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Aug 27, 2013 12:15 PM

What makes a cocktail a classic?

I was thinking today about the various classic cocktails and how they survived throughout the years.

With all the new styles of liquor and liqueurs plus the various new ways to create cocktails like molecular mixology and infusing with various foods, I want to know what everyone thinks about how these cocktails withstood the test of time and if they will be continued to be known as time goes on.

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  1. Many of the "Classics" are well balanced. This is probably the main reason they have withstood the test of time. We should probably list what we consider the "Classics" and talk about each on its own merits.

    Also there are the "New Classics", cocktails that are recently created (let's say post 1980 or even post 2000), using old or new ingredients, that have become hits because of their quality.

    4 Replies
    1. re: JMF

      Thats true. What would consider new and old classics? I didn't even really thinkg about the "new classics"

      1. re: JMF

        I've been thinking about that a lot lately, and I have to wonder, do we really know how well balanced cocktails were historically?

        I ask because often when I read old bartending books, many of the recipes, even for drinks that are still around, seem terribly *unbalanced* (like Sidecars made with equal parts of all ingredients).

        It gets even stranger when you look at Embury, who insists that too many bartenders make imbalanced cocktails, and then even his outlines for "balanced" drinks seem, to say the least, a little off. Then again, I'll admit, I have no way of knowing what spirits actually tasted like a hundred years ago, so I can't really judge.

        And on top of that, I wonder, are there many references to "balance" in writings about cocktails from pre-prohibition? I'm not a historian, but it would be interesting to know how much value people placed on balance back then.

        I don't know, as much as people talk about how the Martini used to be a great, balanced gin cocktail that's devolved into a glass of cold vodka for most people, I also suspect there are some "classic" cocktails that we're making better now than they did a hundred years ago.

        1. re: A_Gonzalez

          I think that all you say is very true. I guess that you have to consider that tastes change over time. Many historical cocktails are too sweet, bitter, etc. for today's public. So what was considered a well balanced (or just tasty) cocktail 100 years ago, probably isn't considered such today.

          I am very into historical cocktails, but almost always have to tweak the ratios a bit to fit my tastes.

          Recently I wanted to put some vintage Tiki cocktails on a restaurants cocktail menu. I spent a week of my spare time inputting in EVERY Tiki drink recipe from Beachbum's books, just under 300 in all. Over several months I made almost every single one. At least 70% were too sweet, sour, etc. to use as is. I narrowed it down to just a few that I could use without having to adapt the recipe. Of those only one was well liked by almost everyone.

          1. re: JMF

            I agree about too sweet, but have yet to experience a classic that is too bitter. It seems that some of today's cocktails are pushing the boundaries of bitter. Any examples?

            I do think that the flavor combinations of classic cocktails that have stayed popular are balanced, just often not the sugar.

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      2. I think cocktails run parallel with music. Two generations ago there was a short list of great cocktails and songs. Today there are so many of both it is hard to predict which will be remembered two generations from now. I think the association with pleasant memories is an essential factor.

        1. Technically a Classic cocktail was created from the early 1800 until the end of Prohibition. But I would stretch it from the 1800 to 1980.

          Here is a start on the list just off the top of my head.

          Mai Tai
          Mint julep
          Old Fashioned
          Pisco Sour
          Whiskey Sour
          New York Sour
          Ramos Gin Fizz
          Vieux Carré
          Gin & Tonic
          French 75
          Mary Pickford
          Jack Rose
          Last Word

          New Classics:
          Benton's Old Fashioned
          Oaxaca Old Fashioned
          Gin-Gin Mule

          6 Replies
          1. re: JMF

            Great list. I have heard of most of these but why do you think these stood out for so long? Also would the Cuba Libre fall into either of the classics list?

            1. re: Pwelsh4

              It surely would at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, where I have quaffed many. For the birthplace of the daiquiri, it's a 6 block stumble to the magnificent mahogany bar at El Floridita. La Bodeguita opens early, right after breakfast.

              1. re: Veggo

                Sadly, since I hate cola, a Cubra Libre is a classic to many.

                1. re: JMF

                  More sadly, a Cuba Libre (a free Cuba) is often called a "HaHa" there, because the idea of Cuba being free is so laughable.

            2. re: JMF

              If you're including post-1980, I'd put the Bramble in there.

            3. A classic can be found in the Playboy Bartender's Guide circa 1975.

              And sometimes the rare and expensive ingredient can also define the classic. Orgeat immediately comes to mind.

              8 Replies
                1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                  Orgreat might be hard to find some places but I got a bottle no problem from my local liquor store. Wasn't to expensive I don't think

                  1. re: Pwelsh4

                    Heck, I can make instant orgeat dirt cheap with ingredients found in most local markets (Orange Blossom Water isn't always available.) Much better than any store bought.

                  2. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                    I really don't think that rare and expensive have anything to do with classic cocktails.

                    What do you mean by "A classic can be found in the Playboy Bartender's Guide circa 1975."

                    1. re: JMF

                      He only reads it for the articles.

                      1. re: rcb4d

                        I got particular delight from the Femkins. Or whatever those sprites are called.

                        My last college roommate circa 1976 went to school on a trust and had plenty of folding money. He had a bar that could produce any libation listed in the paperback Playboy Bartenders guide. I remember him driving from Melbourne cross state to Tampa as that was the only source of orgeat he could find in the state.

                        Also introduced me to the joys of spit roasted whole hogs and fresh tarragon on fish.

                    2. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                      "a classic can be found in PBG 1975..." ditto that, BUT preferably I'd push it back into the 60's for true classic status....

                    3. How about this: A classic -- new or old -- is a drink that could be enjoyed by your grandfather, you, and your unborn grandchild, and enjoyed repeatedly without growing tired of it.

                      Probably too restrictive; fun to ponder.

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                      2 Replies
                      1. re: EvergreenDan

                        I was waiting for you, and the other cocktailians to chime in. I'm on the road but looking forward to exploring this.

                        1. re: EvergreenDan

                          I know that this is off-topic, but hopefully will be accepted by the regulars I see here. My late-grandfather enjoyed a regional beer called Grain Belt Premium. It warmed my heart to see it be resurrected by another small Minnesota brewery a few years ago. My only wish is that I would have been able to enjoy one with him presently [since he passed away when I was 15 years old].