The classic cocktails (continued)
This mixture of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, garnished with a maraschino cherry, is believed to be the original “cocktail” in the modern sense of the word. Invented around 1880, the Manhattan became almost instantly popular, with the Boston Herald calling it “as good as anything that can be manufactured.”
As with dry vermouth in the martini, the ratio of sweet vermouth to whiskey has been in decline for years. Some early Manhattans were made with a 2-1 vermouth-to-whiskey ratio, though 1-1 was more common. Today most Manhattan lovers (I include my 96-year-old mother) won’t go above about 1-2, and more usually 1-3. In fact, many people think the best Manhattans are made with 3 parts whiskey, ½ part sweet vermouth, and ½ part dry vermouth.
A Manhattan can be made with bourbon or rye, with the latter giving the drink a slightly sweeter and spicier taste. The drink should always be stirred and served straight up.
This drink is called the “Old-Fashioned” because it harkens back to the very early days of mixed drinks, which typically consisted of any sort of spirit plus water, sugar and bitters. When the martini and Manhattan came to prominence, “some drinkers preferred their cocktails made using the tried-and-true formula and would call for an ‘old-fashioned’ cocktail.” (TOCSC)
The Manhattan declined in the 1960s (before it was resurrected), but the decline of the Old-Fashioned began much earlier. Just after World War II bartenders began over-diluting and over-sweetening the drink and as a result the first Old-Fashioneds I tasted were pretty awful. It wasn’t until my father-in-law (that is, my first father-in-law) began making true Old Fashioneds at Christmastime that I realized what the classic drink was supposed to taste like.
Once the cocktail renaissance was in full flower – after 2000 – “A new generation of bartenders was making Old-Fashioneds that their great-grandfathers would have been able to recognize and enjoy.” (TOCSC) Today, the Old-Fashioned is once again one of the most popular drinks at any bar.
I’ve already discussed this wonderful beverage, so I’ll move on.
And that’s it, folks. Out of the hundreds of known cocktails there are precisely four that are true classics. Ah, I see your face is turning red and you are about to blurt out something you will later regret, so let me acknowledge that your favorite cocktail isn’t on this list and that you insist it is a true classic. But calm down – I completely agree that even ignorant people are entitled to their opinions.
Let’s move on to the Near Classics.
The Sazerac isn’t just a Near Classic, it’s so close to being a classic that only a lout like me would downgrade it. But there are two problems with the drink. The first is that it’s made with awful ingredients. I’m not fond of rye whiskey, I’m not fond of absinthe, and I’m not fond of Peychaud’s bitters. And there are lots and lots of people just like me.
Of course, if those people would simply try the drink they would love it – just as I love it – because, somehow, the combination of all those awful ingredients magically produces a sensational cocktail. But most people won’t try it, and so the second problem is that it just isn’t widely-enough enjoyed to be a True Classic. It’s the sort of drink that snooty hipster bartenders toss together while they’re refusing to wait on their customers because they aren’t “servants.”
Properly made, the margarita is a delicious drink, but it’s not a true classic for several reasons. In the first place it’s almost never properly made – a frozen margarita is a travesty and I don’t care what Jimmy Buffett says (well, said). And that’s not even the worst of the shenanigans perpetrated on this hapless cocktail.
Today we find ourselves faced with raspberry, strawberry, and even watermelon-flavored margaritas, and even when a margarita looks like a margarita should, it’s often made with cheap sour mix and very little tequila. It’s possible to get a real margarita, though I don’t know where. Suffice it to say that ersatz margaritas outnumber real margaritas 1,000-to-1.
In the second place, the margarita is a relatively new drink, its current recipe having arisen only in the 1950s. Any drink that is younger than me is not a True Classic.
Finally, though everyone thinks that they’re drinking a cool Mexican drink (80% of all margaritas are served in Mexican restaurants), the reality is that Mexicans don’t drink margaritas, which are reserved for Yanqui tourists. Mexicans drink something called a Paloma, made with tequila, grapefruit soda (usually Fresca or Squirt), lime juice and salt.
I have no idea why I love the Negroni, which is made with gin, sweet vermouth and Campari in roughly equal portions. I’m not fond of Campari, which tastes like ear wax, and I can’t stand sweet vermouth unless it’s surrounded by a Manhattan. But somehow it’s delicious.
The Negroni is only a Near Classic because it’s not well-enough known or broadly-enough enjoyed. If we lived in Italy, or even France, we would unhesitatingly proclaim the Negroni as a True Classic. But in the US there were long decades when you couldn’t find a Negroni outside of Italian neighborhoods. I had my first Negroni in North Beach in San Francisco in about 1978 and my second in Lugano, Switzerland three years later. They are much more widely available today, and so maybe one day I’ll promote the Negroni to a True Classic. But not yet.
The Caipirinha doesn’t really deserve to be a Near Classic because hardly anyone has ever had one (outside of Brazil). Its main ingredient, cachaça – a kind of Brazilian rum – is incredibly hard to find and, to top it off, the name caipirinha means “Little Hillbilly.” Who would order a Little Hillbilly?
Despite all that I order a caipirinha whenever it’s on the menu, and when it’s on the menu it means the bartenders know what they’re doing so it’s always good. I’m calling it a Near Classic in the hope that you will go out and start drinking it.
We’ll continue to peruse the Near Classics next week, starting with that excrescence, the Cosmo.
Next up: The Oxford Companion, Part 8
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