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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.

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