Cocktail Inspiration: 5 Bartenders Reveal Their Spin on Classic Cocktails

You can’t go wrong with a classic. That sentiment continues to reverberate around bars all across the country, as cocktail culture cycles back to its roots with a renewed appreciation for simple, classic drinks.

Just as with any industry of expression (like fashion or art), trends tend to evolve backward as much as they do forward, their reintroduction met with new waves of appreciation. And as consumers become more educated drinkers, and start to understand the depths that one spirit alone holds, it seems almost cruel to mask the complex notes of the tastebuds by overdoing it. This demand of to-the-point simplicity can also be seen in the ever-progressing American dining culture. Journalist C.W. Ceram said it best: “Genius is the ability to reduce the complicated to the simple.”

What influences American culture to revive these trends once again? And how are bartenders around the country putting a modern spin on the classics? We’ve got you covered, below.

The Cycle of a Cocktail Trend

While there are always a whirlwind of trends circling cocktail culture — whether it be a particular spirit, the use of bitters, methods and techniques, or style (like tiki cocktails) — the straightforwardness of simple versus complex is always on the radar. 

According to Foodable Industry Expert Suzy Badaracco, a toxicologist, chef, and registered dietitian who spends a lot of time forecasting trends for the food industry, the birth of a trend isn’t as random as one might think. “To be born, a trend needs two things,” she says. “It has to have a champion, which is someone or something that is pushing it forward… [and it] must link to another existing trend that is already on the ground running. If a trend doesn’t link to another existing trend, it will be a short-lived trend, or ‘fad.’”

Badaracco says the “champion” can be a “corporation, government, individual, or another trend.” It’s what influences the new trend to come into light.

While there is no one definite answer, the revival of classic cocktails can be attributed to many things, including consumers’ demand for simplicity, a result of wanting to know and understand what they are consuming (an existing trend). The influence can also be seen in the media, with shows like “Mad Men” reminding viewers of the popularity (and sophistication) of the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Whiskey Sour, Vodka Gimlets, and the list goes on.

The Classic Cocktail (Remix)

A shake, a pour, a heavy hand. Personal customization can be seen throughout the entire process of concocting a drink. You can order the same drink from two different bartenders and they probably wouldn’t taste the exact same. And no matter how many mixologists draw from the same source of inspiration to remake the same type of drink (say, an Old Fashioned), they would each interpret it a different way. Below, pulling inspiration only from bars that we have personally visited, are examples of how bartenders across America are putting their own spin on a familiar drink.

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Mixing Up the Manhattan

After slinging Manhattans for a while, Beverage Director Ryan McGrale wanted to liven things up on Tavern Road’s [video] original menu. The Down & Brown, a Manhattan with Fernet-Branca, did even better than expected among both the male and female clientele. “Fernet-Branca is extremely big in Boston, even more so than in other cities,” says McGrale.

Ingredients: Rye whiskey, Fernet-Branca, Bénédictine, Maraschino liqueur

Redoing the Daiquiri

Adam Weber of Chicago’s Bar Takito [video] makes a rum daiquiri taste simple when, in reality, the back-end method to get there is more complex. His take on it is called the Barba Negra. “We’re taking Lipton Fresh-Brewed black tea and infusing it in the rum,” says Weber. A technique called booze-washing makes the astringency found in the black tea (which is even more so when adding alcohol and chilling it) less pronounced. To do this, Weber added milk and lemon juice, and curdled it to take out all of the astringency using the protein in the milk, he says. The inspiration? “I wanted to show how simple classic cocktails are, and the simple ingredients of a daiquiri,” Weber says. “But then you take a new technique that’s out there that is very complex, and you kind of infuse it — the new meets the old.” 

Ingredients: Black tea infused rum, simple syrup, lime juice, sugar (booze-washing required)

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Old Fashioned Meets New Fashion

While the establishment is now shuttered, Miami’s former Oak Tavern [video] showcased Megan Bardoe's Amor y Amargo, essentially a rum Old Fashioned. “The inspiration came from a bar in New York City in the East Village called Amor y Amargo, and the owners also makes Bitterman’s bitters,” says Bardoe. “And the last time I was in New York, I happened to be there, and I just really loved the atmosphere.” When a rum cocktail competition presented itself, Bardoe built upon that original inspiration, hence the name of the cocktail. When deciding what would comprise the drink, she turned to her love of tea and, from there, asked herself what her favorite writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, would drink while sitting out on the veranda thinking of loves lost.

Ingredients: Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, Apricot Escape tea syrup, allspice dram, orange peel

Her (other) take on an Old Fashioned is a creation called Kumbaya. Most wouldn’t think of mezcal when mixing up an Old Fashioned, but Bardoe flexed her mixology muscles when a customer challenged her to whip up something with the spirit. The combination of Mezcal Reposado and High West Campfire (a blend of rye, bourbon and scotch) adds a smoky tone that ends on a peaty note. With agave nectar for balance, and orange bitters for a citrus flavor, the cocktail isn’t too overbearing.

Ingredients: Mezcal Reposado, High West Campfire, agave nectar, orange bitters, flamed orange peel

Move Over, Bijou

Though certainly not as commonplace as an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, the Bijou is a classic made up of gin, sweet vermouth, Green Chartreuse, and orange bitters. Basically, it’s a Negroni with Green Chartreuse. But at Sportsman’s Club in Chicago [video], a popular industry hangout, Jacyara de Oliveira switches it up with rum. In fact, she uses a mixture of rum to balance out the flavors to prevent from an overpowering rum flavor.

Ingredients: Sweet vermouth, La Favorite rum, El Dorado rum, Chartreuse, absinthe

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Dark ‘n Stormy

At the Cuban-influenced La Descarga in Los Angeles [video], Joseph Swifka adds to the menu a play on a Dark n’ Stormy with chai tea infused rum and black lager from Brazil. The Trading Co. Cocktail replaces ginger beer with the chai tea rum with the interesting addition of pineapple syrup and fresh lime juice as well, creating a wave of time-released flavors through the palate. 

Ingredients: Chai tea infused rum, pineapple syrup, fresh lime juice, Xingu black lager

At the end of the day (or shift), there is no “right” way to put a spin on a classic — unless, of course, it’s imbalanced and difficult to drink. Pulling inspiration from everything, having the patience to get the flavor and measurements just how you envision them, and realizing that nothing is off limits is what makes the old new again. And as we have seen a huge generational shift in the industry, where bartending is now more than ever seen as a career, rules behind the bar are becoming replaced with opportunities.