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Cocktails

Float On, Cocktail Float

November 09, 2021

Story: Al Culliton

photo: Kelly Puleio

Cocktails

Float On, Cocktail Float

November 09, 2021

Story: Al Culliton

photo: Kelly Puleio

Once the sole domain of the New York Sour, the float has landed on everything from clarified milk punch to frozen Piña Coladas.

The Whiskey Sour with a red wine float predates Prohibition. Its lengthy career has been marked by the many names that have preceded “Sour” in its title over the years: Continental, Brunswick, Waldorf, Southern Whiskey and New York. That last one stuck. Unlike the Sidecar’s sugar rim, the float of dry red wine on the New York Sour is integral to its identity; omitting the float leaves you with nothing more than a humdrum Whiskey Sour. Though the last two decades haven’t seen the classic skyrocket to superstardom the way its pre-Prohibition brethren have, the bar world certainly has its champions. And the New York Sour has something else going for it: It’s a looker.

When Ned King put a classic New York Sour on his bar menu at Gigantic in Easthampton, Massachusetts, he discovered his customers were largely unaware of the cocktail. “Just introducing it at the bar over the past year, it’s blown my mind how many people are like, ‘What’s a New York Sour?’” he says. The drink’s marriage of two familiar entities—the Whiskey Sour and red wine—makes the moderately obscure classic less intimidating to guests. King says that the moment he serves one, several more orders for the drink follow, owing to its eye-catching presentation.

King is not alone in resurfacing the drink. Bartenders around the country are reviving the template and modifying it in inventive ways. Aeon Ginsberg was tasked with creating a Whiskey Sour variation to offset the gin-focused menu at Dutch Courage in Baltimore. “Admittedly, I shy away from sours. They aren’t what I tend to drink so it’s harder to feel a passion in that direction.” New York Sours, however, with their striking appearance, offered a good place to start. Ginsberg’s Che Vuoi? cocktail adds a savory element to the expected triad of sweet, sour and tannic flavors. In the drink, bourbon and citron liqueur from Veneto join acid-adjusted orange juice, an “Italian seasoning” syrup flavored with garlic powder and oregano, and an MSG tincture. Ginsberg’s choice of fizzy lambrusco for the wine float gives their variation a daisy-like effervescence.

But the technique is not without its detractors. Most criticism stems from the fact that the drink’s various elements aren’t fully integrated. (Perhaps these are the same people that disturb the perfect layer of cold, aerated cream on their Irish Coffee by stirring the drink before taking a sip.) This, some say, leads to an imbalanced drink as one sip may vary from the next. What the naysayers fault, however, the float’s proponents praise. Ginsberg asserts that the float allows the drink to “develop” as it’s consumed. For them, the lack of uniformity takes the guest on a journey while they’re drinking.

The New York Sour marches on, and it’s a testament to that resurgence—and the float’s place in modern cocktails—that bartenders are iterating on it in conjunction with other techniques of the moment, notably clarification. The Diamond Noir from Eric Simmons, beverage director at Maple & Ash in Chicago, uses a base of cream-clarified bourbon, yuzu and sherry as the canvas for a float of Cabernet. At Silver Lyan in Washington, D.C., the Bases Loaded also gives the template the milk punch treatment, while emphasizing traditional North American ingredients like the American Wonder lemon and aronia berry (or chokeberry). Clarified with golden whey, a liquid created when milk is curdled and strained, the drink “has a silky texture which plays well with the dry tannins in the aronia-infused manzanilla float,” explains general manager Vlad Novikov. The milk punch base is poured over a large ice cube in a rocks glass. The chokeberry-manzanilla mixture is transported to the guest’s table in a small pitcher and poured over the milk punch tableside.

Even in the tropical realm, where the float has long adorned a number of canonical cocktails like the Queen’s Park Swizzle and the Corn ’n’ Oil, the technique has moved beyond the traditional bitters or overproof rum. Fanny Chu, former head bartender at the now-shuttered Donna, appreciates the transformative power of the technique when used with familiar blueprints. “You take a frozen Piña Colada and elevate it with a float of bitters, amaro, amaretto, espresso or high-proof rum, and you get something really special.” Chu has also used the float to great effect on her innovative tiki-derived cocktails. “The tiki-tropical genre is all about layers and a blend of rums,” she says. “As long as everything tastes well-balanced, why not add a float to it?” In her Rum to the Jungle, Demerara rum, Haitian clairin and banana liqueur combine with lemon juice and cinnamon-oat syrup, all topped with a port float to create what Chu thinks of as a “breakfast Mai Tai.”

Paul MacDonald of Philadelphia’s Friday Saturday Sunday, meanwhile, uses the tropical tradition of floating bitters to create a drink with a “temperate-zone tiki” vibe. His calvados swizzle, the Judgement of Paris, blends the French apple brandy with sweet vermouth, lemon and rich Demerara syrup, topped with a generous dose of Angostura bitters and garnished with a cilantro sprig. MacDonald sees the float less as an aesthetic choice and values it primarily for its function, grouping most floats together with other aromatic garnishes. “I would say that the red wine float, the citrus peel garnish and the rum float on top of a tiki drink are all kind of cousins, in terms of technique.” To illustrate his point, he sometimes floats colorless, fragrant aromatics like orange flower water on top of drinks. This past summer, one of his most popular nonalcoholic drinks was a mesquite-smoked eggplant syrup and lime juice swizzle with a float of rose water.

Though it rose to prominence as the defining feature of the New York Sour, the float has made a name for itself beyond this early pairing. No longer confined to the pre-Prohibition canon—or even to red wine—the technique is only on the rise. After all, says Silver Lyan’s Novikov, “In the era of Instagrammable cocktails, it doesn’t hurt to have an option that is both delicious and visually arresting.

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Al Culliton is a writer and historian based in Massachusetts. Their work focuses on the intersection of the American Cocktail, food and culture from the age of punch through the 1960s and, sometimes, the twenty-first century. They’ve written for Saveur, Bon Appétit and The Boston Globe, and act as chief correspondent for Al’s Cocktail Club, a society of history-obsessed home bartenders.