The Evolution of the “Pop” Cocktail

Every cocktail bar menu comes stocked with at least one cocktail designed to appeal and go down easy—not unlike an addictive, cotton-candy-light tune in the Top 40. Leslie Pariseau tracks the evolution of the "pop" drink, and what makes it tick in 2015.

In New York, during the mid-aughts, the cocktail Renaissance was just gathering a steady momentum, and I ended up in the middle of it. Through a restaurant job and then a gig with a booze company, I began working with people like David Wondrich, Don Lee and Dale DeGroff and learned about 19th-century concoctions like the Blue Blazer, the Morning Glory Fizz and Pisco Punch. It was an odd collision of extremely old and very new; the unearthing of dusty esoterica fueled by the ability to search and file on the Internet.

With all this new knowledge, I unwittingly revisited the same alt-loving spirit I fostered in adolescence. I shied from the vodka-sodas and Long Island Iced Teas I considered fashionable in my early twenties in favor of more esoteric stirred drinks. Was there Chartreuse in it? Scotch? Maraschino? Fernet? All of those at once? I was in.

I reveled in being able to identify the trope of drinks that appeared on nearly every menu—the fruity drinks meant for the neophyte, the vodka-laden throwaways, the easy-peasy filler “–tinis” and nine-ounce Cosmos. But eventually, like finding the Sia or the Grimes in Top 40, I realized that drinks with pop appeal and good drinks are not mutually exclusive.

Crowd-pleaser drinks have always existed. Champagne punches, Pimm’s Cups, Sherry Cobblers and daisies were all, at one time, situated at the forefront of their day’s popular culture. And, with the exception of Prohibition, these “pop drinks” have never really gone away; they simply shifted shapes. Like bustles being swapped for bell bottoms, these drinks seemingly disappeared for a brief period (which we now refer to as the cocktail’s “Dark Age”), when they traded fresh ingredients for faux-flavored liqueurs and vodka. Daisies turned into Margaritas, which morphed into frozen booze-sugar dumped into frosty, oversized coupes. And so went the Daiquiri as well. Eventually, the Mojito—the cobbler of its day—took a seat alongside the Cosmopolitan and the Vodka Martini as the holy trinity of 1990s pop drinks, and today, the Moscow Mule and the Aperol Spritz have, in a similar way, emerged to be crowd favorites.

So what exactly makes a drink a “pop drink” in 2015? Often these drinks hinge on a buzzword ingredient. Ten years ago, when Mojitos were big, it was mint. Five years ago, it was St. Germain.

In fact, there’s an inside joke in the bar industry about St. Germain, the elderflower liqueur that took cocktail menus by storm in the late aughts. “It’s the ketchup,” says Rob Krueger of Brooklyn’s Extra Fancy. “It was a little like tasting a truffle for the first time.” At the time, Americans weren’t familiar with this elusive, European flavor, and because of its floral, sweet approachability, it quickly gained a fan base, simultaneously becoming a joke amongst serious bartenders (not unlike truffle oil with chefs). A bit like “(Hit Me) Baby One More Time,” dominating airwaves, St. Germain sat at the top of every menu and guaranteed the sale of whatever drink it mingled with. But bartenders report far fewer St. Germain drinkers these days.

“The concept of a cocktail has evolved so much,” says Toby Cecchini, the creator of the Cosmopolitan and owner of Long Island Bar in Brooklyn. After recently revisiting his Cosmo in earnest, he realized it seemed rather two-dimensional, and that even the trope of “pop drinks” has evolved to greater complexity than just a melding of citrus and sugar.

Cecchini cites ginger as the buzzword ingredient of 2015. Indeed it has come to crown menus’ crowd-pleaser lists in things like Sam Ross’s Penicillin and, more widely, the classic Moscow Mule and its many riffs. It also just so happens that Long Island Bar’s mascot cocktail is a ginger-spiked Gimlet.

“Ginger beer has been called ketchup,” says Rob Krueger, “but you know, I keep saying that the Old-Fashioned is the new Jack-and-Coke.” In some ways, classics like the Old-Fashioned and the Manhattan have achieved a new tier of popularity. It’s no wonder: As we’re inundated with hundreds of different products, brands and categories, sometimes it just feels good to order the old standbys. “The other day I had a guy apologize to me for his ‘basic-bitch’ order of a mezcal Negroni,” says Krueger.

The bitter, crunchy Negroni has achieved an uncanny level of success in recent years, with events like Negroni Week leaking to mainstream social media, and its key ingredient, the eye-catching Campari, changing the meaning of pink drinks with softly astringent modern classics like the Rome with a View.

“People will always order the ‘watermelon drink,’ but now I can add a quarter ounce or barspoon of Campari to it,” says Julie Reiner of Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club and Leyenda. “Early on at Flatiron Lounge, we had to teach people how to drink. At the time, everyone was ordering Cosmopolitans or vodka-sodas because they didn’t know any better.” For them, she would create alternative vodka drinks like the tea-infused Beijing Peach or the pomegranate-spiked Persephone. “We still have to have drinks that 99 percent of the population loves, but our range is wider.”

Today, pop drinks manifest in different ways depending on the bar. At Raines Law Room, Dear Irving and The Bennett in New York, Meaghan Dorman says her menus walk a line of “approachability and challenging,” offering refreshing, easy drinks like Tom Collins riffs alongside boozy Scotch cocktails for the one percent who want them. Erick Castro of Polite Provisions in San Diego and Boilermaker in Manhattan knows tequila or mezcal mixed with something spicy are surefire sellers. While Krueger, who has worked at high-volume, pop drink-driven bars like Employees Only and Macao Trading Company, always builds vodka drinks into his menus. Like a hook-driven single that might lead you to buy an album, these bartenders know they will find their fans with an approachable conversion cocktail.

Today, that cocktail is just as likely to feature gin and Campari as it is mint or vodka. One thing remains consistent, though: People have to see it, and say, “’I’ll have that,’” says Kreuger, “even if they don’t know what’s in it.”