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Cocktail Culture Has a Nostalgia Problem

July 27, 2021

Story: Scott Hocker

art: Mallory Heyer


Cocktail Culture Has a Nostalgia Problem

July 27, 2021

Story: Scott Hocker

art: Mallory Heyer

Fetishizing one brief period of history narrows the lens on an entire movement. What happens when we look beyond the gospel of Jerry Thomas?

A slicked and suspendered male bartender is serving you a pristine Manhattan in an etched-glass coupe from behind a dark bar in a hidden location you had to hear about through a friend of a friend. It is 1934. No, wait—it is 2001. Or is it 2021?

Despite cycling through fresh approaches to cocktail aesthetics—the science-lab precision of “molecular mixology,” the craft dive, the revamped ’70s rec room bar, the tiki revival—the bar world has an intractable fixation on the trappings of the so-called Golden Age of Cocktails, those precious few decades from the mid-1800s until Prohibition. We have an exceptionally long memory, it seems, for a very short period in drinking history. The record is scratched, people, and the tune is on a ceaseless loop.

“It’s often easy to let traditions become an anchor,” says Monica Berg, co-owner of Tayēr + Elementary, the London bar where the classic and cutting-edge operate in tandem. “You start to be weighted down by it and can’t break away.”

The United States prides itself on progress. Too often, though, we are more reactionary than revolutionary. When we obsess over a single era of our adolescent history, we likewise disregard the people and perceptions that were outsiders to that moment. As we head into a fresh decade of drinking, I wonder if we remain blinded by our dusky, Manhattan-tinted glasses, stuck in a turn-of-the-20th-century Groundhog Day, incapable of waking up to a new morning.

I'm a huge believer in traditions. And the cocktail families. But it has tipped. And this kind of nostalgia is not just the warm fuzzy feeling but the classic definition where you blur out the past and create a sanitizing version of it.

The singularity of the cocktail’s Golden Age, as has long been established, was a boon and a blessing. “Cultural collisions in the form of trade routes converged, and immigrant cultures in the United States coupled with industrialization meant that something from France could be mixed with something from Peru to create a unique drink,” says Thad Vogler, spirits writer and owner of Bar Agricole in San Francisco. “This spirit of improvisation is arguably American.” That freewheeling confluence spawned the cocktail frameworks born during that so-called Golden Age—the drink templates still employed today (sours, daisies, the Old-Fashioned), and their accompanying gentlemanly appurtenances (swirly moustaches, bowler hats).

Nostalgia, according to one of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, involves a longing for some part of the past. It is understandable, after the whirring blenders and snorting nostrils of the cocktail’s 1970s and ’80s Dark Ages, that a fresh set of bartenders in the 1990s wanted to return to a purer, simpler model—a time before Harvey Wallbangers and Long Island Iced Teas, when drinks were drier and the world, they said, more civilized. “That nostalgia was for The Thin Man and ‘Let’s have real drinks and make pleasant conversation,’” says the paterfamilias of the cocktail rebirth, David Wondrich. “Which was legit—and in its way conservative and not progressive in a cultural way.”

Such was, and always is, the gamble with recreating the past. The products were different during the turn of the 20th century; the palates were different as well. The past that everyone was so eager to recapture during the cocktail renaissance was only ever going to be a simulacrum. This backward-staring preoccupation began during the late ’90s and early aughts with the Dale DeGroffs and Sasha Petraskes remounting the drinking styles—and style—of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Now, in 2021, there is an analogous, inexpugnable reverence toward the Rainbow Rooms and Milk & Honeys of a mere 20 to 30 years ago, a sort of recreation of the recreation. This drinking mode may not be the singular aesthetic any longer, but it remains the pervasive one.

Ryan Chetiyawardana, owner of some of the world’s most lauded cocktail establishments, has a stark take on the global bar world’s fondness for both the American cocktail’s Golden Age and its second, early 2000s incarnation. “I’ve always found the industry has a fetishization of the past; it’s a bit unhealthy,” he says. “I’m a huge believer in traditions. And the cocktail families. But it has tipped. And this kind of nostalgia is not just the warm fuzzy feeling but the classic definition where you blur out the past and create a sanitizing version of it.”

History is complicated, and what we do with it even more so. As the English biographer Lytton Strachey wrote, “Ignorance is the first requisite of the historian—ignorance which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits.” In the United States, when people cherry-pick elements from history, they also often white it out. “Nostalgia in the United States has a frisson of white supremacy,” says John deBary, author and co-founder and board president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation. “Think about Jack Daniel and how he learned to make whiskey from his slave—and that we only just recently learned about this.” Blackness and femaleness: omitted, as often happens when white men are history’s documentarians. Same goes for the people creating and making the drinks from that era.

