It started with the resurgence of low-rise jeans, grew into early ‘00s inflected music from the likes of Olivia Rodrigo, and has now spilled into a re-emergence of retro cocktails like the espresso martini, the cosmopolitan (Carrie Bradshaw’s drink of choice) and the lychee martini. Resurfacing trends from the late ‘90s and early 2000s have hit bars across the country in a big way.
This time, though, the cocktails have been taken up a notch.
Those sickly sweet appletinis from decades ago are being given an artisanal bent with cloudy apple juice or apple-infused spirits; espresso martinis are being elevated with spirits from small-batch distillers and coffee from neighbourhood roasters; and those canned ready-to-drink beverages that were mostly consumed by teens and 20-somethings back in the day are taking up space on shelves again, but this time they’re fresher-tasting, less sweet and very much grown-up.
So, what’s driving our collective embracing of cocktails that were once regarded as tasty but kind of embarrassing to order?
In part, says Evelyn Chick, cocktail consultant and entrepreneur, people want healthier versions of the high-sugar drinks they used to enjoy. “Everyone is into fitness and wellness, so it makes sense for those types of cocktails to come back but in a way that makes sense for 2022,” she says.
Going hand in hand with healthier ingredients is the elevated experience a cocktail can provide. Instead of using pre-made sour lime mix, bartenders are now taking the time to squeeze fresh juice. Instead of peach liqueur, they’ll opt for fresh peach juice and a high-quality spirit.
“The millennial generation want exclusivity in a lot of different ways, and having an artisanal crafted brand be part of their drink is really key for what they’re looking for,” says Ainsley Moir, food and beverage consultant and brand strategist.
Cocktail expert and entrepreneur Oliver Stern, who started his bartending career in the late ‘90s and knows the era’s repertoire of tipples well, has noticed an increased interest in craft cocktails in general.
“A lot of people are expanding their horizons into cocktails,” he says. “And a lot of it is bartenders having fun too. A bar I worked at in 2010 had a list of rules, and one of them was ‘Absolutely don’t order a cosmopolitan,’ which I now very much disagree with because it’s a great cocktail. But at the time we sort of turned our noses up at those drinks, and I think bartenders are a little less pretentious now and trying to have fun with those bright and colourful ‘90s cocktails.”
Mixologists are a creative breed, so it’s in their nature to continually want to improve or reinvent popular drinks. “If we’re going to make a lychee martini, we want it to be the best lychee martini,” says Stern. “Like, mine has vodka and lychee liqueur, but I also add St-Germain, which is elderflower and has a complementing floral note.”
But perhaps the biggest reason these cocktails – and turn-of-the-last-century culture in general – are so much a part of the current zeitgeist is good old-fashioned nostalgia. There’s nothing like a pandemic to topple our feelings of safety, so it’s little wonder that we’ve emerged craving comfort and reminders of how things used to be.
“I feel like people are going back to that era because those were super happy times,” says Chick. “Fashion, music, food and drinks – everything happens cyclically. So much in other realms of our society is coming up ‘90s and 2000s, so it’s just natural for the drink world to also do that. The Backstreet Boys just played a concert! Even design is very retro-looking. The ‘90s and the 2000s were happy times, and we’re trying to bring that back in some way.”
Moir agrees. “As the world goes through incredible shifts, people are looking for familiarity,” she says. “Do we want to experiment with completely new beverages? Maybe not – we want to stay in that realm of the ‘known’ but do little tweaks on it so that it’s both familiar and new.”
It’s safe to say that millennials are leading the charge. “Millennials are so nostalgic for anything that made an appearance during their early teen and coming-of-age years,” says Moir. “They now have the evolved taste buds to be able to enjoy those drinks they saw in movies and on TV shows growing up.”
Comforting familiarity and fresh artisanal ingredients aside, there’s also the simple fact that the era turned out some really good drinks that deserve space on our cocktail menus. And if you didn’t love the appletini when you tried it in 2002, maybe give it another chance – the bartender at your favourite local spot just might serve you a 2.0 version that will change your mind.