Classic Cocktails, Boldly Re-imagined

by Emily Bell
Vicky Wasik
July 2010

It wasn’t so long ago that New York area mixologists were trying to out-authentic each other with the most esoteric, historically inviolate recipes for classic cocktails—the dustier the recipe book, the better. Prohibition era drinks gave way to pre-Prohibition era drinks as mixologists looked to anchor themselves in the roots of early cocktail culture. And while that era isn’t entirely over—someone, somewhere, is trying to recreate the heady fermented beverages of ancient inebriation rites—we’re seeing a lot more creative license among local mixologists to tweak and toy with classic formulas.

What we’ve seen (or drank) is a move from homage to experimentation, with the milder “twist” on the classics amplified to an outright revolution. Like a student finally challenging his sensei, mixologists are challenging the dimensions of the classics they so ardently revere, giving traditional flavors an updated, aggressive flavor profile with a spirit-forward approach and non-traditional ingredients. And the results, we’re glad to say, are not only satisfying, but conceptually refreshing. They signal a departure from deference, with its purists’ sense of obligation, to something freer, of-the-moment, and idiosyncratic. The simple classics are still as pertinent as ever—many mixologists we asked said the classic Negroni is their after work drink of choice—because they have an enduring structure, and a formulated balance that stands the test of time. And the mixologists who have so cleverly built upon those structures are indebted to them. We’re just happy to see they’re no longer kneeling to them from behind the bar.

Special (Malaysian) Negroni

Mixologist Martim Ake Smith-Mattsson of Madam Geneva – New York, NY

Just the way Camillo Negroni’s substitution of gin for vodka in his then-favorite cocktail, the Americano, yielded the now classic, bartender-beloved Negroni, Martim Ake Smith-Mattsson’s infusion of Thai chili into Campari brings exotic new dimensions to the classic. The astringent, bittersweet complexity of Campari stands up beautifully to the heat of Thai chilies that Smith-Mattsson infuses it with for up to six days for the ultimate kick. Lemongrass-infused vermouth adds another layer of Malaysian flavor, a top note of lemony, floral tang that dances atop the solid backbone of the drink.

Voodoo Milk Punch

Mixologist Brad Farran of Clover Club – Brooklyn, NY

A New Orleans favorite, milk punch (made with bourbon or brandy) is the kind of easy-drinking Sunday brunch staple that’s sipped cold, porch-side, or hot, fireside, among the dainty trappings of old-school social politesse. But what Brad Farran is stirring up at Clover Club isn’t nearly as gentile, a drink more apropos of the shady Bayou backwaters of Louisiana—hence its “voodoo” nickname. For his spirit-forward version, Farran ups the ante with two ounces of rum and a half ounce of Benedictine; the stronger spirits quotient and the added complexity of Benedictine elevate the drink to a new level of maturity. And he cuts his punch with hot milk instead of the typical half and half, so the resulting cocktail is both lighter on the stomach and—unlike its stepchild, the White Russian—bears little to no resemblance to a grown-up’s milkshake.

Black Wing

Mixologist Joel Lee Kulp of The Richardson – Brooklyn, NY

A modified version of the Bermudan classic Dark & Stormy, the Black Wing is a lesson in how one simple addition, in this case a quarter ounce of Fernet Branca, can have a significant impact on the flavor profile of a classic. Especially with a drink like the Dark & Stormy, historically built on the basic juxtaposition of deep, rich Gosling’s Black Seal Rum and ginger beer, one new ingredient is tantamount to an alteration—putting that much more emphasis on the choice of ingredient. Kulp’s choice, Italian digestif Fernet Branca, adds a baseline of herbal, almost medicinal, muddy robustness that’s picked up by the spicy ginger beer and carried into the smoother body of Cruzan Blackstrap rum for a drink that takes the traditional 2-D Dark & Stormy to new heights, presumably on a Black Wing.

