Depending on where you mark its start, we’ve had 15 to 25 years of the rebirth of the cocktail. Even five years ago, I still occasionally had to explain to servers what a Negroni was; now it’s hard to think of a town where you can’t get a good drink or find a creative, thoughtful cocktail menu. Booze nerds have started to suggest that the cocktail revolution is won and done.
Yet despite these decades of creativity, when I wrote in 2017 about the cocktails every drinker should know how to make, I was struck by how long in the tooth they were. Among the martini, Manhattan, gin and tonic, Negroni, daiquiri, margarita and the Old Fashioned, there’s not a drink much younger than 80, and that’s if you’re allowing Margarita to slather on some Oil of Olay and claim she only showed up in the 1940s.
What are the contemporary classics, the drinks invented in the past few decades that have gone global? Or do we need to start with a more basic question: Are there such drinks?
A deeply nonscientific survey of More Than 150 People I Interact with on Social Media suggested … maybe. I know lot of people who like a good tipple, but when I threw out a list of 30 or so drinks that many bartenders would consider modern classics, most had achieved little market penetration beyond the industry bubble.
For those of you who like arguing over nonscientific surveys — or are simply inclined to track down drinks you haven’t tried yet — the top 15 were the Paper Plane, Penicillin, Oaxaca Old Fashioned, Trinidad Sour, Aperol Spritz, Cosmopolitan, Chartreuse Swizzle, Final Ward, Old Cuban, Barrel-Aged Negroni, Tommy’s Margarita, Gin Gin Mule, Bramble, Seelbach and the Espresso Martini. We selected six standouts from among that bunch, all terrific drinks that showcase a range of styles and spirits and that we felt captured something about the craft cocktail renaissance as a whole.
For every bartender grinning with pleasure, two regular drinkers are likely reacting as a friend did on Facebook: “I’m convinced that you made up like half those names by drawing random words out of a hat,” he complained.
Countless people who know nothing about cocktails can tell you how James Bond liked his martinis, and here the Cosmo is perhaps the closest modern equivalent. It became a cultural icon as well as a bibulous one, elevated into quasi-celebrity by appearances on “Sex and the City,” and achieving enough market saturation to experience a backlash and, of late, a backlash to that backlash.
Robert Simonson, the drinks writer who thoroughly documented the history of the modern cocktail in his book “A Proper Drink” (and developed the content for the mixology app “Modern Classics of the Cocktail Renaissance”), says that only the Cosmo, the Espresso Martini and Tommy’s Margarita have really gone global. “Some people would argue that the Penicillin has also achieved that mantle,” he says, “but I don’t think it’s quite there. Not yet. I think it almost has to be drunk in a very prominent television show for it to get there.”
The volume of new drinks coming out of the cocktail movement and the rise of the Internet and social media that has accompanied it have been mixed blessings. It’s now harder to separate signal from noise. Thousands upon thousands of cocktails have been invented over the past decades; most of them never go beyond the four walls of the establishment that created them.
Some people seem to have a particularly good grasp of the signal and, as Simonson points out, were also lucky enough to be making drinks in influential bars early in the craft cocktail movement, back “when it was possible to put together three or four ingredients that hadn’t been [together] before and come up with a modern classic, because nobody had tried it,” he notes. “And so the people who were there on the ground floor were just — I don’t want to discount their creativity — but they were lucky. They were in the right place at the right time.”
Several such bartenders — including Phil Ward, Audrey Saunders and Sam Ross — have more than one of their creations in that top 15 list. All three cited simplicity as one of the key factors that helps a drink “catch” with a wider audience.
“These days there are a plethora of delicious house cocktails, but they often will contain at least one fairly fussy bespoke ingredient, which pretty much seals their fate to that one menu,” says Saunders, who invented the Gin Gin Mule and the Old Cuban.
Bartender Sam Ross, now of Attaboy and Diamond Reef, who invented both the Penicillin and the Paper Plane, notes that “it only makes sense that for a new drink to have the best chance to spread is for it to be simple, uncomplicated and perfectly balanced, just like the classics that we’re all still super into.”
If you want to understand what the fuss about modern cocktails has been about — creativity, fresh ingredients, powerful and balanced flavors, old spirits used in new ways — these six drinks are a great place to start. If you don’t already recognize them as modern classics, consider this your introduction.
