Correction to This Article
This column was mistakenly labeled Spirits, which is written by Jason Wilson. The Beer column on local cask ales was written by Greg Kitsock.
Looking ahead to a 'C' change

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The word "classic" gets tossed around so much in cocktail circles. But how does one actually define a classic? Sometimes it's easy. Manhattan. Margarita. Martini. Bloody mary. Old-fashioned. Negroni. Piña colada. They've become such standards, so ubiquitous, that it's hard to imagine that someone, once upon a time, invented them. But ubiquity alone does not a classic make. Is a Jager Bomb a classic? Um, no. Appletini? Not so much. Cosmopolitan? I've applied the term to it before, but the jury is still out.

Meanwhile, we are swimming in so-called classic cocktails. With so many cocktail historians, bloggers and authors at work, at some point every historic drinks guide will have been investigated, every cocktail's origin will have been ascertained, every standard recipe will have been deconstructed. At the rate we're going, I'm guessing that will happen in mid-2010.

In preparation, I've made two decisions. First, from now on a "classic cocktail" must be something more than simply a drink grabbed from an obscure pre-Prohibition guide. Is a long-forgotten 1909 recipe any more a classic than a great drink invented last Thursday at your favorite speak-easy? Second, I am going to start looking forward much more than backward, hopefully toward drinks that could reasonably called "new classics."

These will rely on the handful of base spirits we already use. Gin, rum, brandy, tequila, vodka, bourbon, Scotch, rye and applejack still will be the foundations of most cocktails. But as we move forward, what will radically change are the go-to "secondary spirits": the liqueurs and bitters and eaux de vie and fortified wines. It might be hard to imagine a back bar without Cointreau or vermouth or Campari, but that's only because we cannot make a decent-quality margarita or a martini or a Negroni without them. (On the flip side, it's also hard to imagine any classic, new or otherwise, containing something like Sour Apple Pucker or Peachtree Schnapps or Red Bull).

But let's a take a drink like, say, the Darkside (created by Proof's Adam Bernbach), which I consider to be a new classic. Given its recipe of gin mixed with Barolo Chinato, might we someday find it hard to imagine a back bar without a bottle of this now-obscure fortified wine?

Look at cocktail menus across the country, and you can already see this shift. Mezcal used to be that nasty firewater with the worm in the bottom. Now, artisan mezcal's smoky fingerprints are all over trendy cocktails. Until three years ago, who'd ever heard of booze made from elderflowers? Now, St-Germain has become so prevalent in contemporary recipes that some have begun calling the elderflower liqueur "bartender's ketchup."

And then there is Aperol, the bright orange, low-proof, bittersweet favorite of Italy, where it is so popular as an aperitivo that it is found in the speed rail of nearly every bar. Jim Meehan of New York's PDT describes Aperol as "the training wheels for Campari" and very approachable for newcomers to Italian bitters.

Introduced here in 2006, Aperol quickly became one of the go-to spirits for innovative bartenders, so ubiquitous as a flavor enhancer that some wags have dubbed it "the MSG of cocktails." (That is meant as a compliment, albeit a snarky one.)

Duggan McDonnell of San Francisco's Cantina Bebidas cites Aperol's affordability (at around $20) as part as its appeal, as well as a not-too-sweet, not-too-bitter flavor profile that pleases men and women alike. It also has only 11 percent alcohol (less than most wines) in an era when drinkers seek lighter booze.

Yet, so far there are very few classic Aperol recipes. In Italy, the spirit is mostly mixed with club soda and prosecco for an Aperol spritz. Here in the States, it has been notably paired with Hendrick's gin and Lillet Blanc in an Unusual Negroni. Audrey Saunders's Intro to Aperol has been a mainstay at New York's Pegu Club.

One of the most fascinating and successful uses of Aperol I've seen is in a simple cocktail with a complex taste called the Restraining Order -- mixed with reposado tequila and celery bitters -- created this fall by Colin Shearn of Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company, a new speak-easy in Philadelphia.

"Aperol is uncharted territory," Shearn said in an e-mail. "It can be daunting to look at the cocktail canon and try to do something new. Newer, less vetted spirits and liqueurs give us a chance to make our own classics (fingers crossed)."

There's that c-word again.


Intro to Aperol

Restraining Order

Jason Wilson can be reached at or

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company