Our recipes and stories, delivered.

Cocktails

The Modern Cocktail Loosens Up

January 20, 2021

Story: Robert Simonson

art: Raphaelle Macaron

Cocktails

The Modern Cocktail Loosens Up

January 20, 2021

Story: Robert Simonson

art: Raphaelle Macaron

In the final installment of a four-part series, Robert Simonson examines the years 2010 to 2015, a period in which the cocktail world shed its pretensions, and opened its doors.

By 2010, a rejuvenated cocktail culture was firmly established in Western capitals like London, New York and San Francisco, and had begun to build in additional markets like Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris, Sydney and Melbourne. If you lived in an urban metropolis, it wasn’t hard to find a craft cocktail bar—or five. What was left to do for the cocktail entrepreneurs and enthusiasts was to fill in the few remaining gaps of understanding. Among these were tiki, a sweeping cultural phenomenon in the middle of the previous century that had become a kitschy shell of itself; hotel bars, which, similarly, had once loomed large with drinkers but now only echoed of bygone glory; Japanese-style bars and bartending, long a force in the East but largely a mystery stateside; and agave spirits like tequila and mezcal, heritage spirits in Mexico that weren’t properly understood in the U.S. Perhaps most importantly, the cocktail world realized it had to loosen its bow tie, to stop putting off customers with arch behavior and unbending rules, and invite the greater world in. Doors were opening in all directions. The globally minded cocktail bar was just around the corner.

The Cocktail Bar Does Casual

Bow ties, suspenders, hushed lighting and jazz, serious conversations about obscure points of cocktail history—it was all a bit much. From the beginning of the cocktail revival, complaints that the cocktail community was perhaps a little full of itself were regularly voiced by a number of guests and members of the media. By 2010, even some of the bartenders had had enough. They realized every cocktail bar didn’t have to resemble a library and began to open casual cocktail dens—places like Mother’s Ruin in New York; Prizefighter in Emeryville, California; The Silver Dollar in Louisville, Kentucky; and Basik in Brooklyn. These were bars that kept all the craft, but left the stuffiness behind. Along for the ride were genres of drink previously derided by serious cocktailians. It was, in fact, possible to produce a respectable frozen drink, said these new rebels, who equipped their bars with slushy machines. An elevated boilermaker was no longer an oxymoron. The pickleback was something they could live with. High had met low in cocktail circles, and everybody got along.

Tiki Fever

Tiki was the odd man out when the world’s bartenders decided to restore respectability to their profession and to the drinks they were making. Though one of the most popular drinking phenomena of the mid-20th century—one with an international reach—modern mixologists regarded tiki bars as silly, and the paper umbrella–festooned drinks they served as syrupy and unworthy of their attention. It took a lot of education to change their minds, and doing most of the teaching was a movie biz scribbler turned tiki authority named Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. He haunted old tiki bars, wrested once-secret drink recipes from retired bartenders and, beginning in the late ’90s, compiled them in slim paperback books. Tiki drinks, if made correctly and with high quality ingredients, he argued, were as creative as any Golden Age cocktail. By 2010, bartenders had begun to listen and top-notch craft tiki bars opened across the nation, including Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco; Lani Kai and Painkiller in New York; Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago; and, finally, Berry’s own Latitude 29 in New Orleans. The Zombie was back from the dead.

Rye and Agave Join the Party

The bourbon and rye resurgence of the aughts went hand in hand with the return of the cocktail. While bourbon was already on its way back from the waning days of the late 20th century—even as the vodka-drinking population couldn’t have cared less about the heritage brown spirit from Kentucky—the renewed interest in cocktails gave the spirit an additional, unexpected boost. Rye, meanwhile, had been dead as a doornail before modern bartenders began insisting on increased production and variety. They needed bourbon and rye to make proper Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans, not to mention Sazeracs, Vieux Carrés, Boulevardiers, Old Pals, Brooklyns, Remember the Maines and dozens of other once-obscure cocktails that were suddenly back in circulation. Distilleries obliged and soon the liquor store shelves groaned with American whiskey.

Simultaneously—and again because of bartender curiosity—tequila was being reconsidered as more than a shot or the base of a Margarita. Mezcal, too, was being seriously considered in the United States for the first time, thanks to evangelistic importers like Ron Cooper of Del Maguey and bartenders devoted to the spirit, like Phil Ward of the New York bar Mayahuel. As with bourbon and rye, the number of tequilas and mezcals on the market exploded, and so did the number of agave cocktails on any given menu. These neglected spirits had found a friend in the bar and a new place behind it.

East Meets West

American cocktail culture was adopted in Japan in the years following World War I, and it only grew in popularity. But the techniques, devotion to classics and detailed formality that developed were little understood by the cocktail evangelists of the U.S., who viewed the Japanese approach with a combination of fascination and confusion. Slowly but surely, the rest of the world awakened to its appeal. Japanese whisky, inspired by Scotch but its own distinct entity nonetheless, found a greater foothold in the West beginning around 2010. What’s more, it found respect. Not long after, the highball—a simple drink with a lowly reputation in the States, but treated as high art in Japan—was reassessed. With these changes came an increased interest in the precision, execution, presentation, style and service that characterized the Japanese craft. All of this would lead to the opening of Japanese-style cocktail bars like Bar Jackalope in Los Angeles and Bar Goto in New York, run by Pegu Club alum Kenta Goto, serving drinks using Eastern ingredients like yuzu, shiso leaves, plum wine and sake. Once a mentor culture to Japanese bars, the U.S. now drew inspiration from them, as part of a bar-world exchange that continues to this day.

Lobbying For the Hotel Bar

Somehow, as the cocktail revolution marched steadily on, hotel bars got left behind even though it was they who had largely kept the cocktail flame burning during the dark ages of the ’70s and ’80s, serving Martinis and Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds when the rest of the bar world had turned to disco drinks, shots, vodka and widescreen TVs. Hotels, however, recognized that they now had to compete for the cocktail drinker’s attention. Their bars had grown musty and staid over time. To turn things around, hotshot mixologists were drafted into service. The early restorations were in London, which had always had a strong hotel bar culture. Soon, the Connaught bar, in the hotel of the same name, and Artesian, in The Langham, were rated as among the best cocktail bars in the world thanks to the flashy work and eye-catching presentations of young bartenders like Agostino Perrone, Erik Lorincz, Alex Kratena and Simone Caporale. The American Bar in The Savoy, the standard-bearer of them all, enjoyed some new reflected glory. By 2010, New York got in the game, first with The Bar Downstairs at the Andaz, then with Lantern’s Keep in the Iroquois in 2011, followed by the Library Bar in the NoMad hotel in 2012, and Raines Law Room at The William in 2014, among others. “Meet you for a drink in the lobby” was again a smart call.

Articles

Where It All Began

In the first of a four-part series, Robert Simonson examines the late 1990s, a period that re-introduced the bar world to a century of lost knowledge.

Articles

The 21st-Century Cocktail Is Born

In the second installment of a four-part series, Robert Simonson examines the early aughts, a period influenced by Milk & Honey's trailblazing bartenders and a wave of contemporary cocktail books.

Articles

The 21st-Century Cocktail Is Made

In the third installment of a four-part series, Robert Simonson examines the late aughts, a boom time for the drinks now deemed modern classics.

Related Articles