Nostalgia is a heavy drug, and one that can sometimes sweep people away in strange directions. Even for the most forward-thinking among us, it’s difficult to pass by a rerun of The Golden Girls without wistfully stopping to watch, or overhear one-hit-wonder gems like Wreckx-n-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” and not bob along to the beat.
Likewise, there’s something almost Proustian about sipping a drink that’s inextricably linked to a simpler time. My blush-inducing beverage of choice has long been the treacly, milky glory of the White Russian (hold your Lebowski jokes, please.) For the better part of my adult life, drinking a White Russian has felt like stealing away from the obscure-worshipping world of craft cocktails to have an affair with an old flame. During our covert rendezvous, it’s clear that the White Russian might not have aged gracefully, but the familiarity of its boozy embrace is the ultimate comfort.
This warm cocoon of familiarity is a driving factor in the current tidal wave of “everything old is new again” sweeping the country, so it’s no surprise that nostalgia for the drinks of our youth—or at least those that channel it—has become increasingly common. Bartenders who, five years ago, would’ve scoffed at anyone holding an Alabama Slammer are now ready to revisit and upgrade these staples in a way that straddles the line between emotional catharsis and tongue-in-cheek irony.
This newly-found confidence has not only inspired a small army of updated “bad drink” classics, but ushered in an entirely new type of low-fuss, high-fun beverage that hearkens back to a simpler time, for both bartenders and drinkers alike.
“Cocktail culture has relaxed and no longer takes itself so seriously,” said Eben Freeman of GENUINE Liquorette, a half-bodega liquor store, half-bar hybrid which opened in New York’s Little Italy last week.
Liquorette is pioneering a style of “choose your own adventure” drinking that encourages guests to take the reins, grab their own booze (like mini-bottles of flavored Pinnacle vodka or Jameson) and mixers (Sprite, ginger beer, grapefruit soda), then play bartender to their heart’s content. Alternatively, Liquorette’s bartenders offer a handful of cheekily prepared cocktails, including a Bloody Mary featuring a tiny bottle of vodka upturned into a can of tomato juice with spices and garnishes du jour, and a Mojito variation involving lime, mint and rum, all in a can of Sprite.
“The dominance of tiki culture over the past few years has made whimsical presentation and bright colors acceptable,” said Freeman. “The focus has turned back to the guest, and the guest wants to have fun.”
In addition to the recent Lazarus-like rise of tiki nationwide, bars themed entirely around 1970s and ‘80s drinking culture were some of the first to help usher in the ironic drinks movement. From Los Angeles’ Good Times at Davy Wayne’s (which has gone to enormous, bric-a-brac-laden lengths to create a serious 1970s living room vibe) and Break Room 86 to the second coming of the fern bar, a la Williamsburg’s Oleanders, these pioneering concept cocktail spaces chucked the notion that good drinks had to be an intense, brow-furrowing experience, out the window.
But the desire to reimagine kitschy classics for a modern drinker goes far beyond any decade-wedded theme. There’s a cult-like following around a new generation of neo-dive bars like 151 on the Lower East Side, which has dubbed its new menu “trailer tiki” and includes irreverent creations like a rainbow-hued spectrum of booze-filled test tubes (the “Inebriation Equality Tray”) and a beer boot cocktail that slushes together mezcal, gin and an upturned pony of Miller High Life.
State Park in Boston also refuses to take itself too seriously, boasting a wood-paneled ambiance that feels like stealing away to the basement of a suburban split-level house. The bar’s “shot and a beer” menu couples up the best of high- and low-brow drinking (Pacifico and Vida mezcal, Becherovka and Bantam cider), while the “official cocktail” combines rye, amaro and a lemon twist inside a High Life.
“When we opened [State Park], we wanted to take the snobbery out of everything,” said co-owner Alon Munzer. “We wanted to build out a place that’s comfortable—people want that.”
Even slushy drinks—which are far more closely related to country club pools than anything Don the Beachcomber would’ve whipped up—have found new life via spots like Mother’s Ruin (which keeps a revolving slushy-of-the-day whipped up with fresh ingredients) and Skinny Dennis, where a frozen Irish coffee is served in a Greek coffee cup.
Each new manifestation of highbrow-meets-lowbrow cocktail culture may be different—in some cases, vastly so—but the desire to loosen our collective neckties and find a place for drinks with a helping of humor is at the core of every iteration. Ironic as it may seem, as the craft cocktail movement has become more mature and established, it has once again readily embraced the silly, youthful side of drink-making.
“Humor has always played a part in bar culture,” Freeman notes. “The bartender has always been a bit of a wise-ass, and we just lost our way for a bit while we focused on our craft. Now, we’re back and ready to play.”