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Back to the classics Add to ...

Jenn Agg can't help herself.

As the co-owner of Cobalt, a chic cocktail club on the outer reaches of Toronto's au courant College Street strip, she knows she should be more accepting of her customers' unique, if unpalatable, tastes. At the same time, Agg is a drink connoisseur who takes pride in her establishment's extensive cocktail menu, expertise and craftsmanship. So, lately, whenever a wannabe trendsetter hops up onto a barstool and orders one of those ubiquitous cosmopolitans, Agg automatically rolls her eyes.

"I'm like, yeah, whatever."

The cosmopolitan, a nouveau cocktail served in a martini glass brimming with a pale pink mixture of vodka, triple sec, cranberry and lime juices, along with more recent martini perversions like the saketini, may still be some of the most popular elixirs in Toronto, New York and London. But for those on the cusp of all things fashionable, their days are shortly numbered.

In fact, when Agg revamps her cocktail menu later this month, the "more martinis" category will be banished forever. Sweet-toothed tipplers will still be able to find their beloved chocolate monkeys and piñatinis. But from now on they'll be confined to the vodka section. "People have to stop kidding themselves," says Agg. "Those are not martinis."

The change wasn't prompted by personal prejudice alone. Agg has recently discovered, to her delight, that she needs the prominent menu space to accommodate a growing demand for classic cocktails -- all-time greats, such as the brandy-based sidecar, the cherry-garnished Manhattan and the bourbon-laced Playboy Club favourite, the ward eight.

Yes, that's correct. The cocktails of the moment are what today's Bright Young Things like to call Old Man drinks.

William Grimes, the New York Times restaurant critic and author of Straight Up or On The Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink, couldn't be more pleased. "Classic cocktails aren't just back in style," he exclaims. "They've become an institutionalized fact of life. What was once a trend -- a trend that I looked at very cautiously five or six years ago -- is now an established cultural style."

And what a nostalgically romantic style it is. "The word cocktail," writes Salvatore Calabrese in his wonderfully informative handbook Classic Cocktails, "conjures up images of smoky speakeasies, gangster Al Capone and his associates, and beautiful women dressed in slinky satin and silk gowns. Of gravel-voiced sirens crooning Cole Porter tunes. Every movement in these places watched and pre-empted by the bartender."

Cocktails do evolve, of course. And perhaps the modern cosmopolitan will eventually transcend its trendy stature to become a classic. But not yet. It takes the test of time to turn a good cocktail into a truly immortal one. And it takes lore -- the stories it brings, writes Calabrese, "of legendary bars and bartenders, of a drink's creation and its famous devotees."

The origin of the cocktail dates back to the latter half of the 19th century, which is when its most crucial ingredient, ice, became widely available in the United States. Although some classics do hail from Britain and Europe, the cocktail is, without doubt, an urban-American phenomenon.

"The cocktail is one of the great North American contributions to world culture," Andrew Barr, the London, England-based author of Drink: A Social History of America, recently told the Globe and Mail's food and drink editor Beppi Crosariol. "And I'm not being sarcastic. To produce something that's immediately accessible, in a way that fine wine is not, that is able to engage people who don't necessarily know a great deal about drink, that offers endless opportunities for experiment, offers endless ranges of different flavour and makes use of local ingredients, is remarkable."

The twenties, thirties and forties marked the cocktail's heyday. Can you even imagine a flapper or a Hollywood siren without one embraced in her hand? The Second World War may have killed the taste for such frivolity, but the cocktail remained a fixture in most suburban households throughout the fifties. Then the sixties came along and cocktails hit a wall. They were too closely associated with the Establishment for long-haired hippies, notes Dave Broom in The Connoisseur's Book of Spirits and Cocktails.

Cocktails didn't resurface again until the age of disco arrived in the late 1970s. But these were fruity and frothy concoctions that glowed bright under mirror balls. The piña colada went hand-in-hand with the booming economy of the eighties. But not unlike the muddled martini mania that has run amuck for the past few years, it wasn't very smart.

"Fruit martinis can be sold as upmarket, sophisticated drinks," Barr explains, "but after a while people realize they're not. It's a gradual learning process."

Grimes attributes our elevated taste buds to a resurgence of serious bartenders. "Most of these guys," he says, "are working out of a respect for cocktail tradition and are building on that."

