There’s something dashing and debonair about a classic cocktail. Imagine yourself as an international spy in shawl-collared tuxedo, ordering Martinis “shaken, not stirred,” and seducing beautiful women; or as the femme fatale, in satin lounge dress and dew-dropped, red lipstick-stained glass in hand. Regardless of imagery, cocktails evoke an idea, era, place, or attitude.
As experts will attest, successful marketers sell an idea of who you will become after you adopt a product, rather than the product itself. This rule applies to beverage marketing as well. Enjoy this cocktail and you will enjoy a glamorous life: we promise.
Classic cocktails automatically connote a bygone era, a time when men wore Mad Men-style suits, when people were more formal, when the cocktail was the ultimate accessory. A cocktail can imply sophistication. Or not! A Manhattan: classy; a Fuzzy Nipple: not so!
There has been a widespread resurgence of classic cocktails in the past few years. Bartenders across the nation, and the world, are bringing back vintage and obscure drinks. They are championing the cocktails of yore, scouring cocktail books from the early 20th century (or earlier) and recreating long-lost drinks. Everything old has become new again as they bring back liquors that had long gone out of production like Crème d’Yvette (hello Aviation!), or Carpano Antica.
Harry Denton’s Starlight Room at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco—one of our clients—illustrates the history of the cocktail movement in their comprehensive menu. Each page is dedicated to a different decade. For instance, the Jerry Thomas years, in the 1860s, are represented by a Pisco Crusta. Joel Tittelbaum, the man behind the new list at Starlight Room uses a Peruvian brandy and offsets it with red lychee tea and lime in place of the more traditional mix of lemon and Cointreau.
Eastern Standard Kitchen, in Boston, also pays tribute to the classics of different eras, including: “heritage” drinks and “tikisims.” One heritage drink called the Jasmine, is in of itself, an updated version of the Prohibition-era Pegu. It combines gin with Campari, Cointreau and lemon for an appealing new rendition of a revival, priced at $10.
Cocktails are such a key piece of Heaven’s Dog, in San Francisco, that they state “Pre-prohibition cocktails” in their tagline. The menu features a regularly rotating roster of drinks, occasionally even stating where the drink was invented. In so doing, they set the mood for the drink to come, whether it be pre-WWII Cuba or Hotel Country in Lima, Peru.
In both cases, the restaurants set the scene, giving the guest a little bit of history to consume with the drink; and paying homage to its invention. This approach demonstrates the bar’s dedication to the cocktail craft and helps share their enthusiasm and zeal with guests. It also builds trust. One can assume anyone who has studied 100+plus years of cocktails knows which drinks are worth sharing.
As time-proven as the classics are, it can help to distinguish your program. While you can get a gin and tonic anywhere, there’s only one place you can get an Owl’s Clover, with Cocchi Americano, Fernet Branca, lemon, honey and lavender bitters.
Rob Roy in Seattle splits their cocktail menu in two parts: “Originals” and “Classics.” They proudly quote George Kneller on the top of their list where they say, “It seems to be one of the paradoxes of creativity that in order to think originally, we must familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others.” Half their list features classic drinks like the Whiskey Fix, while the other half showcases their creativity and skill with unique signature concoctions, like the aforementioned Owl’s Clover, which costs $10.
Picán, in Oakland, CA—also one of our clients—takes a similar approach, dividing the drinks list into three parts: “Picán Signature Drinks,” “Southern Twists” and “Classics.” “Classics,” for this Southern restaurant, include Mint Juleps and Sazeracs while “Southern Twists” add a playful touch to traditional Southern drinks. The La Vie en Rosé twists a French 75 with Courvoisier Rosé and Velvet Falernum. “Picán Signatures” extrapolate even further, like the case of Black Hand with Bourbon, basil, balsamic syrup and ginger beer for $10.
Do the Twist
For the adventurous sort, Chez Papa Resto in San Francisco has added a lot of fun and adventure to their cocktail program. They serve a carbonated Last Word cocktail and offer eight types of Manhattans in addition a full list of specialty cocktails. Manhattan variations range from barrel-aging; where a Rye Manhattan is aged for 90 days in a whiskey barrel before being served, to the Popsicle Stick which infuses the Rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and cherry bitters blend with wood chips, for a flavor slightly reminiscent of the last bite of a cherry popsicle.
This scenario of playfully updating classic cocktails, gives guests an anchor. They can start with a familiar drink and then venture forth from there. It builds confidence and trust. After all, if you like a Sidecar you’ll probably like the Saint Sidecar at Woodward at Ames Hotel in Boston, Mass, where the drink includes Allspice Dram and maple.
Start with the classics and then show ‘em what you can do. It will keep people coming back for more.