Click on the name of each drink to scale and print each recipe and to see nutritional analysis.
In 2005, at the New York speakeasy Milk and Honey, Sam Ross had been playing with some new whiskies from Compass Box and was smitten by Peat Monster (a rich, smoky blended Scotch). He floated some on top of this drink, “and with the gigantic rocks of ice that we would serve our drinks over, that little pool of smoke and peat sat on top of the drink and hit your nostrils before you tasted the mild, balanced concoction underneath.” The space occupied by Milk and Honey is now Attaboy, one of Ross’s current bars, and he says the Penicillin is their most requested drink. “I still get a kick out of people requesting this drink from me, not knowing it was invented in those four walls by the guy that’s about to serve them.”
Make ahead: Make the honey-ginger syrup at least 1 day ahead.
Storage notes: The honey-ginger syrup can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.
For the honey-ginger syrup
1 cup honey
1 cup water
One (6-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
For the drink
2 ounces blended Scotch whisky
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce honey-ginger syrup
1/4 ounce Islay whisky, such as Peat Monster or Laphroaig 10 Year
Candied or fresh ginger, for garnish
Make the honey-ginger syrup: In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the honey, water and ginger and bring to a boil. While you wait for the liquid to come to a boil, stir it to dissolve the honey.
Remove from the heat and let cool completely. Transfer to a glass jar with a lid and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, strain the syrup and discard the solids.
Make the drink: Add a large ice cube to a rocks glass. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the blended Scotch, lemon juice and honey-ginger syrup. Shake, then strain into the glass. Top with the Islay whisky and garnish with a piece of candied or fresh ginger.
Adapted from a recipe by Sam Ross of Attaboy.
A full ounce-and-a-half of Angostura bitters makes this drink — invented at the Clover Club in 2008 — a freak of nature. It seems like it would be undrinkable, something you’d only choke down on a dare. That challenging nature may have helped it spread as widely as it has, but while it’s definitely a flavor powerhouse, the balance between the spicy bitters and sweet orgeat make the whole thing work, and the ingredients are universally available. “Every bartender can make it, and guests are surprised when they can’t nail the flavors in it or what spirit it is,” says Giuseppe Gonzalez, now at Mott 32 in Las Vegas.
If you want to add a frothy top layer, include half an egg white in the mix.
Where to buy: Orgeat is an almond-flavored syrup. You can make it yourself. Otherwise, seek out a craft-made orgeat, such as the one made by and available via SmallHandFoods.com; or use one of the widely available brands, such as Liber or BG Reynolds.
3 ounces Angostura bitters
2 ounces orgeat (see related recipe and headnote)
1 1/2 ounces fresh lemon juice
1 ounce rye whiskey
1 large egg white (optional; see headnote)
If you’re not using an egg white: Fill a cocktail shaker with the ice, then add the bitters, orgeat, lemon juice and rye whiskey. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, then divide evenly between two cocktail coupes.
If you’re using an egg white, combine the bitters, orgeat, lemon juice, rye whiskey and egg in a cocktail shaker; seal and perform a vigorous “dry shake” for 30 seconds, then add the ice. Shake again for 30 seconds, then divide evenly between two cocktail coupes.
Adapted from Giuseppe Gonzalez of Mott 32 in Las Vegas.
Oaxaca Old Fashioned
Phil Ward, now at Altar in Brooklyn, gets random texts from people when they see this drink on menus, at bars as far away as Australia and Asia. He says its popularity at Death & Co. may have been helped along by two colliding trends: cocktail people were getting really into Old Fashioneds and discovering agave spirits at around the same time, and this drink bridged the gap between the two. He considers it one of three drinks that brought about an epiphany for him: Just a little good mezcal can totally transform a drink. “It’s like tequila on steroids.”
Ward recommends a good reposado tequila (like El Tesoro) and notes that the quality of the mezcal is critical. He suggests Del Maguey San Luis del Rio. Don’t skip the flamed orange: It’s critical to both the flavor and the theater.
1 1/2 ounces reposado tequila
1/2 ounce mezcal
1 teaspoon agave nectar
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Twist of orange peel, for garnish
Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add the tequila, mezcal, agave nectar and bitters; stir until well chilled. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice (preferably one large cube).
