What separates a modern cocktail from a modern classic? It’s a question we set out to answer in May 2020, landing on a set of criteria that unified the cocktails belonging indisputably to this class of so-called modern classics. The requisite boxes a cocktail had to tick to earn the title included traveling beyond its home bar, inspiring its own riffs, and, of course, widespread popularity on both sides of the bar. It’s a useful barometer for parsing the trends of the last several decades of cocktail innovation and invention. But it inevitably overlooks countless crowd-pleasing, time-honored drinks waiting in the wings—not yet well-traveled enough or thoroughly riffed upon—for their chance at modern classic status.
The following is a list of contemporary cocktails selected by industry-leading bartenders as should-be modern classics. Each is, above all else, easy to make—the key to success for any modern classic.
La Viña | Alex Day, Death & Co.
“As far as specs go, it literally doesn’t get any easier than [this], but the resulting cocktail is astoundingly complex and rewarding. People who swear they hate whiskey love [this] drink, but it also pleases the most inveterate Manhattan disciple. It’s also a brilliant lead-in or follow-up to a Negroni, Vieux Carré or Trident (speaking of underappreciated modern classics). I don’t think I’ve ever had one sent back, and it’s certainly been a go-to of mine over the years, especially when the weather is anywhere from brisk to freezing.” —Joaquín Simó, partner, Pouring Ribbons
Rome With a View | Michael McIlroy, Attaboy
“I think Mickey McIlroy’s Rome With a View should be considered a modern classic. Especially in an age of low-ABV cocktails. It’s also one of the few refreshing aperitivo cocktails that has citrus juice. I’ve been enjoying and making this drink since my early days at Little Branch, where I worked with Micky. It has paved the way for a number of other delicious, snappy and quenching Rickeys in the low-ABV style.” —Eric Alperin, co-owner, The Varnish
Bensonhurst | Chad Solomon, Pegu Club
“I’m going to have to go with the Bensonhurst. It’s one of the first rye drinks I ever tasted at the beginning of my journey into the cocktail world. I love the depth this drink has, and that it calls for dry vermouth (instead of sweet). When made properly, it’s simply a very satisfying cocktail. I recall many a post-shift night sliding into one of these.” —ms. franky marshall, bartender and educator
Colonial Ties | Eric Alperin, The Varnish
“[This is] one of my favorite Sazerac-style cocktails from The Varnish for its citrus and caramel qualities, in contrast with the more richly spiced original. There is something magical about rye and Jamaican rum together—almost creating the impression of an earthy Cognac.” —Devon Tarby, co-owner, Proprietors LLC
Hot Lips | Jessica Gonzalez, The NoMad
“This cocktail is a brilliant mix of flavors that just work. One of Jess’ signatures here is the vanilla syrup. It is a refreshingly complex, but crowd-favorite type of cocktail infusing spice and smoke with the subtle sweetness of pineapple and vanilla. It is totally liquid vacation vibes.” —Lynnette Marrero, co-owner, Llama San, Llama Inn; co-founder, Speed Rack