Penicillin. Paper Plane. White Negroni. One would be forgiven for thinking these familiar menu items with seemingly timeless builds were creations of the Golden Age of cocktails at the turn of the century. But these household names belong to a more contemporary cohort: modern classics, a group of drinks whose popularity has transcended their bars of origin to become the second generation of canonical cocktails.
In his column Modern Classics, Robert Simonson sought to chronicle the stories of these drinks, detailing what sets this class apart. According to him, traveling beyond the bar where it was created is a central pillar to the success of a modern classic. And it’s reinforced by another key characteristic—a straightforward ingredient list that allows these drinks to be thrown together easily, ensuring a seamless transition to any bar, anywhere. In this way, there’s a certain universality to these drinks, almost as if they’ve been plucked from the pages of a long-lost recipe book.
That is certainly true of the Kingston Negroni, Tommy’s Margarita or the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned. These contemporary classics bear all the hallmarks of their original namesakes—widely appealing, minimalist, timeless—but have gone on to inspire countless riffs of their own, much like the classics they themselves were based on. The Paper Plane, Sam Ross’ equal-parts, bittersweet sour, for example, has given way to a whole fleet of Paper Planes, while the smoky-spicy Penicillin has become one of the most riffed-on modern classics of all time.
Of course, as Simonson observes in his piece on the topic, “The final litmus test of a modern classic cocktail is that it must, of course, be popular.” All the drinks listed below have hit that mark and then some. After all, who doesn’t want a Pornstar Martini?