Behind the Bar

Classic Cocktails Gone Wrong: The Top 5 Misunderstood Drinks

A red frozen daiquiri with a strawberry on top.
Through time and varied misadventures, some cocktails have morphed into lesser versions of their original selves. The Daiquiri and the Margarita both fell victim to the same crime — straightforward, freshly prepared drinks distorted into sad, neon-tinged concoctions, blended and overdosed with sugar. Photo via Flickr/Billy Millard.

If there was a Mount Rushmore of cocktails, then the likenesses of classics such as the Old Fashioned and the Martini would surely be among the select few immortalized. How is it, then, that staple drinks so often get executed differently (and in some cases, poorly)? From pop culture to misguided attempts at reinventing the wheel, the culprits vary, resulting in a handful of classic cocktail misinterpretations.

1 and 2. The Daiquiri & The Margarita

The Daiquiri and the Margarita both fell victim to the same crime: straightforward, freshly prepared drinks distorted into neon-tinged concoctions, blended and overdosed with sugar.

Like all classics, the beauty of these cocktails comes from their simplicity. For the Daiquiri, it's a careful balancing act between light rum, lime juice, and simple syrup; for the Margarita, it's tequila, lime juice, orange liqueur, and a salt rim.

The much-discussed Hemingway Daiquiri adds grapefruit juice and Luxardo Maraschino to the mix. It highlights the idea that tweaking an original is in itself not an issue. It's only when the tweak waters down that classic that it becomes a problem.

3. Tiki Drinks

Bright colors, excessive sugar and various shortcuts all hindered the world of Tiki as well. But there's more to it than that.

"It's not really anybody's fault that these drinks were ruined," explains Julien Bourgon, bar manager of Washington, D.C.'s Masseria. According to Bourgon, the root of the problem was the war waged between Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's, with espionage, stolen ingredients and secret recipes the name of the game. That battle and the resulting secrecy helped spur on Tiki's popularity, but left generations that followed a bit clueless.

"The good news is we're seeing a resurgence," says Bourgon. He cites several keys to true Tiki done right. "Using good rums... you want pungent and funky rums, which is why these blends kind of came about to try to collect all of these nuances you can get out of rum," he says.

He also emphasizes the importance of fresh citrus juice, and high quality ingredients such as well made orgeat syrup. "Not the stuff made from almond extract which, to me, smelled like hand soap."

4. The Old Fashioned

Rye or bourbon, Angostura bitters and a sugar cube. A splash of water as the sugar and bitters are crushed together. So when did the Old Fashioned become overflowing with handfuls of cherries and oranges and who knows what else? A garnish is one thing, a fruit salad in a glass is another.

These corrupted Old Fashioneds, which began appearing in the '60s, were unsightly. That doesn't mean the original recipe can't be tinkered upon while still paying homage to the classic, though. For instance, take Bourgon's "I Left My Wallet in Montreal,” with Michter's Rye, white peppercorn, bay leaf, maple and Angostura bitters.

"I follow the basic rule of the Old Fashioned," he says. "Sugar, water, spirit, bitters." Then he calls to his roots. "As a Canadian, I always like to use maple." A white peppercorn infusion and burnt bay leaf elevate the drink beyond the basics, without distorting it.

Cocktail on marble surfaceJulien Bourgon, bar manager of Washington, D.C.'s Masseria, followed the basic rule of the Old Fashioned — sugar, water, spirit, bitters — for his updated take, I Left My Wallet in Montreal. Photo: Jake Emen

5. The Martini

Blame James Bond. Or, more accurately, Ian Fleming. The ubiquitous "shaken not stirred" quip flipped the simple bar rule of stirring spirits-only drinks on its head. With no citrus, egg white or dairy in the drink, or heavy liqueur or syrup of any kind, the martini doesn't need to be shaken.

Bond also famously prefers a vodka martini, although not as widely as many believe. Vodka edges out gin at a count of 19 to 16 in Fleming's writings, in addition to the several Vespers which Bonds consumes, which are made with both vodka and gin, as well as the now defunct Kina Lillet.

Of course, some would say that the martini doesn't even exist, with how vastly wide apart different incarnations can be. You may legitimately prefer a shaken martini, or a vodka martini. Or, you may believe that the mere idea of the "vodka martini" is heresy in and of itself.

Ultimately, people should drink what they enjoy, and bartenders should diligently serve up their customer's preferences. But those customers should at least know that their shaken vodka martini — or that fruit salad né Old Fashioned — wasn't exactly the original recipe.

Jake Emen is a spirits, travel, and food writer who's been published in USA Today, GQ, Vice Munchies, Roads & Kingdoms, and elsewhere. Follow him on the socials at @ManTalkFood.

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