If there was one drink that seemed well and truly buried, with no hope of resurrection, it was the Creamsicle cocktail. Made with orange juice, vodka, orange liqueur and half-and-half cream, it tasted just like the Popsicle treat. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s it was a bestseller at casual dining chains everywhere. When the Creamsicle fad melted, however, it took with it the entire family of cream cocktails.
But creamy libations are reborn, thanks, in part, to an ironic interest in an older era’s “hall of shame” drinks (ahem, Harvey Wallbanger). In some cases, the original recipes are revived but just as often highly stylized twists on the cream cocktail are being poured. Many would say “craft cream cocktails” is a contradiction in terms, but, London bartenders, who’ve been alcoholizing ice cream and shaking sherbets into cocktails, are partly responsible for this renaissance. New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar, with its much copied, cereal-infused milk drinks, has also played a big part.
“I’ve made more Brandy Alexanders and Grasshoppers in the past year than in the previous 18 combined,” says Rob Montgomery of the Miller Tavern in Toronto. “Some of it is people asking, some is at our suggestion when people request a bartender’s choice. When they see it, they’re like, ‘Oh, I remember that from the menu at every Chinese restaurant!’”
The inherent fun of cream drinks is part of the attraction to the category, an arguably inevitable correction to the seriousness of the craft cocktail movement that bartenders like Nick Kennedy at Toronto’s Salt Wine Bar see as occasionally intimidating to patrons. “When I started bartending, we were all about things that were stirred and brown and bitter, and if you did anything else you must not be a real bartender,” says Kennedy. “Tiki came back in the summer because it’s fun and relaxed and now that it’s winter, we’re rediscovering the Grasshopper.”
At the Miller, Montgomery serves the Banana Banshee (crème de banane, crème de cacao and cream), a drink that tastes a little like a melted alcoholic banana split. It belongs firmly in the dessert cocktail category but, it’s worth pointing out, not every single new cream cocktail is meant to stand in for dessert.
At Geraldine in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, bartender Michael Mooney is featuring the Cloud of Cassia, his twist on the Brandy Alexander made from Cinnamon Toast Crunch-infused cereal milk and surprisingly artisanal ingredients such as cream sherry, complex Spanish vanilla liqueur and bitter aperitivo made from artichokes. “I made it more boozy by upping the brandy and adding Licor 43, Pedro Ximenez and some Cynar to impart some bitterness and modernize it,” explains Mooney.
Mooney points out that, while the classic cream drinks he’s taking his inspiration from may be associated with the 1970s and ’80s, they were invented a lot earlier. The Gin Alexander dates to 1915 and another of his favourites, the Angel’s Tit (a layered drink topped with whipped cream and garnished with a strategically placed cherry), is at least 75 years old.
Cream cocktails are notorious palate-killers and often segregated to the dessert cocktail category. This isn’t a bad thing, believes Kyle Guilfoyle, of Victoria’s Little Jumbo. He says it allows bartenders to play around with unusual ingredients, such as chocolate chips or Honey Nut Cheerios, which he uses as a garnish for his Buzz Bee cocktail (vodka, Frangelico, cereal cream).
Back at Toronto’s Salt Wine Bar, Kennedy is committed to updating and heightening the old classics, often with challenging and esoteric flavours, including the foie gras-infused Barbary Coast (gin, scotch, crème de cacao and foie gras-washed cream). But he hasn’t given up on the orange-based Creamsicle. “What I want to do next is those old-school, 1970s creamy fruit drinks. They taste so good.”