The Godfather is a ridiculously simple drink—just Scotch sweetened with amaretto liqueur. Much like the similarly-structured Rusty Nail (Scotch and Drambuie), it belongs in the pantheon of mildly awful midcentury drinks, their hallmark being their ability to be both sweet and excessively strong at the same time.
Yet, not unlike the Cosmopolitan, bartenders are rediscovering the Godfather as a guilty pleasure cocktail, revamping the whisky component and adding various other modifiers to the required amaretto for complexity and depth.
Given its relatively recent birth, the Godfather’s origins are oddly hazy. It first began appearing on cocktail menus in the 1970s, and is generally acknowledged to be named for the popular 1972 film, The Godfather, based on the 1969 Mario Puzo novel. But, to this day, no one has explicitly taken credit for the drink’s invention. Even Disarrono, the prevailing brand of amaretto in the U.S. in the 1970s, denies creating the Godfather (though they certainly capitalized on and helped popularize it, claiming for years that the cocktail was a favorite of Marlon Brando’s).
Although the Godfather never truly went away—it’s still a standard call at many dive bars—it’s dropped off the radar in recent decades. But with the modest groundswell of bartenders interested in the sport of overhauling long-maligned “disco drinks,” it’s found a new audience.
The drink’s mafioso connections has also helped. At NYC’s The NoMad Bar, for example, bar manager Pietro Collina’s Godfather variation makes a weekly appearance during the bar’s Sundays-only ode to Italian-American “red-sauce” joints. His version of the drink splits the whiskey base to feature both lush Bushmills and fruitier Jameson’s whiskies, laced with just enough smoky Islay Scotch to cut through the sweetness of the amaretto. “We’re just having fun and not taking things too seriously,” says Collina.
Similarly, Chad Arnholt and Claire Sprouse created a riff called Godfather No. II for San Francisco’s Tosca Café—an old-school bar that likely served the classic Godfather (equal parts amaretto and Scotch) during its 1970s heyday. But just as Tosca has been substantially updated under new ownership by chef April Bloomfield and restaurateur Ken Friedman, the cocktail list needed tweaking, too. The updated Godfather manages to straddle both old and new sensibilities, showcasing a honeyed blended Scotch roughed up with just a couple of drops of smoky Lagavulin. The sweetener is then split between maraschino liqueur and amaretto, tied together with a measure of amontillado sherry.
“We have a history of dressing up some of the less-cherished, some might say tacky, drinks that fell out of favor in the early aughts,” Arnholt says; the Godfather update seemed right in line with their other Tosca updates, which include an Espresso Martini on draft and a clarified White Russian.
But he adds that the drink’s resurgence also likely owes a debt to the growing availability of high-quality and affordable blended Scotches. “Just a few years ago, there weren’t that many blends out there that anyone wanted to drink,” Arnhold says. “This new market entry has gotten people exploring new and old Scotch drinks.”
Other Godfather riffs include a version at Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance (also named for the second film in the series), which adds bourbon and sarsaparilla tincture to the mix; and a variation at NYC’s Cannibal Liquor House. Like most modern modifications, Cannibal dials down the amaretto, then complements it with sherry and a blood orange-accented amaro, plus a sprinkle of bee pollen on top.
What never changes? The rocks glass. At its heart, the Godfather remains a strapping whiskey drink, defying overly fussy presentation. Putting it in a coupe glass or on crushed ice,” says Collina, “would be ridiculous.”