In Defense of Classic Cocktails

·4 min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, my childhood home often looked like a scene from Mad Men. My parents were known for their fabulous cocktail parties and by the age of five, I knew how to stir up a Manhattan or a Gin Martini. Oh, the ’60s and ’70s.

When I was in my early twenties and old enough to go to bars, I considered these drinks too old-school. Instead, I would have ordered one of the cocktails popular at the time, like a Fuzzy Navel, a Sex on the Beach or a Long Island Iced Tea. Oh, the ’80s! America liked its beverages sweet, and you could find these sugary concoctions on almost every menu.

Over the next few decades, cocktail culture would thankfully evolve. Pioneers like Dick Bradsell, Gary Regan, Dale DeGroff, Audrey Sanders and Sasha Petraske would take us back to the golden age of the cocktail that started in the second half of the 19th century and ended with the outbreak of World War I.

As a result, modern bartenders became obsessed with reading vintage books, like The Bon Vivant’s Companion, The Savoy Cocktail Book, The Ideal Bartender and so many others. The creations of cocktail legends like Ada Coleman, Jerry Thomas, Tom Bullock and Harry Craddock were broken down, dissected and then rebuilt for the modern palate. Classic recipes and traditional bartending techniques were now the hottest thing.

During the original golden age, bartending was considered a noble profession and some establishments even required bartenders to intern for years before serving a guest directly. The rules of hospitality were quite formal and as we moved into this new golden age, many of the formal practices returned as well. It is safe to say that the industry took itself very seriously during this renaissance.

Over the past few years, there has been some debate as to whether it is important or necessary for modern bartenders to understand not only classic cocktail recipes but also their history and origins. There has been a backlash against craft cocktail stereotypes, from the fetishization of ice to bartenders’ leather aprons to the cloak-and-dagger design of speakeasies. While I certainly would love the focus of craft cocktail bars to be on hospitality instead of these trappings, I think it would be a tremendous mistake to jettison classic cocktails. It’s the reason why I helped create Old Fashioned Week, which now takes place every October. (We just raised $100,000 for the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation for the second year in a row!)

“You have to know the rules in order to break them,” said award-winning bartender Joaquín Simó, who is a partner at Pouring Ribbons in New York, when I asked his opinion about these traditional recipes. “Classics are drinks that have stood the test of time. There is a reason why people are still drinking Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds hundreds of years after they were created—they’re perfect templates that allow for each of their complex ingredients to speak clearly.”

Recently, I enjoyed one of the best Gin & Tonics I’ve ever had at Katana Kitten in New York. Respect for the base structure of this refreshing classic was clearly in place, however the bar’s owner and beverage director Masahiro Urushido was able to give this classic his own personal twist.

Angie Jackson puts it perfectly “as a musician and culinary mixologist, I think of classic cocktails like the I, IV, V chord progression in music. This is the core of many music styles. It is up to the crafter of the cocktail or musician to add their own rhythm and melody to the core to enhance flavors and make it their own.”

The world is not static and new trends, techniques, flavors and understandings will always play a role in cocktail culture. However, to build upon tomorrow you must understand and appreciate yesterday. As I reflect on the past, I have a unique appreciation for the super-sweet cocktails of my youth—they, too, drew inspiration from classic cocktails but were influenced by the culture of that time. I have become more comfortable celebrating flavors that reflect my heritage. I am very happy that my skill set has improved and that my palate grew up.

Long story short, let your voice guide you towards innovation, learning is growth and earning, and a classic is a classic for a reason.

Fall Fashion

Created by Lynn House


  • 2 oz Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon

  • .5 oz Apple Cider Syrup*

  • 3 dashes Fee Brothers Old Fashion Bitters

  • Glass: Rocks

  • Garnish: Lemon peel


Add all the ingredients and a large ice cube to a rocks glass. Stir, and then express a lemon peel over the top and drop it into the glass as a garnish.

*Apple Cider Syrup


  • 2 cups Apple cider

  • .75 cups Cane sugar

  • 1 Cinnamon stick


Add all of the ingredients to a saucepan and simmer over low heat until the sugar has melted and the syrup has thickened. Remove the cinnamon stick and allow the mixture to cool. Pour into a clean bottle and refrigerate until use.

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