Behind the Bar

How to Create a Modern Classic

A cocktail garnished with flowers in a coupe glass.
The White Negroni at Dante has traveled far outside of Manhattan. Here, its creator (Naren Young) joins a panel of fellow "modern classic" creators to explain how it's done.

“For over 80 years, people have been traveling to Florence to have the Negroni at Caffè Casoni,” Jacob Briars told the Tales on Tour audience in the Make Your Mark: How to Create a Modern Classic seminar. “People will plan a trip to Venice to drink a Bellini at Harry’s Bar,” he continued. Then there’s a margarita at Tommy's in San Francisco. “Almost the moment I book the ticket, I’m starting to salivate.”

It’s cocktail tourism, said Briars, identifying the impulse to travel across a city, country, or even the globe to get one drink at one bar. For bartenders (and business owners), there’s an obvious appeal to having a signature drink for which you or your bar are known — and for that drink to travel far and wide — but can you really manufacture it? Can you create the conditions in which you create a multi-generational worldwide famous cocktail that you or your bar are known for?”

The panel, made up of Tom Walker (Fresh Kills; formerly the American Bar where he created the Maid in Cuba), Naren Young (Dante) and Shervene Shahbazkani offered some tips for making it happen.

Start With the Name

Walker: There’s often not a lot of thought that goes in to the name. It’s almost the most important part because it’s the first thing you see on the menu. If the name of the drink doesn’t give a hint to what’s it’s about, it’s going to be tough to sell. The Old Cuban has the whole package: a great name and the recipe to fall back on.

Briars: Old Cuban tells you it’s a drink from the cantinero tradition, then the “old” tells you there’s going to be an aged rum in it. So it’s doing the selling long before the order.

Keep it simple

Briars: There are times when I wake up and think, damn, Bacardi, lime and sugar is particularly delicious, but then I realize someone in Cuba has already done it.

Simple formulas work well, but, of course, they often tend to have already been taken. Play around with ingredients that are new or perhaps haven’t been used to death before.

Shahbazkani: It’s quite difficult to create a simple drink with a wow factor. You want to create it with ingredients you can use, but you want it to stand out as well.

You can create a simple drink with one ingredient that is a little harder to source, whether it’s basil or apple cider vinegar — it can still be quite accessible.

Walker: One of the defining characteristics of some of the drinks like the Tommy’s Margarita and the Espresso Martini is that they are really straightforward drinks where something has been added or substituted. With Tommy’s it’s the agave, a long time ago it wasn’t that widely available. The Espresso Martini: we take for granted a bar will have an espresso machine, but that wasn’t always the case. With the Penicillin: it’s the ginger juice; on the face of it, it’s a hot toddy format, but the thing that jumps out is the use of the ginger.

Shahbazkani: [It’s about] simplicity in terms of method as well as the ingredients. You want to create a recipe that you can put in other people’s hands and they can do it justice.

Make it Replicable

Young: If you are using esoteric ingredients no one else can find, that kind of cancels out your quest for creating a modern classic.

Walker: When you have a drink that has an exclusive ingredient, you are already fighting a losing battle. If your goal is to make a drink that you hope bartenders will pick up and take to their bars, if you make something homemade and specific, how can you guarantee that they are going to be able to replicate the recipe? Why should they make your ingredient for your drink when they can probably make something just as good?

Don’t Be Shy; Get it Out There

Walker: Make it as many times as you can and hope that, within a three to five year period, someone notices. [Tom says he thinks he made the Maid in Cuba 20,000 times over the course of a year.] I took a three- to five-year plan and condensed it to 11 months. I spent at least half an hour to an hour asking people to make it, take a photo, put it on the menu.

It came to the point where even if I wasn’t in a specific country or city, that drink could be made somewhere else. Because the drink was easy to make and people wanted to take a picture of it and put it online.

Shahbazkani: We [Tom and I] had a plan. It wasn’t a happy coincidence. It was a brand within itself. It had its own identity. We shouldn’t be apologetic about that … it’s how you build reputation.

Briars: I started bartending in the last millennium when people guarded their trade secrets. Social media has changed that. Once upon a time the best way to make your drink famous was to make it unattainable so that people had to come to your bar. Then people realized the best way to own the drink and make it yours is to get the recipe out as fast as possible.

Be True to Your Drink

Shahbazkani: A lot of people make great drinks, then move on to their next set of great drinks. Be true to your drinks; take them to your next bar. Don’t always think you have to create the next weird, elaborate drink.

Don’t Make it Obvious

Briars: Take some time to make it unique in its delivery, ingredients, and perhaps more importantly, its name.

One of my favorite drinks, and one I thought would become a modern classic, is the London Calling, the one created by Chris Jepsen around 2005 at Milk and Honey. All the conditions were right. It was the most famous bar on the planet, it used gin, at a time when not that many people were drinking gin, and fino sherry. But [as a Google search reveals] any bartender on earth who has ears and likes gin has probably heard of the Clash and has thought: gin is from London, the Clash is a cool band, hey presto: London Calling.

Own It, Even if it’s Not Your Own

Briars: If you don’t have a modern classic, at least have a modern signature. There’s the White Lady at Bar High Five in Tokyo, the martini service at the Connaught, the Barrel Aged Negroni at Clyde Common in Portland and the Irish Coffee at the Dead Rabbit. Having a drink associated with your venue is just great business.

Young: The Garibaldi is our signature drink at Caffe Dante. This drink has become our muse and I think it’s important to have a drink you can center your bar around. We didn’t invent this drink, but I dare say we perfected it.

Keep Making It

Briars: The biggest reason why drinks don’t become as famous you think they should be is that you get bored of them before anybody’s really had a chance to hear about them.

Young: You need to [stay] excited about it.

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