Classic cocktails transcend time and traditions
We’re living in the second golden age of cocktails and it’s not a shabby place to drink. At the height of popularity, the Noble Experiment, the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Negroni are as much a part of our social lexicon now as when they were first enjoyed over a century ago.
Just as James Bond kickstarted the vodka craze with his shaken-not-stirred signature order in the 1960’s, shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire have played a large part in glamourizing cocktail hour and whiskey-forward pick-me-ups to the masses.
But the Draper effect, for all its persuasive pull, certainly isn’t the only thing that’s making us thirsty.
Like star-crossed love affairs and sultry jazz, classic cocktails transcend time and tap into tradition. A Manhattan today tastes as it did when it was first mixed for members of the Manhattan Club circa 1870. There’s something supremely comforting about sipping the same dram your great-grandfather meditated over in his man-cave; it’s like legacy in a glass.
“What I like about classic cocktails is that no one’s reinventing the wheel. They’re just great drinks that have withstood the test of time,” says Dave Mitton, owner of Toronto’s Harbord Room, a prime destination for expertly mixed drinks.
Mitton, a major influencer in the city’s cocktail boom over the past five years, notes that the popularity of these classics has become so pervasive that he no longer needs to list them on his menu.
Guests freely request Sazeracs and Last Words, and stipulate without prompting that they prefer rye in their Old Fashioned. Consumer knowledge is at an all-time high and bartenders act as an important channel of communication, introducing guests to new flavours via old cocktails.
Educated drinkers have most likely spent time across the wood from a charismatic and hospitable bartender who’s done their homework, but the general public’s ravenous obsession with food has contributed significant momentum to the cocktail craze.
The rise of the cocktail has paralleled the escalating sophistication of North America’s culinary landscape, observes Shaun Layton, head barman of Vancouver’s L’Abattoir.
“Dining has been so elevated that all aspects of the experience are now relevant,” he says.
You wouldn’t serve Blue Nun alongside a finely marbled rib eye or pop Baby Duck with your Russian caviar unless you were deeply committed to irony or attending some morally questionable theme party. We live in an age where options abound and everything’s available for a price, and the informed public holds increasingly high standards. It’s not surprising that we’ve abandoned bar lime and saccharine fishbowls of unnaturally hued sludge for classier pastures.
Though today’s mixologists are more creative than ever before, tinkering with homemade vermouths and foraging for esoteric ingredients, any trend can quickly fall prey to overzealousness.
It’s important to remember your roots, and many of the best and most experienced drinksmiths consider classics the foundation of their craft.
In the cocktail’s heyday around the turn of the 19th century, bartenders were respected professionals and some, like Jerry Thomas, were minor celebrities. Layton notes that classic drinks are part of what’s made bartending a noteworthy vocation again.
“The reason we’re all here working these jobs is because of the classics, so we need to respect them. If someone just wants a Manhattan, then give it to them and keep your homemade bitters to yourself,” Layton goes on to note.
When it comes to classic drinks, simplicity is a selling point. Some of the most iconic cocktails have no more than three ingredients, allowing quality spirits to shine and flavours to marry rather than muddle.
“The reason that classic cocktails are classic is because of balance; the Manhattan and the Negroni are all examples of perfectly balanced drinks,” says Mitton, who sees these recipes as a valuable template for mixology.
“Learn the classics, learn why they work and then start playing on your own,” Mitton advises.
It’s all a matter of proportion. With so few ingredients all elements are detectable; there’s no smoke and mirrors to hide behind. There’s an unrivalled sophistication in a carefully executed Martini or Manhattan, and learning the golden ratios (in this case, 2:1 spirit to modifier with a few dashes of bitters) is key.
In our distractive, digitized landscape the seductiveness of simplicity is often overlooked. Taking time to unplug and engage in face time (note: not the app) has become a luxury for which cocktail hour is the best possible excuse; the sputtering engine of traditional socializing is easily revived by sloshing a little lubrication on the ol’ cranks.
This may be part of the reason why classic cocktails, easily mixed with a modest booze stash and a basic bar guide, are becoming fixtures of home entertainment much like they were in the 1950s.
Fixing your guests a fine Manhattan or a properly shaken Sidecar at home is as much about old-fashioned hospitality as it is about appreciating a well-mixed drink; cocktails have always been a delicious catalyst for camaraderie.
The benefits of the cocktail renaissance are myriad, but ultimately classic drinks have plucked us from the blah of the vodka and cream-liqueur soaked 1980s and 1990s and taught us how to taste again.
No one’s whining about where to score a solid Old Fashioned these days and that’s a triumph.