In-Depth

What Makes a Cocktail a Modern Classic?

Aperol being poured into an aperol spritz cocktail in a wine glass.
Journalist and author Robert Simonson has created an app that includes modern day classics like the Aperol Spritz, alongside notes about the creator and the drink's backstory. Photo via Flickr/Nigab Pressbilder.

One of the benefits of being a bartender is the chance to let your creativity flag fly. Experimenting with new ingredients and techniques is just as much a part of the job description as preparing drinks and helping customers. And oftentimes these very same experiments are what lead to cocktails that sweep the industry and become modern classics.

So what is it about certain cocktails that get people talking for years after they were invented? And why are some drinks timeless and become menu staples at bars around the world, while others generate buzz only to be forgotten? Some examples of drinks that have (deservingly) earned the title of modern classics are the Aperol Spritz, Gin Gin Mule, Penicillin, Whiskey Smash and even the loved and loathed (depending on who you ask) Cosmopolitan. Although these drinks may defer in taste and ingredients, they all have one thing in common: They’ve all made their way into the cocktail canon and can be found at bars in New York City, Tokyo, London, and everywhere in between and are quickly becoming people’s go-to drinks like Negronis and Gimlets.

Earlier this year, spirits and cocktail journalist and book author Robert Simonson created a mobile app that includes drinks he considers modern classics. Called Modern Classics of the Cocktail Renaissance, the curated collection of recipes includes 99 drinks invented between the 1970s and today by some of the most renowned bartenders in the world, including Audrey Saunders, Sam Ross, Don Lee and Salvatore Calabrese. And each listing includes a nod to the creator and a backstory on its history. Of the nearly 100 drinks, Simonson included 23 that meet a three-point criteria that makes them the epitome of modern classics.

“[To qualify], each drink must have traveled beyond the bar where it was invented; it must be popular with the public, so much so that they ask for it by name; and it must be regarded in high esteem by the bartending community,” Simonson says.

One drink in particular that fits the bill is the Penicillin, a cocktail created in 2005 by Sam Ross of Milk & Honey in New York City, that includes blended Scotch whiskey, Laphroaig 10-year Single Malt Scotch, honey-ginger syrup and lemon juice. Although Milk & Honey shuddered years ago, the Penicillin still pops up on bar menus around the world. And even if it’s not listed, any bartender worth his or her cocktail shaker should know how to make one.

“The Penicillin is a damn good cocktail,” says Simonson, who wrote about the drink last year for its 10th anniversary.

One bartender in particular who’s a modern classic cocktail pioneer, and has about a half-dozen drinks included in the app (such as the Gin Gin Mule and the Old Cuban) is Audrey Saunders. In fact, she was one of the first bartenders to really get the wheels in motion for the cocktail revolution. “Drink work is an extremely creative process for me, and when I created [these signature cocktails] it was at the infancy of the cocktail revival,” says Saunders, who adds that she finds inspiration for her drinks in unlikely places. “It can be a single ingredient, a mood, a flower, a theme, a time of day, an occasion, a season, aroma, art, a food pairing, or a person. It can be almost anything, because this wonderful world of ours is both a palate and a canvas, all at once.”

Don Lee, formerly of PDT in New York City, also finds inspiration when he’s not looking, which happened when he created the Benton’s Old Fashioned in 2007. According to the app, it remains PDT’s most popular drink.Another drink included in the app is Benton’s Old Fashioned, created by Don Lee, formerly of PDT in New York City, in 2007. According to the app, it remains PDT’s most popular drink, and Lee created it at a time when the country was going mad for bacon.

“This was during the time when I was a regular at Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Momofuku Noodle Bar,” Lee says. “I started experimenting with the leftover Benton’s bacon fat that chef David Chang used in his dishes. I wanted to make something new that wasn’t done yet. A drink that reminded people of something they already knew and had a relationship with.”

The result was the porky riff on the classic Old Fashioned that combines bacon fat-washed Four Roses Bourbon with maple syrup and Angostura bitters.

“In my mind, two flavors that play well together are bacon and maple syrup as well as bacon and bourbon,” he says. “Bacon can be both sweet and savory, especially when you’re eating pancakes or waffles and you get maple syrup on the bacon. Pairing bacon with bourbon isn’t revolutionary, I just happened to be the first person to do it and got the attention for it. It just made sense to put the two together. I wanted to make something that would be better than what anyone else would make. ”

Another bartender whose cocktail made the cut — and who also had breakfast on his mind — is Salvatore Calabrese, who created the Breakfast Martini in 1997 while working at the Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel in London. The drink combines London dry gin, curaçao, lemon juice and a dollop of English orange marmalade, and was the result of a breakfast his wife made for him.

“I normally don’t do breakfast, the only thing I want that early in the morning is espresso,” Calabrese says. “But my wife presented me with a slice of toast with marmalade on top and demanded that I eat it. The bitter orange played with my taste buds and I knew that it would work well with the dry, spicy juniper flavor of gin combined with the sweetness of curaçao and the sharpness of lemon juice.”

Soon enough the Breakfast Martini became popular with bartenders, and customers around the world began ordering it.

“It’s a very drinkable drink and easy to replicate,” he says. “What makes it so iconic and unique is that you’re able to mobilize it anywhere in the world. I’m hoping that people still talk about it 100 years from now.”

And when they do, it will go from being a modern classic to a classic, just like the Negroni and Manhattan did before it.

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