When the first issue of Cheers came out, the cocktail scene was dominated by drinks that mixed basic spirits—primarily vodka, gin or rum—with fruit juice or soda. The Long Island Iced Tea, with a little bit of everything thrown in, was about as creative as most bartenders were getting.
The sugary drinks of the 1980s such as the Frozen Mudslide and Sex on The Beach gave way to the Martini trend of the 1990s. Most cocktails were still overly sweet and fruity and made with bottled juices or mixers.
That would start to change as the interest in and exposure to classic recipes and techniques and fresh ingredients began to pick up in the late 1990s. Bartenders started to learn that they had to go back to the period before Prohibition to understand the craft of cocktail making and the basics of developing balanced libations.
Many drinks have had their influence on the present-day cocktail culture during the past 25 years, but these are our picks for the top 10.
No contest, the Cosmo is the cocktail kingpin of the past quarter century. There is some debate about who created it, however. An early version of the Cosmopolitan dates back to the 1930s (using gin instead of vodka), and in 1968 Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice bottles promoted a recipe for a cranberry juice, vodka and lime cocktail called the Harpoon.
As for the modern recipe, bartender Neal Murray makes a claim that he developed the Cosmopolitan cocktail in Minnesota in the late 1970s by adding a splash of cranberry juice to a Kamikaze. Murray brought the drink to the West Coast in the 1980s where it reportedly gained followers at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco.
But Cheryl Cook is widely credited with creating the basic formula in the late 1980s when she was bartending at The Strand in Miami’s South Beach. Cook has said she came up with the Cosmopolitan as a more-feminine version of a Martini as part of a test market for Absolut Citron vodka. Her recipe combined Absolut Citron, a splash of triple sec, a drop of Rose’s Lime Juice and splash of cranberry juice for color, served up with a curled lemon peel garnish.
While it’s not clear who really invented the Cosmopolitan, New York bartenders Toby Cecchini (The Odeon) and Dale DeGroff (the Rainbow Room) are both credited with tweaking the recipe in the late 1980s by replacing the Rose’s with fresh lime juice and using Cointreau instead of Triple Sec; DeGroff also added a flamed orange peel garnish.
The drink got a huge lift when Madonna was photographed drinking one of DeGroff’s Cosmos at a Grammy Awards party held at the Rainbow Room in 1988. But the HBO series Sex and the City, which ran from 1998 to 2004, really put the Cosmopolitan on the map for the mainstream, as it was a favorite of main character Carrie Bradshaw and her three best girlfriends. Sex and the City made the cocktail so popular that Cosmos became uncool, though many people never stopped drinking them.
The Cosmo has been on the list of the top 10 of most popular drinks overall since 2000, according to the Beverage Information Group, the research unit of Cheers’ parent company, though its share peaked in 2003. The drink deserves major credit for ushering in the era of fruity and dessert Martinis like the Appletini and the Chocolate Martini, and fueling interest in new spirits and different flavors.
The Smash, which is basically a julep, had its first heyday in the mid-19th century. It was initially a combination of liquor, sugar, mint, and ice, and for most of the 20th century considered an unremarkable beverage. Then in the 1990s, Dale DeGroff of Rainbow Room fame had the idea to muddle some chunks of lemon in with the other ingredients.
The fresh and fruity addition made the cocktail more approachable to folks who refused to drink whiskey because they thought they didn’t like it. The Smash no doubt brought scores of consumers into the whiskey world and is not a small part of the spirit’s resurgence today. What’s more, not only can you find Smashes at your local craft cocktail bars and steakhouses, today they’re also on the menu at casual-dining chains such as Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s.
The Jungle Bird
This Tiki drink was developed at the Aviary Bar at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton hotel in 1978—long after Tiki’s star had dimmed. It was first published in John J. Poister’s New American Bartender’s Guide in 1989, and resurrected in Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s book Intoxica in 2002. With just five ingredients—dark rum, Campari, pineapple and lime juices and simple syrup—the Jungle Bird marries the current Tiki craze with a more sophisticated, less-sweet sensibility thanks to the Campari.
Bartender Giuseppe Gonzalez of the now-closed, New York urban Tiki bar Painkiller in 2011 replaced the original’s dark Jamaica rum with blackstrap rum, and the drink started to catch on among craft enthusiasts in major markets. The Jungle Bird has been described as a mashup of two craft bartender favorites, the Negroni and The Daiquiri.