For further evidence of increased respect for the cocktail, Grimes points to a newfound co-operation between the front and the back of the house in New York restaurants. Chefs and bartenders, he says, are finally sitting down together and coming up with ways to help the bar support the cuisine. "You see more and more cocktail menus that draw on the flavours and the spices of the food. That's a dramatic example of what's happening."

While Barr agrees that the renewed interest in classics has been fuelled by properly trained bartenders, he also believes it's a generational development. "There are lots of young people with very highly paid jobs today. They have lots of money and they're looking for glamour."

He points to the Ten Room in London's Cafe Royal in the Soho district, where 24-year-old master mixologist Andrés Masso has created a multiple-page menu that lists 130 premium cocktails, including an entire page devoted to "grinders." Otherwise known as mashed cocktails, the category encompasses Cuba's refreshing crushed-mint mojito, and its Brazilian cousin, the lime caipirinha. Although Masso offers many sweet and fruity variations on all-time favourites, he makes a great effort to only use ingredients with integrity -- house-made vanilla-infused rum in his daiquiris, for instance, or freshly puréed raspberries in his champagne cocktails.

Quality ingredients, Grimes insists, is the key to a great cocktail. "Nothing ruins a Manhattan faster than 'well' liquor," referring to inferior house brands used by many bars. "I think people today know more about whisky and rum and bourbon, so there's a better chance of getting a good drink."

Premium liquors may be on the rise, but the premium cocktail almost contradicts one of its primary raisons d'être: to mask the taste of hootch. According to Calabrese's research, 70 per cent of the cocktails ordered in bars these days -- like the mai tai -- were created during Prohibition.

Back in Toronto, Agg has definitely noticed an increased awareness (and availability) of premium bourbons, rums and tequilas. So, in addition to the increased space alloted to classic cocktails on her new drinks menu, she will be offering an expanded list of premium shots -- that can be used to upgrade a cocktail or sip straight up.

"I want to give our customers as much choice as possible -- so we don't have to ride the cocktail thing. Because they are going to go out of style eventually. I think people are going to go back to straight booze."

Grimes, however, remains adamantly optimistic. "Unlike many, this was actually a trend that was a good idea. But I think it's gone beyond a revival. Classics are now just a fact of life. And I don't see any course correction."

AMARETTO SOUR

he original sour -- a brandy sour -- was a favourite drink in the 1850s. You can make sours with any spirit. Bourbon and whisky have been the most popular versions for years, but to the dismay of some connoisseurs, the amaretto sour is the up-and-coming drink of choice for the Toronto club crowd. 2 ounces amaretto Juice of ½ lemon ½ teaspoon sugar or sugar syrup Orange slice Mix all ingredients, except orange slice, in a shaker with cracked ice. Strain into a chilled whisky sour glass. Garnish with a slice of orange.

CHAMPAGNE COCKTAIL

Its origins are unknown, but the champagne cocktail has been served in London and the U.S.'s fanciest hotels since the turn of the century. Its most famous appearance, of course, being at Rick's Café Américain in the 1942 classic film Casablanca. There are literally hundreds of variations. This is the classic. Champagne ounce Cognac 1 sugar cube 2 dashes Angostura bitters Place the sugar cube in a champagne flute and soak with the Angostura bitters. Add the Cognac and finish with the champagne. Garnish with a slice of orange and a red maraschino cherry.

Source: Classic Cocktails (Sterling, 1997) by Salvatore Calabrese

MANHATTAN

Some say it was created in 1874 at the Mahattan Club in New York for Lady Randolph Churchill, who held a banquet to honour politician Samuel J. Tilden. 1¾ ounces Canadian Club whisky ounces sweet ver mouth Dash of Angostura bit ters Maraschino cherry Place ingredients into the mixing glass and stir. Strain into the cocktail glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Source: Classic Cocktails (Sterling, 1997) by Salvatore Calabrese

OLD-FASHIONED

Created jointly by a bourbon distiller and a Kentucky bartender, it has a song in its honour, Make it Another Old-Fashioned, Please, by Cole Porter. 1¾ ounces bourbon 1 dash Angostura bitters 1 white sugar cube Club soda Place the cube in glass and soak with the bitters. Add a splash of soda to cover the cube. Crush the sugar with the back of a spoon. Add the whisky, then fill the glass with soda. Stir. Garnish with slice of orange and a maraschino cherry. Add a twist of lemon.

Source: Classic Cocktails (Sterling, 1997) by Salvatore Calabrese.

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