B-List Cocktails Climb the Ranks

Not that long ago, the Negroni was considered a second-tier drink. But now that even small-town bars have mastered Martinis and Manhattans, lesser-known classics are making their way into the limelight. Dan Saltzstein with a few of his next-generation favorites.

cocktail notes el presidente cocktail

These days, at your average bar, it’s reasonable to expect decent traditional versions of what you might call first-tier classic cocktails: the Manhattan, the Martini, the Sidecar.

But what about the lesser-known suspects? The second-tier, the B-list? Think the Martinez, the likely precursor to the Martini, before maraschino and orange bitters were subtracted from the formula. Or the Aviation, which brought chalky purple crème de violette, a violet-flavored liqueur, back to bar stocks. Others, like the Last Word, Vieux Carré and Adonis are also popping up with increasing frequency. 

“Paramount [in the revival] is the increased popularity of authentic, historic cocktails,” says Allen Katz, the owner of New York Distilling Company and its bar, The Shanty, in Brooklyn. For bartenders, “it’s almost a medal of honor or a prize.” That usually means both conquering an old-school concoction—finding its best iteration—and introducing it to a new audience.

Part of the increased interest in obscure cocktail knowledge is thanks to modern-day cocktail historians like David Wondrich, Robert Hess, Dale DeGroff, Matt Robold, Wayne Curtis and Ted Haigh, who have sought out recipes previously lost to time often via reissues of books like The Savoy Cocktail Book and Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks, in turn reviving them in books of their own. But it’s the broad reach of the web that has really helped to spread the old-school cocktail gospel.

“If it hadn’t been for the internet, I wouldn’t have been influenced at all,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager at Clyde Common and Pépé le Moko in Portland—places where he’s brought back previously reviled new-American classics like the Amaretto Sour and the Grasshopper.

For Morgenthaler, Paul Harrington’s online column on Hotwired was key—“seminal modern cocktail writing,” he calls it—but also forums on sites like eGullet and Drinkboy, where enthusiasts and bartenders could swap and break down recipes before formal cocktail databases existed. Since then, the web has evolved and cocktails have gained a major online presence complete with instructional videos and accompanying narrative—from essays to drink-inspired graphic novels.

This exchange of knowledge has created a supply-and-demand cycle, with informed and ever more curious drinkers on the other side of the bar rail. Some consumers have adopted cocktail-spotting as a full-time hobby, seeking out the newest and best watering holes with the same fervor restaurant junkies pursue new openings. Meanwhile, bars can feature a dizzying variety of ingredients, from once-illegal absinthe to more authentic versions of items like cassis to a seemingly infinite array of bitters—many of which exist as essential building blocks for those second-tier drinks.

These are things like the heady and sweet De La Louisiane, the elegant sherry-based Bamboo and the oddly constructed, yet unexpectedly balanced El Presidente cocktail.

But the B-list is an ever-shifting canon—an on-deck group that can move up or drop off in a matter of months. “When I was coming up in the business, a perfect example of a second-tier cocktail would be a Negroni,” Morgenthaler said. “Now my mom knows what a Negroni is.”

Here are three drinks that have recently been climbing the ranks:

De La Louisiane

This deep, boozy number goes by other names, including La Louisiane and Cocktail à la Louisiane, and—as its French-inflected name hints—it’s a New Orleans creation. In his authoritative 1937 book Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, Stanley Clisby Arthur notes that it was the Restaurant La Louisiane’s house cocktail, where it presumably paired well with the rich, sometimes fiery Creole cuisine.

Today, the recipe varies. Traditionally, it’s equal parts rye, Bénédictine and sweet vermouth—a simple ratio that can skew syrupy-sweet. Sometimes, as in The PDT Cocktail Book, the amount of rye is upped to cut the saccharine notes. However, the accents are always the same: dashes of Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe add spicy and earthy notes, blending the ingredients seamlessly.

Whatever your ratio preference, the drink always seems to fall somewhere within the spirit-forward Manhattan-Sazerac-Vieux Carré constellation. And, like these other drinks, according to Morgenthaler (who prefers the equal-parts ratio) it’s the De La Louisiane’s simplicity that makes it so attractive.

Bamboo

From rich and boozy to light and elegant, the Bamboo’s central ingredient is sherry, boosted by dry vermouth and two kinds of bitters. It’s another simple blueprint of a drink—but it’s the range of sherry that makes this cocktail so adaptable.

“The great thing about sherry is that it varies widely from type and producer,” says Neal Bodenheimer of New Orleans bars Cure and Bellocq, where many second tier cocktails have been revived as menu staples. “One fino could have really great acidity, another might not have the acidity, but is really nutty.” And that’s just one sort of sherry: Substitute, say, an amontillado, and it’s a drink with a notably richer profile. This, in turn, might inform the type of bitters used (Angostura versus orange, or both).

Like the De La Louisiane, the Bamboo’s exotic origin lends a sense of historic weight to its presence on a menu. It was created in the 1880s by Louis Eppinger—a German-born bartender based at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan—who either substituted Italian vermouth in the Adonis or swapped gin for sherry in the Martini to come up with Japan’s first, original cocktail.

El Presidente

Morgenthaler serves a barrel-aged version of this concoction—a combination of rum, dry vermouth, orange curaçao and grenadine—which is said to date back to 1920s Cuba. (Many attribute the drink—named for a Cuban ruler that some say is Gerardo Machado—to Eddie Woelke, an American bartender at the Jockey Club in Havana.)

Morgenathaler is the first to acknowledge that it’s not the most accessible cocktail. “It’s a weird drink,” he says. “It’s a spirit-driven rum drink, which basically doesn’t exist.”

Though rich, especially with the use of aged rum, the El Presidente is actually supremely balanced drink: sweet, but not cloying—thanks, in large part, to the addition of dry vermouth and tart grenadine.

And just as the availability of absinthe had a hand in the revival of the De La Louisiane, the near-ubiquity of quality dry vermouth and grenadine is what’s spurred the resurrection of this eccentric cocktail.

Related Articles

FROM AROUND THE WEB