Recently I was talking with a couple of younger gentleman working on the bar, listening to their takes on what they call, “Old School” cocktails. Both had the same approach on what they believe to be irrelevant drinks. Just Google it and forget about it. That took me back a bit. I have a different way of looking at what I feel are classics. I feel it is important to take the time to understand how these favorites where constructed, why they came about, and how they were trending at the time. By learning more of how cocktails have evolved, I believe it helps us hone our skills and take our creations even further.
Some say the Sazerac was the first original cocktail, going back to the 1830s. It was accredited to Antoine Amedie Peychaud, in good old New Orleans, the booze capital of the world. However, the word cocktail was first published in print in 1806, meant to describe a spirit combined with water, sugar, and bitters. Many of us know it today as an Old Fashion. A Manhattan is huge wherever you are. We have our own special takes on a Margarita or Daiquiri. The obscure cocktails that pop up every now and then, such as The Ramos Gin Fizz, or a fizz of any kind, are enjoying a triumphant comeback. The Mary Pickford, and the Stinger. Recently I read a great article on the Rusty Nail, a cocktail I love! For a lot of the professionals behind the bar, the question is, why know and understand these great drinks of the past? How many guests are walking in and asking for any one of these dinosaurs? Because they are amazing cocktails! That is why they are still around, and still prevalent, delicious libations.
Let’s use that Manhattan as an example. More than likely, there is some variation in your establishment. When I ask new bar staff, “why do we have a Manhattan on our menu,” the answer is usually, “Because everyone knows what a Manhattan is,” and that is true. Then I ask what ingredients are in the original recipe. This makes them take out their smart phones, Google, answer, and learn the recipe. Then I take it a little further. I ask what rye whiskey they would like to use. What vermouth will they use? What bitters? How do they build and serve it? What stemware will they place it in? What will it be garnished with?
I find the first step to training the new generation of mixologists is having them know and understand the original recipe, and understand the steps and process involved with the cocktail. Why the spirits, and ingredients in the cocktail where chosen in the first place, and the history behind them. From there, I help them understand how they can make it their own. I have them see that from one set of classic cocktails spins off another set of classic cocktails, with someone adding to that original recipe. Today’s mixologist has an arsenal of spirits, literally at their fingertips, and the spirits in each category continue to grow every day. When these classics came to be, options were limited. This surge of new products is opening a vast new horizon of creativity. Our mixologists can create a Manhattan a thousand different ways, expressing their unique flavor. I feel that this development creates better mixologists. Understanding the basic blueprint is key, and then creating the extraordinary variant comes after.
That development is now being taken to the next level. Brands are taking notice of mixology growth, using lucrative competitions that focus their product as the featured spirit in timeless classics. They want to market the newest most sensational cocktails, of course placing their brand front and center, and using those time-honored classics with a twist–marketing them on a new platform, and making them hip again. That is where talented mixologists come into play. Not only will this professional growth benefit those involved and their careers, it benefits the establishments and the brands. Having successful mixologists creating menus is going to lure more guests, especially if those cocktails are award-winning. In the end, all of this wonderful growth is beneficial to all of us in the hospitality community.
Many of you might be asking, “how will this help my cocktail program?” I like to look at it like this: while many of us are going out and looking forward to that amazing fun new cocktail list, we are also creatures of habit. The new bourbon-infused whatever may sound inviting, but we’re really not sure, so we stick with what we know and go to our usual Old Fashioned, and there is nothing wrong with that. Something I implement in my menu creations is revising classics. Having a section on the menu especially dedicated to the many well-known drinks, but envisioned in a new light. By that I mean showcasing new spirits that bring an entirely new dynamic to the cocktail. Using bitters outside of the ordinary bitters like sassafras, chocolate, or coffee. By blending vermouths and create a distinct profile for the cocktail, or by replacing them all together with an amaro or fernet. Take the garnish to a whole new level and reimagine it’s look. In a Singapore Sling I did recently, I opted to dehydrate the pineapple in the shape of flowers instead of using a pineapple slice. I kept the cherry, but garnished it with beautiful apple blossom and a bamboo straw, giving it an elegant tropical feel. While your guests will be very familiar with one these favorite comfort choices of theirs, they will also be more intrigued to try your redesigned concept. If your guest sees that Stinger on the dessert menu it may take them back to a time when their grandparents had Stingers after dinner, when they would sneak a sip.
To me, classic cocktails will always be relevant. They take you back to a time when cocktails where elegant and fun. The evening wasn’t about slamming back just whatever; it was about enjoying the time and what you had in front of you. Starting your dining experience with a cocktail hour was a must, and following dinner too, for that matter. Today’s mixologist should understand and appreciate a perfect cocktail. They should cherish the way we used to approach the ingredients and the steps to prepare such a cocktail. See and develop a place for these classics on your lists and I believe you’ll agree with me. The classics, to me, will help mold your passion to bring your guests something more, to wow them. “It’s a zoo out there, don’t drink like an animal!”
Until next time, here’s to you!
About Justin Newman
Justin S. Newman is the award-winning Head Mixologist for the acclaimed Bull and Bear restaurant and Head Mixologist for the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, Florida.