them for relics of a past age.
Yet, even with all the right boxes checked, for a drink to go from popular to classic is another feat all together, and every year countless creations put together by talented bartenders are lost in the annals of time. Too often these libations are interesting, but do not quite have what it takes to break through the endless barrage of new fads and trends.
Below, a list of nine incredible, mostly under-the-radar cocktails that deserve to be titled as "modern classics." Some are well-known regionally, while others have caught on only within small circles. Regardless, every bartender should strongly consider adding these drinks to their repertoire—if they have not already—and every cocktail aficionado would be wise to give each a try.
Bartender: Jon Santer
Bartender Jon Santer was inspired to create this drink while reading a biography on Harry Truman during his time at Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco. The shifts there were tiresome and tales of this famous Democrat provided an escape from long nights behind the bar. Santer credits Truman directly: "He and his wife liked to have cocktails on the patio in the evening, and when they said cocktails what they meant was bourbon … The cocktail came about because I was thinking about all those things: the South (hence peaches), lemonade, bourbon, cooling off when it’s hot … I named it for President Truman."
The Normandie Club
Bartender: Alex Day
For this smoky mixture of Scotch and mint, bartender Alex Day took a cue from a beloved gin recipe created by a leader in modern drinking. "The Smokescreen was largely inspired by one of my favorite cocktails, Audrey Saunders' 'French Pearl.' The simplicity of adding a touch of an herbal ingredient to an otherwise simple sour was a revelation, and I've since used it as a template in loads of drinks," says Day.
Drink: Death Flip
Bartender: Chris Hysted
When this drink first hit the menu, it was described ominously as "You don’t want to meet this drink in a dark alley. Ingredients unnamed." Creator Chris Hysted credits this aura of mystery as to why the cocktail gained local notoriety so quickly. Despite its frightening name, or perhaps because of it, the drink has achieved a small but loyal cult following that sing its praises. Hysted believes the cocktail owes it success to a "bit of irreverence" and its ability to "change [drinkers'] perceptions on certain spirits."
Bartender: Lauren Schell
While working behind the bar at Little Branch in 2009, Lauren Schell came up with this elegant mixture to whet the appetite of guests looking for a refreshing drink. Ironically, Schell didn't name the cocktail until she moved overseas to work on a new project. "I got an email from the gang at Little Branch saying I had to name the bourbon shake variation, as they were sending it out to guests and thinking of me. Because of my recent relocation, the name Expat seemed like an obvious choice," she says.
Drink: Bourbon Renewal
Bartender: Jeffrey Morgenthaler
"It’s been a staple of mine for nearly fifteen years, and was one of the first drinks I ever created. There isn’t much to say about it, other than the fact that it’s merely a Whiskey Sour with the sweet component split between simple syrup and crème de cassis. I love cassis because it’s deeper, drier, and earthier than most berry liqueurs," explains Clyde Common bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler.
Drink: Easy Street
Bartender: Anthony Schmidt
Anthony Schmidt came up with this cooling elixir during the early days at Noble Experiment while he was trying to devise an interesting drink to provide variety for his guests. Says Schmidt, "We couldn’t make the same six or seven Tom Collins variations all the time. So I invented this with the intention of introducing guests to a unique [and] intriguing ingredient combo—cucumber and elderflower liqueur—while still making it approachable."
Drink: Del Rio
Bartender: Scott Baird, Josh Harris
Per drink co-creator Josh Harris: "This cocktail came to life several years ago. We were playing with combinations of assertive flavors that would act as balance for one another. For every sweet, there must be dry. The Del Rio hits every place on the tongue with bright vegetal green notes from the tequila, dry and salty notes from the sherry, sweet floral notes from the elderflower, and a touch of bitter from the Angostura Orange and the grapefruit peel."
SANta Monica, CA
Santa Monica Yacht Club
Drink: Anejo Honey Sour
Bartender: Chris Ojeda
Combier brand ambassador Chris Ojeda created this recipe based on the lack of agave drinks he found in classic cocktail books, and it quickly became a hit with bartenders across Los Angeles. States Ojeda, "I always loved the Gold Rush cocktail [bourbon, lemon, honey] and when researching tequila cocktails, aged tequila cocktails were almost nonexistent."
Bartender: Paul Harrington
This drink appeared in Paul Harrington’s 1998 book, Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, as a tribute in some regards to his father: "My father’s drink was the Rusty Nail which was too sweet for me, and I was intrigued by French liqueurs after my experience with Chartreuse. I was looking for some more applications for the Bénédictine that sat on our top shelf … The first rendition was too sweet, but by pairing down the Bénédictine and adding a dash of Angostura it was just right."
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