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Cocktails

Where It All Began

December 02, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

art: Raphaelle Macaron

Cocktails

Where It All Began

December 02, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

art: Raphaelle Macaron

In the first of a four-part series, Robert Simonson examines the late 1990s, a period that re-introduced the bar world to a century of lost knowledge.

Over the last quarter century that has encompassed the cocktail revolution, bar-world innovations proceeded at such a record clip that it can be hard to remember what happened when. This is the first in a four-part series that aims to clear that historical fog by examining the major drinking trends that defined each five-year period of the cocktail revival, beginning with 1995 to 2000.

In those nascent years, cocktail advancement was centered in a few metropolitan areas, including New York, London, San Francisco and Portland, and led by a handful of forward-thinking bartenders, such as Dale DeGroff, Dick Bradsell, Tony Abou-Ganim, Jerri Banks, Julie Reiner and Peggy Boston. It was a period largely defined by re-education—for bartenders and drinkers alike—in practices that had been considered standard in the Golden Age of cocktails a century prior. Fresh juice and produce returned to the backbar and bar menus welcomed back forgotten pre-Prohibition cocktails, sourced from the out-of-print drink-making manuals that became the preferred textbooks for a new breed of bartender. Martini glasses were everywhere—sometimes filled with actual Martinis, but just as often tasting of chocolate, hazelnut or peach. The traditional flavor of spirits changed, too, as bartenders began to play chemist, infusing bottles of vodka and rum with fruits and herbs. These trends, in turn, infused the profession itself with a new vitality that would only grow in the coming century. Here is a glimpse of the cocktail zeitgeist in the late 1990s and the drinks that epitomized them.

Farm to Glass

If there is one trend that epitomizes the whole of the cocktail renaissance, let alone its early years, it is fresh ingredients. During the ’90s, the cocktail bar slowly converted itself from a supermarket aisle, filled with shelf-stable products rife with preservatives and chemicals, to a green grocer, where freshly plucked and sourced ingredients—juices, garnishes, eggs, everything—crowded the bar top every service. Gone were the neon-red maraschino cherries that had nothing of the tree about them; in were housemade brandied cherries using actual fruit. Gone were the sour mixes, workhorse slurries of artificial flavors and sweeteners; in were genuine limes, lemons and oranges, daily wrenched of their bright juices.

Dale DeGroff, the head bartender at the Rainbow Room throughout the ’90s, made nothing without fresh ingredients. Jerri Banks plucked lemon verbena and mint leaves from live potted plants on her bar to compose cocktails at Fressen in New York’s Meatpacking District. In San Francisco, Enrico’s was banging out hundreds of Mojitos, going through mountains of fresh mint each evening, and tequila evangelist Julio Bermejo started making his Margaritas with fresh lime juice at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant. It was an obvious step in the direction of quality, but one that had been ignored for decades in the name of convenience.

'Tini Time

In the late 20th century, during the so-called Dark Ages of the cocktail, when all other drinks had faded from the Earth’s collective memory, the Martini alone remained relevant and remembered, if only by name. So when entrepreneurs built new cocktail bars, naturally, they built them around the Martini. The Temple Bar, an upscale, dimly lit drinking den in Lower Manhattan, was deeply focused on the Martini, offering vodka and gin renditions of the drink, as well as classic variations. Pravda, Keith McNally’s vodka vision of Russian drinking, which opened kitty-corner from Temple Bar in 1996, was similarly styled. Nearby, Marion’s Continental, Soho Wine Bar and Grange Hall pushed copious V-shaped drinks across the bar, as did countless other new bars throughout the United States.

Most of what these bars were serving, however, were Martinis in name only. The term communicated not a specific mix of gin and vermouth, but the idea of sophisticated adult drinking. In London, the adopted nomenclature led to a few modern classics, such as the Breakfast Martini and Espresso Martini, which have shown true staying power. Once the cocktail revival shifted into high gear in the next century, the Martini slowly returned to its true self. But for a time, it was all drinks to all people, and kept the cocktail in the news.

Infused Everything

“Molecular mixology” was nonexistent in the 1990s. No one owned a rotovap or was turning cocktails into jellies, powders or foams. The closest a given bar came to a laboratory was in the creation of infusions. Turning up their noses at the industrially produced flavored vodkas that were flooding the market at the time, precocious bartenders took matters into their own hands, personally loading their spirits with herbs or fruit or spices. At C3 in Greenwich Village, for example, Julie Reiner was filling demijohns of rum and vodka with pineapples and apples, and converting the results into mixed drinks like the C3 Apple Martini, a more natural and sophisticated twist on the then-ubiquitous Appletini. Nearby, at Kin Khao in SoHo, Toby Cecchini filled his jars of vodka with makrut lime, ginger and lemongrass. Infused liquors were also part of the bar program at Saucebox, which Peggy Boston opened in Portland, Oregon, in 1995. It was a simple trick, baby steps in terms of creativity. But at a time when ambitious mixologists were just learning to walk again, it was a start.

A Star Bartender Is Born

In the 19th century, there was no shortage of celebrity bartenders. Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson, Bill Boothby—they were all leading citizens whose names appeared in the papers from time to time. After Prohibition, however, the trade of bartending was stripped of all glamour and glitz. The only time a bartender’s name appeared in print, a San Francisco barkeep once quipped, is when he was arrested. In the 1990s, that changed. Bartenders became personages again, celebrated and quoted and invited to write for the newspapers and magazines that covered their activities. Dale DeGroff became the best-known bartender in the United States, endlessly profiled for his trailblazing work at the Rainbow Room in New York. Dick Bradsell was his equivalent in London, a man nearly as famous as the boldface names he served at the Atlantic Bar & Grill, where he created drinks like the Bramble and Espresso Martini. When several of Bradsell’s protégés opened the LAB bar in 1996, they became rock stars almost instantaneously. Suddenly, when a bartender’s name appeared in the paper, it wasn’t in the police blotter—it was in the society pages.

What's Old Is New Again

When Dale DeGroff was made the bar director of Aurora, a Midtown Manhattan restaurant, in the late ’80s, his boss, Joe Baum, told him to find a copy of Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book Bar-Tender’s Guide. Thus began the era of the bartender-historian. In Portland, Marco Dionysos, bartender at Saucebox, scoured used-book stores for old, out-of-print cocktail manuals, looking for some insight into the history of his craft. In Seattle, Murray Stenson of Zig Zag Cafe did the same. On nascent internet gathering places like the drink and food board on America Online and DrinkBoy, a website created by Microsoft executive Robert Hess, the contents of these yellowing manuscripts were hashed over and debated. It didn’t take long for these historic cocktails to be rescued from the depths of the internet and put on menus. The Sazerac, a classic cocktail that for decades could only be bought and drunk in New Orleans, was sold at the Rainbow Room in New York and Absinthe in San Francisco. The latter was run by Dionysos, who created one of the first historically oriented cocktail menus, each drink annotated with information on its author and provenance. The Caipirinha, Algonquin, Stork Club, Flamingo, Bobby Burns, Gin Sling—they were all back from the dead, having leapt from dusty page to glass.

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