Their timeless appeal is undeniable, but classic cocktails can still benefit from a facelift to attract new guests and keep return customers’ interest piqued. Deconstructing a drink’s components, swapping out ingredients or turning to eclectic techniques move the bartending craft forward, while still giving a nod to the cocktail’s heritage. We asked innovative operators and mixologists to share some ideas on how to keep classically focused libations fresh and inviting.
The easiest way to re-envision a well-known drink is by applying a new riff. “Start by examining the basic flavors and thinking about how those elements might work with other flavors,” recommends Bobby Heugel, owner and bartender at Anvil Bar & Refuge, a sixty-five-seat casual venue in Houston. Reinventing the basic Sour, for example, can be accomplished simply by substituting one or more of its basic components—base spirit, sweetener and citrus. Heugel recommends pouring a spirit infused with fruit, tea or herbs, juicing an alternate citrus fruit (perhaps Meyer lemon, ruby red grapefruit or yuzu) or replacing the simple syrup with agave, maple or honey. Even steeping simple syrup with an aromatic herb like rosemary offers applications like a more fragrant Tom Collins. “You’ve got a classic drink with a new flavor.”
Easy Substitutions for Old Favorites
Ubiquitous sips like the Manhattan, Negroni and Sidecar easily lend themselves to experimentation, says Tylor Field, III, vice president of wine and spirits for Morton’s The Steakhouse, which has seventy-five locations worldwide. Each of these three classic concoctions contains a fruit, bitter, spirit and aperitif element, and offers a bevy of beverage options if you mix and match—say, by using Aperol in a Negroni instead of Campari, or reaching for Bourbon or different bitters for a Manhattan. Patricia Richards, property mixologist for Wynn’s twenty bars on property in Las Vegas, keeps the Cognac and orange liqueur in her Sidecar ($16) but tricks it out with a purée made from slowly roasted pineapple and sage leaves. Together with its sibling property, the Encore, the Wynn has a total of 4,750 rooms.
The Blood and Sand is traditionally made with equal parts Scotch, Cherry Heering, Sweet Vermouth and orange juice. At José Andrés Mexican restaurant Oyamel in Washington, D.C., Beverage Director Jill Zimorski—who oversees the drinks programs for ThinkFoodGroup’s ten restaurants in D.C., Los Angeles and Las Vegas—updates it by replacing the Scotch with Del Maguey Mezcal, adding renowned Mexican chef Diana Kennedy’s recipe for house-made Sangrita de Jalisco, and renaming it the Sangre Y Fuego ($11). Mezcal’s innate smokiness makes it a worthy and eclectic stand-in for other Scotch drinks like the Rob Roy and Robert Burns.
Besides toying with flavor combinations, another means to an imbibe-worthy spin-off is to deconstruct a cocktail’s components, and then re-include them in an unconventional way. The basic Paloma recipe is Tequila, grapefruit soda, lime and salt; Heugel’s version at Anvil ($9) employs a house Champagne, yeast-fermented grapefruit soda and a salt-infused rim. “Same flavors, completely different method and drink.”
Beretta Pizzeria and Bar in San Francisco also avoids commercially made high fructose corn syrup-based grapefruit soda in their Nuestra Paloma ($10,) opting instead for a combination of orange liqueur, Angostura bitters, elderflower liqueur, lime and just a half ounce of grapefruit juice, resulting in a complex, refreshing and true-to-flavor experience. Ryan Fitzgerald, spirits and cocktail consultant for the one-hundred-forty-seat restaurant, also makes more enticing the effervescent bite of bottled ginger beer by instead adding high quality seltzer water to a house-made ginger and simple syrup purée. He uses it both in the tequila-, lime- and Cassis-based Diablo ($11) as well as the Kentucky Mule ($10), made with Bourbon, lime and mint.
The Key is to Start with the Classics
Just about any classic drink lends itself to deconstruction, according to Zimorski, and she’s tinkered with everything from the Mojito to the Gin & Tonic. “Identify the aromas and flavors in a cocktail; isolate the ingredients and see where you can substitute and separate.” Andrés’ Washington, D.C. Nuevo Latino restaurant Café Atlantico is heavily influenced by molecular gastronomy, especially at the six seat minibar, and techniques including airs and spherifications inevitably found their way to the back bar. Guests can order the minibar Martini ($15), a one to one ratio of dry Vermouth with either vodka or gin garnished with a liquid olive, an orb that offers the tangy brine of the real thing with a completely different texture; over at Oyamel, patrons can sip the Salt Air Margarita ($12), where a sea foam-like topper replaces the usual salted rim.
Foam-adorned beverages like those on Morton’s “Heavenly Drinks” menu also offer an unconventional way to add flavor and texture to both classics and new spins. Most popular is the Heavenly Pomegranate Mortini (around $14 depending on the market), topped with a base of raspberry purée, lemonade and pasteurized egg white.
Airs, spherifications and other guises of molecular mixology have been around for a few years, but do these so-called “parlor tricks” still belong in a drinks program? Richards submits that cost and practicality factor into whether or not to include these advanced cocktail techniques, but she believes they still have their place when used moderately and appropriately. She points to an updated Negroni on the Wynn’s bar menu, served with a grapefruit, Amaro and rose foam ($12). But Heugel, for one, questions the merit of a garnish like foam, whose texture and function contrast that of the silky, smooth, ideal cocktail. “I think that guests are weary of some of the modern techniques,” admits Zimorski. “We eschew the term molecular mixology. We’re not splitting atoms. We’re making drinks using natural products and manipulating texture and presentation.”
Guests’ expectations regarding cocktail construction vary. Field points out that while advanced cocktail techniques often appeal to a younger, more adventurous demographic, Morton’s main customer base is more concerned with four key basics: a generous pour, balanced cocktail, quick service and a fair price. Zimorski notes that type of venue also comes into play, and that while bars with a focus on craft cocktails promote an expectation of appropriate glassware and an array of bitters and tinctures, high-volume establishments offer a decreased assumption in the overall experience.
Perhaps even more important than type of venue are regional differences, which affect both large chains and independent operations. “It is important that cocktail bar owners build bars for their cities and not a perception about a national cocktail scene,” recommends Heugel. “This issue more than any other should influence what type of cocktails are served in your bar.”
No matter the size or scope of the beverage program—or the bar—operators have a lot of options to maintain an exciting cocktail menu, and keep guests returning. Richards points to the current trends of infusing liquor with dried fruit or tealeaves, and even barrel ageing an entire cocktail (see sidebar), which adds perceived value and easily allows for batching. It’s also a behind-the-scene technique that demonstrates how the end result—rather than showmanship—is what really matters in the glass.