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When Is a Negroni No Longer a Negroni?

Cocktail menus have moved far beyond the classics, but nearly every modern drink traces its roots back to one. Drew Lazor on the bars charting the genealogies of the classic canon from obscure beginnings to modern day deviations.

The spartan ingredients of the Sazerac—Cognac or rye, sugar and bitters, served neat in an absinthe-rinsed glass—double as a gruff declaration of identity. Musky and minimal, it’s a fundamental American invention, an unfussy cornerstone drink whose simplicity is at odds with its colorful, fleur-de-lis-stamped origin story.

Straight-up as New Orleans’ patron cocktail may be, it demands “impeccable balance and measuring and perfect technique to get it right,” according to Ryan Maybee, owner of the Kansas City bar Manifesto. Disregarding this faultless recipe, meanwhile, requires an entirely separate set of skills. The “Featured Classic” section of a recent Manifesto menu comprised three associated takes on the drink. The “proper” Sazerac hewed close to the ideal. Another subbed the requisite rye or Cognac for blended Scotch, working in honey and cinnamon. Then the third, a distant relative dubbed “Café Treme”: a toddy of star anise-infused Old Overholt and brown sugar syrup, topped with Peychaud’s-flavored whipped cream and a crisp fennel pizzelle to ape the green fairy’s anise.

Is a Sazerac still a Sazerac when it’s served steaming hot and garnished like an Italian Christmas treat? Maybee is one bartender less concerned with definitional questions than he is energized by what this practice offers: a rare chance for drinkers to literally taste a venerable cocktail’s genealogy, from obscure beginnings to current-day deviations.

Plays on the Daiquiri, the Martini and the Alexander have also had their day in Manifesto’s “Featured Classic” section, a pull-out that accompanies an already-large selection of 30-plus drinks built by Maybee and his staff. Nearly all of them can be traced back to cocktails of yore, a fact that is far from unique to Manifesto. “I thought it was a good way to exhibit the mindset of bartenders,” says Maybee. “[We] showcase how we have our roots in classic cocktails, and yet also have the ability to be creative.”

While highlighting a traditional cocktail in direct association with its riffs—a liquid March of Progress, if you’ll allow it—might be the most overt way to display drinking evolution, other bars use different devices to convey the same idea. At New York’s Slowly Shirley, co-owner Jim Kearns is a stickler for giving credit where it’s rightly due: a “Created By” column running to the right of each cocktail description contains bibliographic info for each drink. This attention to detail is extended to the menu’s “Five Families” section, which contains variations on a quintet of time-honored drink categories: Sours & Fizzes, Daisies, Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans and Martinis.

“You may not know, for instance, what an Obituary is, but you know what a Martini is,” explains Kearns, name-dropping the turn-of-century twist that coaxes absinthe into the timeless coupling of gin and dry vermouth. (It’s attributed to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, serving New Orleans since the late 1700s.) In this sense, presenting old-school cocktails on a continuum serves a pragmatic purpose: It encourages the overwhelmed to gravitate toward something they’ve never enjoyed by highlighting a connection to something they have.

A Manhattan fan, for example, may not recognize a Remember the Maine, first featured in Charles H. Baker’s 1939 The Gentleman’s Companion; a lover of Gimlets might have never heard of Jerry Thomas’ Gin Daisy (1876). Framing these citations in clear, contemporary terms helps assuage order anxiety. “If there’s a section of the menu that shows how that drink came to be,” says Kearns, “you have a better understanding of that drink and what can be done with it.”

This sentiment applies on both ends of the transaction. Categorical presentation can demystify a guest’s experience, but it also dictates development behind the bar. “Really, all of the inspiration comes from classics in some form or another,” says Maybee. It’s been this way since the early days. Since seminal texts like Harry Craddock’s circa-1930 The Savoy Cocktail Book has influenced generations of cocktail-building, it’s easy to forget that an icon like Craddock was similarly inspired by the recipes that preceded him—his Corpse Reviver No. 2, for example, is a twist on a Sidecar, which is a twist on a Brandy Crusta. But the Crusta is also an early example of a Sour, which should give you a rough visual of how the root system of this spirited family tree crawls across centuries.

“Go back far enough, and everything intersects and intertwines,” says Kearns. “Nowadays, it’s riffs on riffs on riffs.”

Julie Reiner, who opened Clover Club in Brooklyn in 2008, clusters her “Evening Cocktails” into thematic sub-groups like Royales or Sours & Cobblers. “It’s hard to sit down and read every single drink,” she says. “This way, you can navigate a little bit.” But, as the brief-yet-informative intros capping each list-within-list suggest, the idea of education was also a serious consideration.

While Carroll Gardens features no shortage of well-versed restaurant industry types, Clover Club also attracts a more dinner-oriented neighborhood clientele, folks who just aren’t as professionally familiar with the pleasures of aquavit, Carpano Antica or housemade orgeat. With these guests, servers and bartenders are able to lean on the format of the menu as a tool to suss out what they’d sincerely enjoy. Reiner says she has had patrons who will strive to try every drink in a particular section over the course of multiple visits.

At Canon in Seattle, Jamie Boudreau presents an efficient three-drink “Experiment” option on his menu. A single starter cocktail, like a Martini, Manhattan or Old-Fashioned, will see small modifications in base spirits; they’re served as a trio and meant to be sipped back-to-back. “This showcases what a great difference one ingredient being swapped can make,” he says.

Naren Young, managing partner of Manhattan’s Dante, is similarly keen on cultivating conversation via riffs. The primary menu at his all-day Italian café is built around what he calls “twisted classics,” and he also offers a separate apertivo list dubbed “The Negroni Sessions,” featuring a dozen spins on the drink. The approach allows him to go far afield while “remaining true to that classic DNA.” And far afield Young does go—taking the standard from its humble three-ingredient bones to the Unlikely Negroni, an unorthodox combination that includes tequila, banana liqueur, pineapple drinking vinegar and Thai chili.

It’s one of many “variations on…” that raise the question: At what point is a drink so far removed from its ancestry that it can no longer be classified as part of it? Take, as one example, the Midnight Garrison, a bourbon-rye-rum split with butternut squash syrup and two types of bitters on the current menu at The Franklin Bar in Philadelphia. The staff presents it as an ambitious riff on an Old-Fashioned, and it’s served the same way, too. But considering that, much like the stoic Sazerac, the Old-Fashioned is a drink “whose very essence [is] its monolithic plainness,” as David Wondrich puts it, is the drink really in the spirit of its forebear?

For some bartenders, struggling with this issue is semantic distraction; getting too fixated on policing what goes where can draw focus from what really matters. “The impulse to categorize is a very human, left-brain thing,” says Kearns. “I don’t know how well it serves creativity.”

That takes nothing away from cocktail genealogy’s value as a conduit smoothing the bumps between process and enjoyment. “You can tweak almost beyond recognition, but perhaps it’s important to still put the label on it,” says Boudreau. “Quite often, that is all people are looking for.”

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