It’s July 2007 and the first episode of Mad Men is airing on AMC. The camera glides to a bar of suited men drinking, smoking, and—of course—talking to pretty ladies. The camera lands on a man, his back to the audience, seated at a table, alone. He’s scribbling on a napkin and soon plying an older waiter for his thoughts on cigarette brands and smoking. When the waiter asks if he’d like another drink, he waves his fingers at his glass, "Do this again," he says. "Old Fashioned."
That man is Don Draper. And the cocktail he orders, then generally unknown to most drinkers, begins a slow creep into bars across the country.
While many television and film characters drink, not all of them have a signature cocktail. Even fewer have the perfect storm of a persona, beverage, and real-life zeitgeist that collides to not only propel that drink into the popular consciousness, but for the libation to be indefinitely associated with that personality. Those who have made the cut can be counted on one hand. There’s Don Draper and his classic Old Fashioned. Carrie Bradshaw and the pink Cosmopolitan that took the 1990s by storm on Sex and the City. Meanwhile, Jeff Lebowski aka "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski, somehow brought the White Russian back. And, of course, James Bond's "shaken, not stirred" Martini is still his most beloved catchphrase.
Noah Rothbaum, author of The Art of American Whiskey, splits these examples into two camps. "You have something like the Old Fashioned or White Russian, which were pre-existing drinks being introduced to a new audience," he says. "The Cosmo and James Bond’s vodka Martini were new cocktails that people weren’t drinking before." Though Cosmopolitans were becoming popular in New York, Sex and the City "really took it across the country and maybe around the world," Rothbaum explains. And the Martini had only ever properly been stirred with gin until 1964’s Goldfinger (or, in book form, 1956’s Diamonds Are Forever) when Bond decided to shake things up—so to speak.
It wasn’t until food culture started to mature in the 2000s that people started turning their attention toward what they were drinking, too.
Drink experts refer to the end of the twentieth century as "the dark ages" for cocktails. Tipples were sweet, had punny names, and did more to mask the liquor in the glass than to highlight it. As long as the drinks went down easy, imbibers didn’t care much about ingredients. It wasn’t until food culture started to mature in the 2000s that people paid attention to what they were drinking, too.
These signature beverages were sometimes heightened by larger drinking trends but—as in the case of the vodka Martini or White Russian—could also be impervious to drinking fads of the time.
Georgette Blau, president of NYC’s On Location Tours, which offers a popular Sex and the City tour, reveals that most of her customers are more excited to see the "hot restaurants" from the show than the food itself. "Other than cupcakes," she adds, "it was that one drink that stuck out." Not only did bartenders serve the Cosmopolitan in the most angular, urban glassware, but the drink was pink, too. It was the modern, sophisticated lady’s answer to the classic image of an olive Martini.
Going to a bar or restaurant is a social occasion (even the solo diner is putting him/herself on display), and the food and beverage choices one makes have cultural meaning outside of a preference for steak or salad. Yet, there’s a major difference between a food and drink order. Namely that food is necessary—booze is not.
A drink’s reputation is a combination of how a beverage is marketed and the lifestyle of its real-life drinkers.
Since indulgences—whether it's clothing, a car, or cocktails—aren't vital for survival, we judge these choices differently. Rachel Speckan, director of wine education for City Winery and the beverage director for City Winery Chicago, believes cocktails can be a "physical manifestation of internal character." A drink’s reputation is a combination of how a beverage is marketed and the lifestyle of its real-life consumers. Speckan gives the example of hipsters drinking PBR and strong, stoic men downing a glass of whiskey.
According to Speckan, trying a character’s signature drink "... makes the viewer feel like they’re getting a more personal, intimate look at this person." Instead of being just another woman watching Sex and the City at home, the imbiber suddenly has become the fifth member of the group.
For a drink to be a contender for pop culture cocktail of the year, it has to hit three points. Audiences have to be drawn to the character, the beverage has to be simple, and it has to somehow reflect its imbiber's persona. The most interesting libation may be the outlier in this quartet of examples. The star of The Big Lebowski isn’t suave or cosmopolitan, he’s a bumbling bowler who bewilderedly finds himself in the middle of a kidnapping, extortion, and more. There’s not much there to aspire to, yet the film has a cult-like following because many viewers love The Dude. But they love him quietly. Rothbaum, a confessed Big Lebowski fan, explains that most movie viewings are "at home or at Lebowski Fest or the bowling alley." All places where the spectator is in the company of people who won’t judge. It’s a guilty pleasure and the White Russian is the perfect guilty pleasure cocktail. "It’s almost so uncool that it’s cool," he continues.
To revive a cocktail requires a character who is its equal. Don Draper, suave though he may be, could never have pulled it off. "If Don Draper was drinking a White Russian, he would lose a few points," Christine Sismondo, author of America Walks into a Bar, says firmly. And while The Dude frequently drinks alcoholic beverages that aren’t White Russians, something like beer—the beverage of the working class—could never have been his imbibable soulmate.
... drinkability is a large factor in the cocktails that do and don’t make it into popular culture.
White Russians have another advantage: even people who don’t like strong drinks can enjoy at least one. Rothbaum believes that drinkability is a large factor in the cocktails that do and don’t make it into popular culture. He adds, "It has to be easy for the bartender to make and have mass appeal." The popularity of flavored vodkas in the 90s helped the Cosmo, and the legion of fruity "-tini" drinks it inspired, spread across the country. Likewise, bourbon and rye started enjoying resurgence around the same time Mad Men went on the air, which gave the Old Fashioned an extra boost. "The two things just came together," says Peter Zheutlin co-author of The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook. People were already drinking Martinis when James Bond came out with "shaken, not stirred," and substituting vodka for gin wasn’t much of a hurdle.
"Drinking can be very experiential," states Rothbaum. "That’s why tiki bars are so popular—they transport you." A fan may not actually be able to live the high-fashion, love-charged lives of the women in Sex and the City, but she can order a pink Cosmopolitan at the bar and feel, at least for a moment, like a cultured, urbane woman. Sismondo believes adopting a character’s beverage can be the first step in trying on an entire lifestyle. It wasn’t just that people were "switching to Old Fashioneds and boozy drinkers," she says. "I had bartender friends telling me that people were suddenly wearing suits at the bar."
People don’t often walk into a bar, think "WWJBD?" and order a shaken vodka Martini. Typically the cues taken from these characters are more subtle. "It isn’t just because Carrie Bradshaw did it that I’ll order a Cosmo," Speckan says. "It’s that I’ve also seen successful women drinking this, so I want one, too."
While restaurants are defined by what they put on the menu, explains Zheutlin, "A well-stocked bar can respond to almost any taste." This makes bars—where options sometimes feel limitless—the ideal place to try on a new persona. Or, at the very least, a new drink.