Back in 2001, the modern cocktail revolution was still in its infancy, and most bartenders were working on mastering long-forgotten classics, not creating their own. But at Milk & Honey, the legendary bar’s then-owner, the late Sasha Petraske, was already trying to elevate the standard Whiskey Sour. With only three ingredients at his disposal—bourbon, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup—there wasn’t much room to tweak things, until his buddy T.J. Siegel suggested swapping in honey syrup as the sweetener. The result was more viscous, and more luxurious, a drink that recalled the cocktail world’s past while predicting a flush future for the industry. Fittingly, it would be called the Gold Rush.
Nearly two decades later, the Gold Rush is one of the rare drinks from the present that is already a bona fide classic, placed alongside Manhattans and Sazeracs in the arsenal of any respectable bartender the world over. It’s also a harbinger of the state of the drinks world: No longer does a cocktail need to have its first mention in an out-of-print tome to be considered a masterpiece.
“I think that modern whiskey classics embrace the spirit and really pay attention to the natural characteristics of it,” explains Houston bartender, Christa Havican. “I think balance and replicability are key in having a drink become a modern classic. I think a unique idea doesn’t hurt either.”
Entry to the category of “new” whiskey classics remains exclusive, however—the list is still short. And the simplicity of many of these modern entries often belies the hard work and serious experience it took to create them. In 2009, another stripped-down, bourbon-forward drink appeared on the West Coast and quickly became as ubiquitous as the Gold Rush: the Kentucky Buck, which saw bourbon muddled with strawberries, lemon juice, Angostura bitters and ginger syrup. When paired with a robust whiskey, the sting of the ginger syrup is only amplified, while the addition of strawberries makes it accessible to drinkers across the spectrum. It’s a traditional buck—minus the expected ginger beer—on steroids. Little wonder it became an instant best-seller.
“Simplicity I think is key. A lot of these modern classics are easily replicated in most bar settings which allows them to be recreated again and again which in turn means they are going to consumed again and again,” explains Stephanie Andrews, bar manager at one of Chicago’s defining cocktail dens. She also believes the modern classics all tend to be more refreshing than the boozier drinks from the past—no surprise to her, as fresh citrus juice is more readily available today than it was during the original hey day of the Old-Fashioned and Manhattan.
“The most well-traveled and renowned new cocktail of the 21st century,” according to Robert Simonson, is likewise a modernization of the past; the Penicillin, like the Gold Rush, also draws on the blueprint of the Whiskey Sour. Created in 2005, this time, a honey-ginger syrup stands in as the sweetener and, most interestingly, a float of Scotch is laid on top. Though originally made with blended Scotch as the base, a full-flavored, 100-proof bourbon like Knob Creek® can easily stand in; the heavy vanilla profile stands up admirably to the spice from the ginger, while burnt caramel notes offer a sturdy base for the peat. Drinking the cocktail is a narrative thrill, a smoky aroma catching your nose before you dive in and taste the sweetness—one reason it should never be served it with a straw.
By the late-aughts, the cocktail world was maturing. Modern classics were no longer tweaks on iconic drinks, but wholly original cocktails in their own right. Like the Paper Airplane—which quickly became the Paper Plane—which was built with equal parts fresh lemon juice, Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, Aperol and bourbon. While most of today’s modern classics share some distinct DNA with past legends, with its unique sweet, tart and bitter mélange, the Paper Plane marches to the beat of its own drum.
“To me, [a modern classic] is not about remaking a classic, it’s about creating a new style, injecting in a new technique, or cultivating a new flavor combination,” believes Keyatta Mincey-Parker, an Atlanta-based bartender.
Even more avant-garde was the drink that introduced most of the world to the concept of fat-washing. For the Benton’s Old-Fashioned, bourbon is infused with bacon fat from the eponymous Allan Benton, which has intensely smoky flavors gleaned from the Tennessee hickory wood used to cure it. Combined with the rich caramel and oak notes of Knob Creek® Bourbon, the result is a breakfast-like union that sings.
A true crowd-pleaser, the Benton’s Old-Fashioned is now sold the world over just a decade after its creation (even if, in most place, some other brand of bacon is being used, the name is often retained). Earning that place in the zeitgeist was hard work: bartenders essentially had to convince their customers they now wanted a savory component to their cocktail, while likewise explaining the esoteric technique that got it in there. But that’s yet another thing that can create a modern classic—a story worth sharing.
“I think it’s very important in creating a modern classic, because it keeps our culture alive and buzzing,” adds Mincey-Parker. “ A huge part of the narrative of bar culture is through stories and storytelling. Besides, the guest always love stories about cocktails, it empowers them to learn.”
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.