The Making of an Iconic Cocktail

January 23, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Photo: Lizzie Munro


The Making of an Iconic Cocktail

January 23, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Art: Lizzie Munro

The stories behind six signature drinks that defined the craft movement—and still matter today.

Lucky craft cocktail bars become renowned for the overall quality of their drinks. Very lucky bars, it could be argued, become known for one drink—a breakout cocktail that becomes such a customer and press magnet that visitors order it first and wouldn’t dare think of leaving the joint without trying one.

There are several historical examples of this sort of phenomenon. Harry’s Bar in Venice has its Bellini. The Dukes Bar in London has the Dukes Martini. The Buena Vista in San Francisco has its Irish Coffee. The modern craft cocktail era, too, has blessed a handful of bars with iconic signature cocktails—drinks that have found wide popularity and traveled around the globe, influencing the tastes of both bartenders and drinks. The stories of six such drinks follow.

Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, Death & Co., New York

How many modern cocktails become so famous they land on a T-shirt? It’s taken only 12 years for The Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, bartender Phil Ward’s agave innovation, to make the journey from drink to Death & Co. merch. In 2007, Ward’s idea of subbing tequila and mezcal into a standard Old-Fashioned template was a right-time, right-place bit of luck. The public was just beginning to get hooked on the rediscovered Old-Fashioned, while its fascination with agave spirits—as well as Ward’s opening of the agave temple Mayahuel—was just around the corner. Co-owner David Kaplan’s purchase of a bottle of mezcal for the Death & Co. staff to play with precipitated the innovation. “I loved Old-Fashioneds at the time and thought the drink was a simple stroke of genius,” he recalls. “So different and so easy to drink at the same time, and mezcal made it feel unique and almost exotic.” The cocktail is now also served at Death & Co.’s Denver and Los Angeles locations and is renowned enough that, though not on the menu, it’s still ordered several times a week at all three bars. The T-shirt can be ordered from anywhere.

Juliet & Romeo, The Violet Hour, Chicago

When Toby Maloney opened The Violet Hour, one of the first serious craft cocktail bars to open in no-nonsense Chicago, in 2007, he wanted to create a gin cocktail that would appeal to gin haters. The result was the Juliet & Romeo, a mix of gin, lime juice, cucumber, sugar, mint, salt and rose water. “I wanted it to taste like a walk through an English garden,” says Maloney. His plan succeeded. The drink has been among the top two sellers for the last 12 years; in 2019, the bar sold an average of 20 a day. To put that in perspective, only the Old-Fashioned sells more. “It’s as close to a house drink as we have,” says Maloney. It’s also jumped to other bars in town. The day Maloney sees it on the most menus? Valentine’s Day, naturally.

Little Italy Cocktail

Little Italy, Pegu Club, New York

Audrey Saunders had already racked up a number of modern classics—the Gin-Gin Mule, Earl Grey MarTEAni, Tantris Sidecar—by the time she opened Pegu Club in 2005. But she did reserve a couple of soon-to-be classics for the new bar. One was the Little Italy, which debuted the year the bar opened, and which Saunders thinks of as the bar’s house Manhattan. It’s a simple, three-ingredient cocktail, made of rye, sweet vermouth and the Italian liqueur Cynar. Everything about the cocktail spoke to the mixology passions of the moment. Manhattan riffs were rampant (the Red Hook, Greenpoint, etc.),  rye was newly ascendant at the time (Saunders actually assisted in getting Rittenhouse Rye, the spirit used in the Little Italy, into New York) and amari, too, were in the process of being rediscovered. The idea of adding an amaro instead of bitters to a Manhattan occurred to her during a dinner at the New York restaurant Raoul’s. “We were also drinking Manhattans right then, and I wondered what one would be like if I substituted Cynar for the Angostura bitters,” she says. “Rittenhouse tied it together.” Today, 15 years after its invention, the Little Italy is still among the top 10 most ordered drinks at Pegu.

Tommy’s Margarita, Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, San Francisco

For a lot of cocktail fans today, what they know as a Margarita is not, strictly speaking, a Margarita. It’s the modern classic known as the Tommy’s Margarita. In the early 1990s, Julio Bermejo, a member of the family that runs the longstanding San Francisco institution Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, wanted to draw attention to the intrinsic qualities of top-shelf tequila. One way he did so was to reconfigure the house Margarita. He used only 100 percent agave tequila, replaced the sugar with agave syrup and dispensed altogether with the curaçao—the thing that actually makes a Margarita a Margarita, as opposed to a tequila sour. His experiment succeeded beyond all expectations. Within a decade, the Tommy’s Margarita—the name was not Bermejo’s idea, but the handle the public gave the cocktail—was being served in bars as far as the United Kingdom and China. Some even hailed it, and still do, as a better drink than the Margarita itself. The achievement was all the more unique in that the drink did not spring from an internationally lauded cocktail bar or celebrated bartender, but from a tequila advocate simply looking to earn his favorite spirit some respect.

Bentons Old Fashioned Cocktail

Penicillin, Attaboy, New York

The delivery of a box of Compass Box whiskies led to the creation of the most famous drink to come out of the original Milk & Honey. Bartender Sam Ross was riffing on the Gold Rush (another M&H classic, a whiskey sour made with honey), using Compass Box’s Asyla. “I decided to split the sweetening agents down the middle between the honey and our sweetened fresh ginger juice,” Ross recalls. “The balance was perfect straight away.” He then splashed in a float of Compass Box’s Peat Monster for aromatics, and a classic was born. Owner Sasha Petraske wasn’t initially a fan; he stressed mastering the classics over inventing new drinks. But the public felt otherwise. The Penicillin became a staple of Milk & Honey and sister bar Little Branch quickly; as Ross was doing shifts over at Pegu Club, it snuck its way into patrons’ hands there, too. Since then, riffs on the drink have appeared in bars the world over; even Ross himself serves the Penichillin, a frozen version, at his Brooklyn bar Diamond Reef. Milk & Honey is now Attaboy, but Ross, a co-owner, is still there, and the Eldridge Street address remains the Penicillin’s natural home: It is the bar’s most requested cocktail.

Benton’s Old-Fashioned, PDT, New York

Perhaps no modern tie between a drink and a bar is stronger than that between the Benton’s Old-Fashioned and PDT. This bacon fat–washed version of the classic was a sensation from the day it was put on the menu at the East Village speakeasy in 2007. Bartender Don Lee created it using Benton’s bacon fat, borrowed from chef David Chang’s nearby restaurant Momofuku, originally combining it with Tennessee whiskey. He eventually settled on Four Roses bourbon. “In the weeks and months after we took the Benton’s Old-Fashioned off the menu, many guests who had either tried it when we served it, read about it or heard about it from a friend requested it,” recalls Jim Meehan, who ran the bar at the time. “It became tiresome and counterintuitive to not bring it back.” Benton’s has been PDT’s best-selling drink ever since; the bar sells roughly 150 a week, according to owner Jeff Bell. It’s also, incidentally, the top seller at PDT Hong Kong. “If you had to pick one drink that defines PDT’s approach and legacy under my watch, I’d say it would be the Benton’s Old-Fashioned,” says Meehan.

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