The Polish Bear

Mixologist Joel Lee Kulp of The Richardson – Brooklyn, NY

Polish and Russian ex-pats scouring the internet for sources of birch juice should make a pilgrimage to Williamsburg, where mixologist Joel Lee Kulp pairs Vavel birch juice with Zubrowka Bak’s Bison Grass Vodka for a cocktail homage to Eastern Europe. Stateside, the legacy of bison grass vodka is spotty—the traditional preparation of Zubrowka results in higher levels of coumarin (a toxin to the liver and kidneys) than the FDA allows. A few stateside imitators have sprung up, but nothing yet compares to the original, with its notes of sweet woodruff, vanilla, and ultra light green earthiness. One part birch juice, light and refreshing—as if water were infused with bark and vanilla with a hint of maple—adds just a tincture of woodsy sweetness, while a deceptively humble cucumber garnish amplifies the refreshing, sweet, and vegetal notes of the cocktail.

New York Sour

Mixologist Kenneth McCoy of Ward III – New York, NY

Kenneth McCoy’s New York Sour at Ward III is closer to a purist’s reinvention than a revolution—and that’s because McCoy likes his classics. But like any self-respecting mixologist, he’s not afraid to tweak. His version comes with the standard two ounces of bourbon (McCoy prefers Maker’s Mark) lightened with a healthy dose of fresh lemon juice and a half ounce of simple syrup for balance. Shaken with an egg white, the resulting drink has a creamy head atop a smooth bourbon body, an elegant and atypical admixture of smoke and silk. A float of ruby port, which McCoy uses in place of traditional red wine, swirls a garnet path down into the drink with rich, tawny grace and a dry, lip-smacking finish.

King’s Town Punch

Mixologist David Moo of The Quarter Bar – New York, NY

David Moo’s father is from Jamaica, where hibiscus iced tea is popular, so incorporating the tart flavor of the flower into his mixology repertoire was a natural addition. Steeped dried hibiscus petals, fresh ginger, sugar, and lime make the Agua de Jamaica, a liquid homage to his paternal homeland that gives Moo’s punch its aromatic complexity. Blended rums—Moo uses Gosling’s Black Seal and Mount Gay—and two kinds of bitters give the punch its grown-up edge. The hibiscus flower, both in Moo’s Agua de Jamaica and the hibiscus rose bitters, has the dry, quenching tannic quality of black tea, while the whiskey-barrel aged bitters from the Fee Bros. give notes of char and smoke. The result is somewhere between an aggressive high ball (pairing fresh ginger and rum in place of ginger ale and whiskey) and a Jamaican-style daiquiri.

Love Poison # 9

Mixologist Stephanie Schneider of Huckleberry Bar – Brooklyn, NY

If it’s a bold move to put “poison” in the name of your cocktail, it’s an even bolder one to base it squarely in the realm of grappa. In an age of spirit-forward, big-hearted, open-minded mixology, grappa has yet to make a significant splash on cocktail menus. But Stephanie Schneider isn’t shying away from the stuff at Huckleberry Bar, where she mixes two kinds of grappa with Italian liqueurs—lemon and myrtle—as well as lemon and lime juices and egg white for a broad-shouldered, tanned and brawny Italian reinvention of the New York Sour. The bitter almond of the Nardini grappa is balanced against the young, dry flavor of the Sarpa di Poli, while bright yellow flavors of lemon and bittersweet, spicy eucalyptus (from the liqueurs) wash over the tongue like the savor of the Mediterranean.

The Old Roman

Mixologist Shane Tison of The Randolph at Broome – New York, NY

Mixologist Shane Tison adds a dash of the unexpected to his version of The Old Fashioned, possibly the first cocktail to be so-called. The Old Roman, like its legendary forebear, is based on a simple combination of whiskey and bitters, but Tison replaces most of the acid and sweetness of the more common muddled orange slices with the complexity of blood orange bitters. Along with the requisite Angostura bitters, a dash of club soda, and a sour cherry garnish, just a couple of dashes of these bitters stand between Tison’s version and the classic—if oft disputed—recipe. But the resulting drink, without the acid or sweetness of a typical old fashioned, is slightly heavier, silkier, and smokier.