Often tied to poor, late teen decision-making or filed away under “forgotten,” liqueur-based drinks don’t have the best rap. But some of these cocktails, once made with Technicolor sour mix and bottom-shelf brands, have been granted second life.
The impetus to make “bad” drinks taste good isn’t hard to understand: They represent an opportunity to discover the core of something delicious within a recipe that, for whatever reason, has fallen out of fashion, been bastardized by shoddy record-keeping or was somehow flawed from the start. Today’s bartenders can take washed-up drinks, like the Midori Sour and the Blue Hawaii, and rejigger them with fresh citrus, high-proof spirits and additional modifiers.
While these 2.0 versions certainly deserve their place in our current cocktail lexicon, I propose something of a de-updating—to tip the needle back, slightly, towards their original incarnations: low(ish)-proof drinks that can be thrown together quickly at home with minimal prep.
The key to building a liqueur-based cocktail is, first, to remember that these liqueurs have their sweetness built in; by law they must be at least 2.5 percent sugar by weight, so you rarely, if ever, need additional sweeteners like simple syrup. (This also means that you can go pretty heavy on the citrus to balance out the inherent sweetness.) Lastly—and this possibly goes without saying—but a bartender is only as good as their ingredients; don’t think you can get away with cheap liqueurs. There are a number of high-quality examples of crème de cacao, amaretto and even blue Curaçao available on today’s market.
Below are five liqueur-based drinks that are close to my heart, updated to offer each a second (or third) shot at life.
The Amaretto Sour is quite possibly the archetypal bad drink. Usually made with cheap amaretto and equally cheap sour mix, it’s the stuff of underage cocktail nightmares. Jeffrey Morgenthaler, however, offers an excellent update that adds three-quarters of an ounce of Booker’s barrel-proof bourbon, making this otherwise flabby drink stand at attention. But what if you’re out of bourbon? Or just want to go low-proof for the night? In my version, I’ve pared the drink down to its essentials to really let Luxardo’s bitter, pungent Amaretto di Saschira shine.
Despite its otherworldly hue, Midori is surprisingly legit (it’s made with the juices of two Japanese melon varieties, yubari and muskmelon). Still, it’s hard to say that the Midori Sour’s reputation for being terrible is undeserved—even its producer Suntory’s own website calls for sour mix, which is a crime. Chaim Dauermann of New York’s The Up & Up gave this drink a fantastic update with the inclusion of navy-strength gin, fresh lemon juice, egg white and lime cordial. But, as a counterpoint, I give you this dead-simple, three-ingredient version.
N.B.: This works great with any fruit liqueur. Try it with St-Germain, Grand Marnier, crème de cassis or framboise—the latter of which drinks just like Candy Land looks.
The classic Brandy Alexander typically calls for equal parts brandy (or gin), crème de cacao and cream, and a recent version by Gary Regan takes the standard step of upping the amount of brandy in this drink. It’s delicious, but I love the elegance of an equal-parts Alexander. My edit calls for swapping out the cream for milk, which gives you all of the requisite creaminess without the added weight.
The Stinger has endured some wild swings. David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks calls for equal parts crème de menthe and brandy, and even lists the recipe alongside that for a gin-based variant, the Snapper. David Wondrich’s version ups the ratio of brandy to crème de menthe (two and a half ounces of brandy to three-quarters of an ounce of crème de menthe), while William Elliott’s beloved freeze-ahead version adds a non-traditional dash of absinthe, expanding the drink’s herbal profile. My version of the drink borrows a splash of high-proof gin from its cousin, the Snapper, to provide a little brightness and complexity.
For me, the challenge with the Blue Hawaii—traditionally a glow-in-the-dark combination of rum, pineapple, blue Curaçao and sour mix—is finding the right way to incorporate coconut. Coco Lopez is an old standby, but it leans sweet and has a distracting, artificial-tasting edge. Doing a DIY solution with coconut cream is admirable, but it can be tricky to get the balance and texture right. And Malibu tastes like sunscreen. Fortunately, the venerable Martinique rhum agricole producer, Clément, has an excellent coconut liqueur. I combine it with Senior & Co’s leaner and slightly bitter blue Curaçao, plus fresh pineapple juice and white rum for a take on the disco-era vacation staple that drinks a lot more serious than it looks.