Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s contributing cocktail editor and the author of the column Easy Drinking. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.
Last week, my good friend and mentor David Wondrich posted this article about something that resonated with a good many of my peers in the bar world: the recent trend of some bartenders, myself amongst their number, reviving what Mr. Wondrich would have you believe are “crappy” drinks. Long Island iced teas. Kamikazes. Mudslides. Dave states that we’ve been “reaching back into the Dark Ages” in hopes of making modernized versions of the drinks “that this whole craft-cocktail thing was created to avoid.”
And while I respect his opinion and can see his point of view, I’m afraid I have to disagree.
I’ve been tending bar full time for nearly 20 years now. I was there when the only things ordered in bars were Long Island iced teas, kamikazes and mudslides. I was working at a time when a bar that didn't serve either Budweiser or Coors couldn’t afford to stay in business. But I was also there when fresh juice started to appear behind the bar, even though it was rarely available outside of fancy restaurant bars. I helped turn a whole new generation of drinkers at my bars on to martinis, Manhattans, slings, sidecars and Sazeracs. I led the pack of bartenders using house-made ingredients because there weren’t any on the market that we loved. I literally wrote the book on cocktail technique.
But my deep interest in all this stuff wasn't driven by one single thing, and it sure wasn’t the result of a Luddite desire to return us all to the year 1870. I personally don’t care whether or not you want to drink an ale flip heated with the hot poker from a colonial fireplace. I don’t have any need for you to drive around in a horse-drawn carriage, either. The only thing I’m interested in is making better drinks. And at least in my mind, that is what this whole craft-cocktail thing was created for.
It’s a little rough to claim that one day my parents’ entire drinking generation collectively decided to take 150 years of cocktail tradition and dump it in the toilet. Because that’s not how it happened. Prohibition helped kill the cocktail by making all of the experts into criminals — the people who knew what they were doing either moved overseas or changed professions altogether. In the years after Prohibition, the cocktail helped kill the cocktail by refusing to innovate. Nobody wants to drink the same thing for 150 years. Come on. Drugs killed the cocktail by actually being fun! Cocktails like the Sazerac and the Manhattan certainly weren’t doing that in the '60s.
If anything, drinks like the Long Island iced tea helped save the cocktail. They brought people back into the bars. They got them drunk with their sickly-sweet ingredients designed to cover up the taste of booze. And more importantly, bars were fun again. The next wave of drinkers took up the flavored martini. Those drinks were still sweeter than they needed to be, but some of them contained fresh ingredients, and bars had never been more full. Then along came the resurgence of the classics in the mid-2000s, and some bartenders declared that everything else was no longer welcome in their increasingly crowded establishments.
But a few of us refuse to banish these so-called “crappy” cocktails when we can rehabilitate them. Rediscovering one of these cocktail pariahs, applying all you’ve learned about making cocktails and improving upon it is respectful, easy and actually kind of fun. Give the drink better liquor, use fresh ingredients, tinker with the proportions, and suddenly you’ve done the drink a favor, you’ve done the drinker a favor and you come off looking like the good guy in the process. Not a bad deal for everyone and everything involved.
A few years ago I did just that with the Amaretto sour, arguably one of the most reviled cocktails of the '70s. I added some high-proof bourbon to bolster the drink’s flaccidity, I replaced the sweet ’n’ sour mix with fresh lemon juice and added egg white for a lush, rich mouthfeel. The results are exceptional and now the drink appears on menus at the finest drinking establishments all over the world. Because that’s how you deal with a drink you don’t like — you fix it, rather than ignore it in the hope that it goes away.
Here's a recipe so you can try it yourself:
Amaretto Sour Recipe
1 1/2 ounces amaretto
3/4 ounce overproof bourbon, such as Booker’s
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce egg whites, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon 2:1 simple syrup
- Shake ingredients with ice cubes until well chilled and strain over fresh ice in an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with lemon peel and a brandied cherry.
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