Over the past decade, we've seen the term "renaissance" used a lot to describe what's happening in the cocktail world: a return to old-school ways of thinking about how we're drinking, and a fonder appreciation for classic cocktails. But let's stop looking to the past for a moment. What about the future? What contemporary cocktails will actually become tomorrow's classics? I've heard a few suggestions, from the Final Ward to the Red Hook (developed by NYC bartenders Philip Ward and Enzo Errico, respectively) to the Chartreuse Swizzle, the creation of San Francisco mixologist Marcovaldo Dionysos.
But maybe there's really nothing new under the sun (or rather, shelf). When we look closely at the candidates, we find that they're mostly just riffs on recipes that have been around for decades - old-timers with a facelift.
"The basic blueprints on what makes a good cocktail don't really change just because new ingredients flood the market," says Rob Kraemer of Chez Henri (1 Shepard Street, Cambridge, 617.354.8980). "I think that's where most of the new drink successes come from: swapping out one or two components to tweak a classic into something fresh."
"I mean, let's say I make a cool new drink called the Luke O'Neil," he continues, proposing what is, incidentally, an amazing idea. "And I poach Tibetan sage, glaze it with agave, add it to gin distilled in space, pour it over rocks made from my tears, and strain it through a unicorn's mane into a nitrogen-frozen lemon-juice ‘glass.' Pretty cool, right?" Right!
"Sure, but it's really still a gin sour."
In other words, there are only so many notes in the scale. That's true even if you expand your survey sample. Bill Codman of Storyville (90 Exeter Street, Boston, 617.236.1134) widely defines "modern" to mean anything post-Prohibition, adding that the Cosmopolitan is the one from that bunch most likely to stand the test of time. But when pressed to offer a couple more, he suggests locally crafted recipes like Jackson Cannon's Metamorphosis ($10) at Eastern Standard (528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.532.9100), made with Becherovka, lemon juice, and honey, and the Wildwood ($10) at Island Creek Oyster Bar (500 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.532.5300), made with rye, cinnamon syrup, Peychaud's, Angostura, and absinthe. Both are great, sure. But once again, they're ultimately variations on oldies: a Bee's Knees and a Manhattan/Sazerac hybrid, respectively.
The aforementioned Red Hook is likewise a classic redressed in contemporary clothing. "There may be more boundary-pushing drinks out there, but to survive you need traction. And the new-wave cocktail kids have kept this one going for half a decade," says Kraemer. "It's got a backbone, balance, and a cool name. Sure, it's a tweaked-out Manhattan, but you could argue the Manhattan was a tweaked-out rye and bitters. And go further back and argue that rye whiskey is tweaked-out vodka, which is tweaked-out beer, which is tweaked-out bread."
"It's all about small switches," Kraemer concludes. "And over time you get Radiohead from Robert Johnson."
"You are right: we just riff on the same cocktails that have existed since the word ‘cocktail' has been defined," agrees Aaron Butler of Russell House Tavern (14 JFK Street, Cambridge, 617.500.3055). He suggests his own Scottish Play ($13), made with Laphroaig, Cynar, Aperol, and Drambuie, as a contender for future-classic status, as well as Misty Kalkofen's Maximilian Affair ($12), made with mezcal, St. Germain, lemon, and Punt e Mes at Drink (348 Congress Street, Boston, 617.695.1806).
At the end of the day, it might be easier to figure out what won't last. And to do that, you'll want to think about what's in each cocktail.
"The past 20 years will be the time defined as the cocktail renaissance, but also the time of brand invasion," says Butler. "We have had too many new crappy spirits pop up. I mean, there is damn bubble-gum vodka out there. . . . The only way to develop long-lasting cocktails is with liqueurs that will last for the same amount of time."