Love Potions, Vol. 13: Drink Pink

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno, Will Blunt, and Aliza Eliazarov
January 2015


Our Bartender’s Favorite Romantic Drinks:

Jeremy Ross of Second State: “I had a drink called the “His and Her” cocktail—it contained both gin and white rum. The girl I was dating at the time, her thing was rum, and gin’s my favorite. I wanted to come up with a drink with both of our spirits. That was actually a successful way. That was a romantic cocktail.”

Valerie Boyle of Contrada: “Two straws, at least three rums, flowers, and flames, if it's truly something special.”

Kiowa Bryan of The Eveleigh: “I think of chocolate when I think of Valentine’s Day, so I would enjoy sipping on a Manhattan variation with Barolo Chinato, a touch of creme de cacao, and some oloroso Sherry.”

Jillian Vose of The Dead Rabbit: “One of my best friends called me a few weeks ago (he’s absolutely not a bartender) and said he wanted to make his lady cocktails at home one night. He needed some ideas based on the fact that she really loved fresh Gin drinks. I gave him a few recipes that were manageable and easy to find with only a few ingredients, but were solid cocktails. He surprised her by having a home bar set up and made her cocktails after she got home from work. I’m pretty sure he got lucky that night.”

Pansies. Lip gloss. My Little Pony. We think “pink,” we think stuff like this. We overlook strong pink things, like Rizzo (bad ass Pink Lady); singer Pink (bad ass musician with the hair of a proud cockatiel); quartz (bad ass rock that can sometimes—that’s right—be pink). Pink connotations are knee-jerk, gender-muddled, and usually condescending. But if Betty Rizzo taught us anything, it’s (a) how to make fun of the new girl through the gift of song, and (b) strong things most definitely come in pink packages. 

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, it turns out that rule is the same behind the bar. If ye olde cocktail purism veered puritanically brown or neutral (think GAP’s fall collection), today’s bartenders practice the kind of individuality-driven creativity that simply assumes skill, and goes on to celebrate, well, whatever the hell it wants. Hence five—incidentally—pink drinks that defy pink prejudice with everything from indulgently bitter Italian apertifs to Indian chutney-inspired tinctures to root vegetables that have been torn from the earth, roasted, and muddled into rosy submission.

It’s a defiance long in the making. Pink drinks have an old and odd place in cocktail history. Take the Jack Rose, the blush-red applejack and grenadine cocktail named for an early 20th century hitman-turned-caterer that has the kind of clandestine kick Zima used to bring to sorority parties. There’s the equally potent but deceptively prom-carnation-hued Pink Lady, not to mention its close cousin, the Clover Club—an ironic “chick drink” if ever there was one—named for a late 19th century gathering of drunk guys in suits, and later dubbed a drink for “pansies” in the pages of a 1934 Esquire (where the tenets of dude culture are laid out to this day).

It would be great—and logical—to think pink wasn’t such a divisive cocktail color anymore. Not quite. “Sadly, I’ve witnessed a ton of color/glassware sexism regarding beverages,” says Valerie Boyle, who serves an un-bashfully blushing take on the Americano at New York’s Contrada. Derek P. Brown of Underdog, downtown, also witnesses a persistent girly/pink link. “There is definitely still an association. When a guy sees a pink drink, or a group of bros order a cocktail that comes out in a coup, they’re like ‘Oh …’”

The pervading irony here is that pink, “girlie” drinks pack punch (often in the form of punch). If, per 1951 New York bartender’s union president Jack Townsend, the Pink Lady was the way a shy secretary got politely sauced in the ‘50s, its modern counterparts are just piling even more complexity onto potency. Like the Pink Lady, Derek P. Brown’s Kallisti uses applejack, though it’s actually closer to an apple-tinged Negroni-homage, with bitter but softer Aperol subbing in for the Campari. The Aperol gives the drink its ruddy hue, but it’s Brown’s coriander berry tincture that gives the drink its complexity (and links it to a classic cilantro-apple Indian chutney). The tincture’s so potent—“bright green, very intense”—Brown only needs three tiny drops to give the pink drink its unexpected greenness.

Boyle’s Bitters & Soda does something similar with house orange and cream bitters—a powerful maceration of citrus oils that “give a potent orange cream backbone to anything they touch.” Here, they lace Boyle’s Americano homage with bitter, floral orange notes and warm vanilla, swirling around the Campari with gleeful complexity.

Easily two of the predominant pinkifiers, Campari and Aperol are “becoming increasingly popular in cocktails,” says Kiowa Bryan of The Eveleigh. And unlike grenadine, their rosiness is hardly straight-up sweet. “I love when I order a Negroni at a bar,” says Jeremy Ross, formerly of The Oval Room (now at D.C.’s Second State). “People are like ‘What’s that red drink? It looks girly.’ I never fail to pass them my drink. ‘Try it.’ The look on their face is ‘This is not what it looks like.’” Ross’s Negroni-homage, the Scarlett, balances that brightly bitter grapefruit kick of Campari with Crème de Pamplemousse Rose, but then he lays the whole thing out on a spiky bed of rye. The result—and the rule—is true for most modern pink drinks: more often than not, lurking beneath that Hello Kitty exterior is a tigress waiting to pounce.

And at least a few customers are willing to give it a try. “People are becoming more educated about cocktails and experimenting with more spirits and flavors,” says Dead Rabbit bartender Jillian Vose, who’s helping Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon layer a modern menu onto the bar’s established scholarship. And like pink visuals, sweet flavors are freely pushed to the front of the stage like a blushing, ambitious chorus girl. Vose’s Pirate Queen intermingles four kinds of syrup (rich cane, ginger, cinnamon, and honey) with the “malty, nougat flavor profile” of Bols Genever, fiery Creole bitters, and higher proof heat of Planation 5-year Barbados rum—heat and sweet comingling against the soft bleed of muddled strawberry. At The Eveleigh, Bryan uses honey and ginger syrups for her Kentucky Beet Down. The marquee bleeder here is beet—a surprisingly consistent winner with customers—roasted with olive oil and sea salt to yield “complexity and beautiful color.” 

Not sold yet? Come on! Even pink drink names are hardcore: Bitters & Soda sounds like your ornery grandfather’s go-to; anything “Scarlett” is clearly full of devilish intrigue; a Pirate Queen would make you walk the plank with a wink; Kentucky Beet Down sounds like something that happens to the unfortunate behind a Louisville Circle K; and the Kallisti is the O.G. of hard times, named for the so-called “apple of discord” that mythically started the snafu otherwise known as the Trojan War.

But fine. If pink still seems too soft for your mixing comfort zone, take heart, says Vose. “Blue Curacao drinks are apparently making a comeback.”