When Christine Wiseman bartended at Outback Steakhouse in her home state of West Virginia in the late 1990s, there was one off-menu request she dreaded above all others: the Sex on the Beach.
Comprising vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice and cranberry juice, the punishingly sweet cocktail was as cringe-inducing as its name. “It’s a terrible drink—super-unbalanced,” says Wiseman, who shook up thousands during her years of service at the home of the Bloomin’ Onion.
Hailing from the era of bawdy cocktails, like the Slippery Nipple and the Blow Job shot, the Sex on the Beach is frequently attributed to a Fort Lauderdale bartender named Ted Pizio sometime in the 1980s. The drink would go on to be immortalized in Tom Cruise’s “Last Barman Poet” speech from the iconic 1988 film Cocktail, but has long been pilloried by the industry—widely considered irredeemable. In fact, in 2010, Plymouth Gin even sponsored a tongue-in-cheek jazz funeral for the drink at New Orleans’ annual Tales of the Cocktail festival after online voters decided it should be permanently buried. But Wiseman, now the bar manager of Broken Shaker at the Freehand Los Angeles, never wrote it off entirely.
“Every flavor in the cocktail is recognizable, and everyone knows that drink,” she says of its inherent appeal and accessible components. In an effort to capture the spirit of the original in a more in a more forward-thinking format, Wiseman reengineered the recipe into a summer-friendly stirred cocktail, swapping out sugary juice for flavored spirits, fortified wine and a California-made amaro.
Maintaining a base of vodka, Wiseman doubles down with the addition of apricot-infused vodka, which lends a stone fruit note in place of the cloying peach schnapps. “I have always been into any spirits that ‘mixologists’ make fun of,” she says. “I’m a sucker for flavored vodkas, so I knew immediately what I wanted to do with it.”
In lieu of cranberry and orange in concentrated juice form, Wiseman infuses fresh muddled cranberries and orange peels into bianco vermouth, nixing overbearing sweetness in favor of lightly tart and bitter notes. A touch of Amaro Angeleno, made from Southern California grapes and botanicals, adds complexity and a toasty goldenrod color, which, in combination with Peychaud’s and sour cherry bitters, recreates the screensaver-sunset hue of the original.
Wiseman garnishes her updated version, christened the Cali-Fornication on the Beach, with a dehydrated lime wheel that doubles as a pool float for a decorative reclining mermaid. It’s a small touch that preserves the lighthearted nature of the drink, even in its new, dressed-up form. “I always say drinking is supposed to be fun,” says Wiseman, who feels that keeping her drinks approachable, in name, appearance and description, is key to coaxing skeptical drinkers out of their comfort zones. “I’m just getting them to drink an amaro and a vermouth they may have never had, or thought they never wanted.”