How Do You Update a Classic?

Top bartenders weigh in on how to approach modernizing the most iconic cocktails.

“The most important part, when it comes to modernizing a classic, is keeping its core in focus,” says Washington, D.C., bartender Alison Hillard.

When asked about updating classic cocktails for today, bartenders are in near-universal agreement on this concept: Get creative, while keeping the drink recognizable. Modernizing is an area with no clear boundaries, though, and one that’s ripe for debate and creativity.

At her whiskey-packed hot spot in Washington, D.C., for example, Hillard loves to riff on the most important whiskey cocktail of them all: the Old-Fashioned. And yet, her update to it still recalls the past, with oleo saccharum standing in for simple syrup. Hillard considers oleo saccharum, that citrus oil–infused sugar from the early days of cocktail history, to be a thoroughly modern choice for any bar that values sustainability, as it repurposes citrus peels that would otherwise be discarded. It also lends cocktails unexpected complexity, adding burnt sugar notes to the spicy rye in Hillard’s updated Old-Fashioned, the Everything Nice (as in, “sugar and spice and…”).

“If you want to make a variation of a classic that fits a sense of menu seasonality or a new modifier, say, an amaro you love, that serves an important creative purpose,” she explains. But, she says, the update should still be “replicable and recognizable.”

Miami’s Tom Lasher-Walker gets similarly philosophical on the topic, often wondering when a drink has crossed the chasm from one classic variant into another. He cites the Boulevardier: “Is it a bourbon Negroni or a Manhattan with amaro?” Ultimately, in his opinion, the overriding bitter qualities of the drink are what make it a Negroni spinoff.

Similarly, his Sting Rye —a simple 2:1 combination of Knob Creek® Rye and Branca Menta, the mint-flavored bitter liqueur—might not look like a Manhattan at first blush. But even if his creation uses an amaro instead of sweet vermouth, the heavy oak profile of Knob Creek® Rye balances the bitterness of the Branca Menta, while Branca’s mint syrup acts as the sweetener— thus, Lasher-Walker says, making it squarely a Manhattan.

It turns out, that might be what matters most: not which modifiers are used, but what the drink ultimately tastes like.

Chicago beverage director Stephanie Andrews also replaces sweet vermouth with an amaro in her cocktail Anything Besides Water? Her choice of Cardamaro isn’t extremely bitter, though; flavored with cardoon and blessed thistle, it’s more oaky and winelike, making the resulting drink clearly reminiscent of a Manhattan as well. 

“The most important thing for modernizing a classic is: Don’t stray too far from it,” she explains. She never wants a customer to think they’re getting something they’re familiar with, only to end up with something off-kilter. “If you start going the wrong way down a one-way path, [drinks] aren’t going to be reminiscent of a classic. And now you are lost.”

For many bartenders, the simplest way to stay on that path is to not alter the template whatsoever. In Houston, Christa Havican makes a memorable cherry pie–like Old-Fashioned just by using a combo of flavored syrup and bitters.

In her Graceful Old-Fashioned, named after her grandmother, Havican swaps in a house-made vanilla syrup for the typical simple, and layers Bittermens Burlesque Bitters on top. The latter injects a shot of hibiscus and sour berry notes, whose tartness melds with the baking spice profile of Knob Creek® Rye to create a cocktail that immediately conjures up dessert, without being sweet or cloying. It’s also still, clearly, an Old-Fashioned.

“When modernizing a classic, you should respect its roots and know when you’re pushing the envelope and when you’ve created something ‘new,’” she says. “For me, it’s enhancing without completely changing the profile of the drink.”

That’s also important for Atlanta’s Kellie Thorn, who likes to update classics by infusing them with culinary concepts she gleans from the chef-driven restaurants where she works. In other words, she tweaks the house-made ingredients.

Thus, when she updates the Sazerac, she doesn’t alter the rye whiskey, absinthe rinse or Peychaud’s Bitters. She only plays with the sweetener, making it spicier than expected with a dose of juniper. The unexpected addition pairs with both the herbal notes of the absinthe and the cinnamon, baked apple and anise notes in the Knob Creek® Rye.

“I have a great respect for the classics and their formats, but our guests expect a certain level of creativity from us, so we try to rise to the occasion,” Thorn explains. “But I think, at some point, when you’re playing around and retooling classics, if you alter it too much, it isn’t that thing anymore.

“I still want my guests to be able to identify it as that classic cocktail!”

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Please drink responsibly. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 50% Alc./Vol. ©2019 Knob Creek Distilling Company, Clermont, KY. Knob Creek® is a registered trademark of Jim Beam Brands Co. and is used with permission.