The presence of a cocktail menu at a neighborhood dive bar just a few years ago would have certainly raised eyebrows among its PBR-swilling clientele. Now, sitting down with a well-made Sazerac while a vintage Guns 'N' Roses tune blares from the jukebox is just one of the perks of living in an era of ubiquitous, high-octane drink-making.
Channeling a glorious pre-Prohibition past, slinging cocktails is once again revered as an art form. Bartenders have embraced their newfound celebrity, encouraging everyday patrons to crave more than well vodka and a splash of tonic. They are making thoughtful concoctions—all the better if they feature thrilling ingredients like lavender tincture and nitrous oxide.
Despite today’s rampant and inspiring creativity behind the bar, there are still the enduring classics. These are the drinks that any serious cocktail den, whether a hard-to-get-into speakeasy or an ambitious restaurant, should be devoted to and execute with equal parts skill and passion. After all these are the drinks that have influenced every newfangled libation a bartender is eager to show off. That salt-rimmed Margarita with mezcal and cucumber you’re contemplating with mole enchiladas? It’s a descendant of the late 19th -century Brandy Daisy.
Naturally, all this interest in what barkeeps have in their shakers has spawned a slew of new spirits on the market, from the eye roll-inducing vodka in a panoply of cloying candy flavors (cupcake booze? really?) to forgotten historic liqueurs. But amid the clutter of flash-in-the-pan gimmicks, some brands have truly altered the way we drink. Think of how Grey Goose gave vodka sex appeal, and Patrón rescued tequila from frat boy territory.
So much of the cocktail world’s allure is steeped in history, and those glimmers of the past we taste in each tipple should be savored. So, we decided to take a journey through the ages and let industry experts—bartenders, writers, a distiller—weigh in and share their thoughts on the cocktails (and brands) that have transformed our drinking landscape.
Here’s the crew:
Greg Best, barkeep and partner, Holeman and Finch Public House and H&F Bottle Shop (Atlanta, GA)
Pierre-Marie Bisson, bartender and assistant manager, Experimental Cocktail Club (Paris, France)
Martin Cate, owner, Smuggler’s Cove (San Francisco, CA)
Damon Dyer, general manager, Brooklyn Gin (New York, NY)
Eben Freeman, Group Bar Operations & Innovation, the Altamarea Group (New York, NY)
Jason Kosmas, bartender and co-founder the 86 Co. (Austin, TX)
Christian Krogstad, founder and distiller, House Spirits (Portland, OR)
Lynnette Marrero, bar consultant and co-founder of Speed Rack
Joaquín Simó, partner, Alchemy Consulting and owner/bartender Pouring Ribbons (New York, NY)
Robert Simonson, New York Times drink writer
David Wondrich, cocktail historian and author of Punch and Imbibe!