Consider the Wibble.
Invented in the 1990s by Dick Bradsell, the godfather of the London cocktail revival, the Wibble is a mixture of gin, sloe gin, grapefruit and lemon juices, simple syrup and crème de mûre. In London, it’s considered by many to be a modern classic. Yet it’s rarely consumed outside of Great Britain. Certainly, it’s not nearly as well-known as the Espresso Martini or Bramble, two other Bradsell creations that belong unequivocally to the canon of modern classic cocktails.
So, what is the Wibble then? Neither a global phenomenon nor an obscurity, the cocktail is not without a certain stature. Perhaps it deserves a category of its own where it and other semifamous drinks can gather—the minor classic cocktails.
Every field of artistic endeavor has its minor, or cult, classics. For instance, Harold and Maude, director Hal Ashby’s 1971 counterculture tale of a May-December romance between a morbid young man from a wealthy family and an elderly free spirit, is beloved by numerous film fans. But it will never make the British Film Institute’s annual list of the 100 greatest films of all time. Similarly, Call It Sleep, Henry Roth’s 1934 novel about a Jewish boy growing up on the Lower East Side, has a dedicated following, despite having bombed upon release and fallen out of print for 30 years. Still, the book’s never going to compete with Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby for the title of Great American Novel.
The cocktail world is no different. It has its Ashbys and Roths, too. As with their cinematic and literary counterparts, certain drinks, while popular, remain under the radar. Among reasons for this: the limits of regionality. Just as countries have writers and filmmakers who are celebrated but largely unknown beyond national borders, some drinks remain provincial phenomena.
The Beuser & Angus Special (Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, lime juice, sugar and egg white) and the Ranglum (Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum, lime juice, falernum) were both invented by bartender Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro in Berlin in the aughts. They’ve since become known entities at craft cocktail bars across Germany, and if you order one, you’ll be adjudged a knowledgeable connoisseur. Ask for one in Paris or London, however, and you’ll get a blank stare.
Other “famous” cocktails are even more confined geographically. The Darkside, a mixture of gin, Barolo chinato and Peychaud’s bitters, enjoys a reputation in Washington, D.C., where bartender Adam Bernbach created it in 2008. But step outside the Beltway and it has little traction at all. The Hard Sell, meanwhile, is an easy sell in Chicago, where it was born in 2009. And Chicago largely remains its audience, probably owing to the fact that bartender Brad Bolt loaded the gin drink with three-quarters of an ounce of the treasured local poison, Malört.
Other times, a successful bartender spinning out hits can hinder the chances of a deserving cocktail becoming a breakout. Take Sam Ross, for example. The Australian-born bartender based in the United States has two modern classic cocktails to his name, the Penicillin and Paper Plane. Perhaps because of this, other well-ordered drinks of his—such as the Left Hand (a Boulevardier with chocolate bitters)—that might otherwise rise to “classic” standing are relegated to lesser-known status. Bradsell, too, falls into this category. His Wibble and Russian Spring Punch might be better known had his Bramble and Espresso Martini not become such worldwide sensations.
Every now and then, a cocktail is catapulted to marginal fame—but no higher—when it is taken up as a pet cause by an influential booster. Don Lee’s heavily bittered drink the Sawyer, which he invented in 2010 at New York’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar, didn’t get much attention until writer Brad Thomas Parsons included it in his best-selling book Bitters in 2011. Parsons has talked it up ever since, often making the cocktail at events. And while the Sawyer will never rank with Lee’s vaunted Benton’s Old-Fashioned, it’s no longer a nobody.
Sometimes the booster in question is the monolithic press. And, yet, cheerleading still doesn’t quite do the trick to flip a drink from coach to first class. In New York, the Brancolada, Jeremy Oertel’s twist on the Piña Colada using Branca Menta, became the breakout drink at Donna when the Brooklyn bar opened in 2012. Media went crazy for the drink. Google “Brancolada” and you’ll still get several pages of relevant results. Though Donna sold tons of them nightly, the cocktail stubbornly did not travel beyond the borough. (Donna closed in late 2020, robbing the world of the one sure place to enjoy a Brancolada.)
This state of affairs is probably as it should be. Not every cocktail can be a mainstream hit—you need your cult classics, your Freaks and Geeks, if you will—but every now and then the campaigning of an influential few, or fate, elevates a minor classic to major deal. The Cosmo, after all, was once a local drink enjoyed by New Yorkers alone.