Light a match; snap the twist of orange peel through the flame so the citrus oils fall onto the surface of the drink, then drop in the peel.
Adapted from a recipe by Phil Ward, in David Kaplan’s “Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails” (Ten Speed Press, 2014).
Gin Gin Mule
Creator Audrey Saunders considers this drink to be an ambassador for gin. When she invented it in 2000, the use of fresh juices and herbs was still new to the cocktail world, and “overcoming the public’s fear of gin was a big deal back then,” she says. Thinking about the mojito and the Moscow Mule, Saunders played with a combination of the two. “I really loved what was happening in that mixing glass, so I started to take it out for a spin with a handful of different gins, and landed on Tanqueray. Tanqueray’s big, muscular juniper profile was a match made in heaven with all of the other ingredients.”
NOTE: You can use a commercial brand of ginger beer instead of making the uncarbonated version below, but if you do, Saunders suggests reducing the simple syrup and picking a brand where the ginger isn’t muddied by other flavors, such as Reed’s Extra Ginger Brew. Add it after the rest of the cocktail is shaken.
Storage notes: Simple syrup can be made ahead and refrigerated for 1 to 2 months. The homemade ginger beer can be refrigerated for up to 5 days (it makes enough ginger beer for 8 drinks).
For the simple syrup
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
For the ginger beer
1 cup water
1 ounce fresh ginger, peeled and grated
3/4 teaspoon light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon fresh lime juice
For the drink
1 ounce simple syrup
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
2 sprigs fresh mint
1 1/2 ounces London dry gin, such as Tanqueray
1 ounce ginger beer (see NOTE)
Make the simple syrup: In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 3 minutes, until slightly reduced. Remove from the heat, stir and let cool completely. Transfer to a glass jar with a lid and refrigerate until ready to use.
Make the ginger beer: In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the water and ginger and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let steep for 1 hour. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined sieve, pressing on the solids to extract maximum flavor; discard the solids.
Add the sugar and lime juice and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Transfer to a glass jar with a lid and refrigerate until needed.
Make the drink: Fill a copper mule mug or a highball glass with ice. In a cocktail shaker, muddle the syrup, lime juice and 1 mint sprig together, then add ice and the gin. If using the uncarbonated homemade ginger beer, add it as well. Shake the drink, then strain into the glass. Garnish with the remaining mint sprig.
Adapted from Audrey Saunders, owner of Pegu Club in New York City.
Sam Ross made the Paper Plane for Chicago’s Violet Hour in 2007. He had recently tasted Amaro Nonino for the first time, and loved it. “My idea was to create an equal parts riff on the Last Word cocktail,” he says. “I feel that this cocktail became so popular because it requires no special ingredients and it’s very easy to remember. [It] requires three relatively easy-to-source bottles of booze and a lemon.”
3/4 ounce bourbon
3/4 ounce Amaro Nonino Quintessentia
3/4 ounce Aperol
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
Chill a coupe glass.
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add the bourbon, Nonino, Aperol and lemon juice; seal and shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Strain into the chilled coupe.
Adapted from Robert Simonson’s “A Proper Drink” (Ten Speed Press, 2016); created by mixologist Sam Ross for the Violet Hour in Chicago.
San Francisco bartender Marcovaldo Dionysos won a cocktail competition — one he almost didn’t enter — with this drink in 2002. It uses the boozy, herbal green Chartreuse as a base and adds the spicy tropical clove liqueur Velvet Falernum along with fresh lime and pineapple. The drink is bright, sweet, complex and startling. Dionysos says he thinks its success is due to its simplicity (just four ingredients) and the growing popularity of both Chartreuse and tiki cocktails.
1 1/2 ounces green Chartreuse
1 ounce pineapple juice
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce Velvet Falernum
Fresh mint sprig, for garnish
Grated nutmeg, for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker and a Collins glass with ice. Add the Chartreuse, pineapple juice, lime juice and Velvet Falernum to the shaker. Shake hard, then strain into the glass. Garnish and serve.
Adapted from Bartender Marcovaldo Dionysos, from the app “Modern Classics of the Cocktail Renaissance” (2016, content by Robert Simonson, app designed and produced by Martin Doudoroff).
Recipes tested by M. Carrie Allan; email questions to email@example.com.
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