What Makes a Modern Classic?

The point at which a modern cocktail becomes classic goes beyond mere popularity.

One of the greatest dividends of the ongoing revival in cocktail culture has been the relentless innovation. More new cocktails—and good ones—have been invented in the past 20 years than during any period since the first golden age of cocktails, which lasted from the 1870s until the arrival of Prohibition in 1920.

Just as that first bar-world zenith produced a half-century of classic recipes—drinks we still enjoy today, like the Martini, Martinez, Manhattan, Rob Roy, Daiquiri, Clover Club, Jack Rose and many, many more—this century’s eruption of talent over the past two decades has handily delivered its share of drinks that have found favor with arbiters on both sides of the bar. Any devoted enthusiast has become familiar with the Penicillin, Gold Rush, Old Cuban, Benton’s Old-Fashioned, Chartreuse Swizzle, Gin Basil Smash, Tommy’s Margarita and Paper Plane.

But what actually elevates a modern cocktail into the echelon of a modern classic?

It’s a question I’ve devoted a lot of time to over recent years (and an entire cocktail app, created with Martin Doudoroff), and one which I’ll be exploring further through this new monthly column.

Calling a drink that was invented five, 10 or even 20 years ago a “classic” may sound like a bit of a stretch. (It’s doubtful anyone in 1899 was already calling the Manhattan a classic cocktail, or even thought in terms of classic cocktails at all.) But the cocktail renaissance has moved along at a breakneck speed, with so much progress crammed into each year they start to feel more like dog years. Within this framework it was possible that a new drink like the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, an early mezcal cocktail invented by Phil Ward at Death & Co. in 2007, could resemble a benchmark achievement by 2010, by which time agave spirits had become common backbar items and increasingly popular among the general public.

The Oaxaca Old-Fashioned embodies one characteristic any modern classic cocktail must have—it traveled beyond the bar where it was created. It’s possible, by contrast, for a drink to become famous, and still only be served at its place of origin. The Dukes Martini, for example, is known the world over for its arctic-cold undiluted presentation, with only a few dashes of vermouth. But very few bars serve a Martini the peculiar way Dukes Bar in London does, making it not a modern classic cocktail, but a house specialty.

The Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, meanwhile, though still a popular order at Death & Co., was served at numerous bars around the world within a year or two of its creation. (Sometimes, the drink—a simple Old-Fashioned riff made with reposado tequila and mezcal—was sold under a different name, but it was nevertheless the same cocktail.) A drink’s adoption by dozens of additional bars is a sure signifier that a cocktail is on its way to attaining classic status.

Of course, no drink lands on a competing bar menu without the approval of the bar owner and the bartenders who work there. That is a second tip-off that a drink has made the grade: Fellow bartenders like it and recognize that one of their colleagues has cooked up something unusually good. There is great camaraderie among members of the bartending community, but they don’t dole out compliments about new drinks unless they really mean it. Putting a colleague’s cocktail on their menu is the ultimate affirmation. For example, Audrey Saunders’ early success, the rum and Champagne-based Mojito spin called the Old Cuban, quickly crossed the Atlantic and was served at bars in London and Paris within a decade of its creation.

The arrival of variations and spins on the original formula is another way to tell if a cocktail is on its way to achieving the title of modern classic. The recipe for the Gin-Gin Mule, Audrey Saunders’ gin riff in the Moscow Mule, has spawned dozens of additional drinks, all in the mule family, around the globe. Similarly, the recipe for the Penicillin—a mix of blended Scotch, lemon juice, ginger syrup and smoky single-malt Scotch created by Sam Ross at Milk & Honey in 2005—has served as inspiration for dozens of additional drinks around the world. In Ross’ native Australia, for example, a Sydney bar called The Lobo Plantation offered a Penicilina, a tequila version of the drink. (Sometimes, a riff on a modern classic can result in yet another modern classic; hence, Sam Ross’ Paper Plane—bourbon, amaro, Aperol and lemon juice—inspired Joaquín Simó’s Naked & Famous, made of mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Aperol and lime juice.)

The final litmus test of a modern classic cocktail is that it must, of course, be popular. People have to order it, not just during its initial heyday, but for years afterward. The Espresso Martini and Cosmopolitan, for example, were invented in the 1980s, and we still drink them now. Likewise for Tommy’s Margarita, invented in the 1990s, and the Porn Star Martini, which today is the most popular cocktail in the United Kingdom, nearly two decades after it was created in London by Douglas Ankrah.

You simply can’t fake that kind of track record.

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