“Let’s talk about the origins of, say, the Sherry Cobbler and the Mint Julep,” says spirits educator and consultant Shannon Mustipher. “They were mixed in country clubs by bartenders of color. Some of them were slaves. Some of them purchased their freedom by working in bars. We don’t hear those stories enough.”

We can fat-wash and Cryovac and rotovap a drink to the point it almost has no link to any classic—yet people still want it to have a link to a classic.

Milk & Honey, that peerless New York speakeasy of the early 2000s, is a warranted legend. The resurgence of a well-made Whiskey Sour is commendable. May the good of the cocktail Golden Age never be obliterated! Still, difference has been effaced when it should be extolled, and the unimpeachable classic cocktail templates are merely that: templates, not implacable Ten Commandments carved in stone from the holy word of Jerry Thomas. It is easy to barrel into the semi in front of you while ogling the strapping, suspendered lad visible in your rearview mirror.

What then of the open road, seen through a clear windshield?

These days, especially outside the United States, a class of top bartender-owners has been working to unfurl the draconian stranglehold of the Golden Era templates, while sometimes banging their heads against the bar top. When, for example, Chetiyawardana and his crew at the now-shuttered Dandelyan in London went on a home-turf terroir spree—combining reposado tequila with rhubarb vermouth made with lanolin in honor of the shepherding traditions of England’s north—Golden Era loyalists cried foul when the drink dared be called the Nitrate Manhattan. “Some people called it a thesis, not a Manhattan,” recalls Chetiyawardana. Conversely, notes Vijay Mudaliar of Singapore’s Native, “We can fat-wash and Cryovac and rotovap a drink to the point it almost has no link to any classic—yet people still want it to have a link to a classic. It makes no sense.”

Damned if you Manhattan, damned if you don’t.

Innovation persists nonetheless. “As a bartender who did not grow up in the U.S., it’s not as easy for me to relate to classic cocktails,” says Mudaliar, who instead embraces local ingredients and spirits as a means of expressing regionality, instead of globalized uniformity. I also like Mustipher’s revolutionist notion that a great cocktail should be characterized by two disparate, complementary definitions. “Some define it as a drink that has appeal and can be served globally. Some would say it’s a great cocktail if it’s executed well, even if I can’t have it everywhere.” The classic cocktail may live and die by simplicity, but I think more can indeed be better: more styles of drinks, more in tune with the locations in which they are made.

A similar expansiveness is afoot in how bars are being run, both behind the stick and in front of it. Bars are finally being seen as societal ecosystems, in miniature. Fairer wages are beginning to be instated for all staff. There is a fresh inclusivity and diversity in that workforce, including in leadership positions. Even the longstanding hoarding of knowledge that was such a hallmark of the early 21st century cocktail reboot is lessening, slowly, and guests are being acknowledged for their essential role in the bartending dynamic. “I think we need to be better about giving credit where credit is due. I can’t tell you how many patrons come into my establishment and I’m the one learning from them,” says Lauren Paylor, spirits educator and founder of Focus on Health.

I want to have a faultless Daiquiri in a bar that focuses on rum or the classics. I also want to taste the place I am in. I want to eat rasam in Kerala and Bolognese in Bologna. I want to experience the style of cocktail-making Chetiyawardana told me he is most excited about—the arguable future of drinks, in which people and place supersede devotion to the classics; the terroir-minded way that Mudaliar honors local Peranakan culture by complementing a rum base with laksa leaves, candlenut, palm sugar and pandan; the hyperregional and technical manner in which Jeremy Blackmore of Cantina OK! in Sydney, Australia, uses the Margarita template and hand-shaved ice to create seasonal specials, including one Margarita with Queen Garnet plums and walnut tequila and another with cherry, palo santo and cherrywood.

I also want to feel welcomed rather than schooled. I want the person sitting next to me to assume that the Latinx bartender sliding a drink their way runs the show. I want to know the host is being paid equitably. And that time-traveling gentleman bartender? I want to look him straight-on, with neither of us sneaking clandestine glances toward an earlier century, and know that he will step aside when his equally talented peers step up to the bar to stir their own drinks, and give them credit for their creations. And maybe, just maybe, that gentleman bartender will make me a drink Jerry Thomas would never have recognized in a million Manhattan-soaked evenings.

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Scott Hocker is a writer, editor, recipe developer, cookbook author and content and editorial consultant. He has worked in magazines, kitchens, newsletters, restaurants and a bunch of other environments he can’t remember right now. He has also been the editor in chief of both liquor.com and Tasting Table.