Speaking of the Negroni, the cocktail made from Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth has been around for nearly a century. It’s said to have been invented in 1919 in Florence, Italy, when Count Camillo Negroni asked for an Americano made with gin instead of soda water.
The Negroni resurgence started about five years ago, though the classic has been an industry drink among bartenders for longer. Enthusiasts swear by the balanced concoction, which oozes sophistication while packing a punch. And since it calls for equal parts of the three ingredients, it’s also incredibly easy to make.
Bartender Dick Bradsell of Fred’s Club in London created the Bramble in the mid 1980s. The drink has been a huge hit in the U.K. for 20 years—it’s even been called England’s Cosmopolitan—but it’s only recently showing up on craft cocktail menus in the U.S.
A combination of gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and crème de mûre, the Bramble is essentially a gin sour with blackberry liqueur. But it has become something of a modern classic as a refreshing libation that bartenders can add their own flourish to using seasonal and local produce.
Yes, this Kahlua/vodka/cream drink has been around for more than 50 years, and it has long had a rap as a girly dessert drink. Then came The Big Lebowski, the 1998 Cohen Brothers film that didn’t exactly light up the box office but later became a cult classic.
That was good for the White Russian, as Lebowski devotees were more than happy to emulate the Dude, the movie’s slacker protagonist, by ordering his creamy signature drink. Jeff Bridges, the actor who played the Dude, this year appeared in a short film called “The White Russian,” produced by Kahlua parent company Pernod Ricard USA.
By most accounts the Moscow Mule was created about 75 years ago at the Cock’n Bull pub in Hollywood in conjunction with Smirnoff as a way to introduce Americans to vodka. The mix of vodka, lime juice and ginger beer is traditionally served over ice in a copper mug—part of the Smirnoff marketing push for the drink in the 1940s.
The cocktail has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the past year or so. Many mixologists today will say that the Moscow Mule is overrated, perhaps because of the cocktail’s promotional origins and the fact that it calls for vodka, and there’s not much to it. But the Mule has become a drink category on its own, and it’s been introducing vodka fans to a classic recipe and craft/fresh ingredients.
Like the Moscow Mule, craft bartenders often consider the Mojito to be overrated. Plus, the Cuban-inspired combination of muddled mint leaves, simple syrup, fresh lime juice, white rum and club soda is labor intensive and a headache to make during peak times—especially when guests order them by the round.
But there’s no denying the drink’s impact on modern mixology. The Mojito caught fire in the U.S. about a decade ago, and it has introduced the handcrafted cocktail concept—muddled herbs, fresh juices, simple syrup—to the mainstream.
The Old Cuban, created by Audrey Saunders of New York’s Pegu Club fame in 2004, spruces up the Mojito with aged rum, sparkling wine and Angostura bitters.
The Cable Car
This variation on the Sidecar was created in 1996 by cocktail book author and consultant Tony Abou-Ganim, aka the “Modern Mixologist.” He developed the Cable Car as a signature drink at the Starlight Room cocktail lounge in San Francisco’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel and brought it to Las Vegas when he arrived in 1998 to run the bars in the Bellagio.
The Cable Car contains just three ingredients—spiced rum, orange curaçao and homemade lemon sour—so it’s easy to make and has a unique flavor that’s not too sweet and not too strong. It’s a unique reinterpretation of time-honored cocktail that has become a contemporary classic.
This Scotch cocktail was created by Australian-born bartender Sam Ross in 2005 when he was at the venerable New York neo-speakeasy Milk & Honey. The Penicillin, which is jokingly named for its cure-all capabilities, combines blended Scotch, single-malt Islay Scotch, fresh lemon juice and honey-ginger syrup.
The Penicillin, a riff on the classic sour cocktail, is unique in its use of Scotch—not one but two types. The combination of spirits and flavors makes for a most balanced, smoky and gently spicy libation.
How popular is the cocktail today? It’s still largely a craft favorite, but the current interest in whiskey drinks is likely giving it a boost. According to some mixologists, The Penicillin is as close to “the new Cosmopolitan” in terms of popularity as any other cocktail developed in the past 20 years has come.
This article has been updated with the correct time period that Cheryl Cook most likely developed her Cosmopolitan recipe.