What Makes a Cocktail a Classic?

Three cocktails on a medal stand
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It’s easy to recognize a cocktail as “classic.” It’s harder to explain what exactly elevates certain drinks to a “classic cocktail.”

The dictionary provides some clues. Merriam-Webster defines “classic” as a standard of excellence, historically memorable, authoritative, a typical or perfect example, or is traditional in some way. It won’t go out of style.

That may also apply to art or fashion, but the “classic cocktail” has additional nuances. We turned to bartenders to help explain what makes a drink a classic.

They are good.

This may seem obvious, but it’s key. Kenneth McCoy, creative director of New York City’s The Rum House, recalls a long-ago order for a Red Sparrow. It stuck in his memory because the guest lauded it as a “classic cocktail,” but it was new to McCoy. He researched it, then mixed it. “It wasn’t any good,” he says. “I thought, ‘What’s the point of this?’ ”

Instead, he’d point guests toward a Manhattan. “It’s tried-and-true,” he says. “It endured because it is good.” While “good” is of course subjective, in general that applies to a drink that’s balanced—not too strong, tart or sweet—and is delicious enough to appeal to a wide range of people.

They have staying power.

“There are cocktails that are simply old and those that are classics,” says Joaquin Simo, partner at New York City’s Pouring Ribbons. “You’ve got to differentiate between those two.” Some define a “classic” as a drink developed between 1887, when the first cocktail book was published, and the beginning of Prohibition. However, some newer concoctions like the early-2000s Gold Rush or the 1980s-era Espresso Martini appear regularly on cocktail menus across the country.

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They are memorable.

Maybe the story behind the drink is the stuff of legend, or perhaps its appearance is iconic, like the martini. Particularly for newer drinks, “it doesn’t hurt if the drink has a standout name,” says Erick Castro of Polite Provisions in San Diego. He believes that a number of drinks thought of as “modern classics” like the Cosmopolitan and the Penicillin gained traction in large part due to their “memorable monikers.”

They’re instantly recognizable.

Most everyone knows what a daiquiri is and what they’ll receive when ordered. To a bartender, it’s part of a canon of drinks that are easy to perhaps tweak, yet maintain their identity.

Simo describes them as “the mother sauces” of the cocktail world, akin to the five core sauces that aspiring chefs learn as gateways to more complex recipes. The building blocks of a classic daiquiri—rum, sugar and lime—can morph into a grapefruit-spiked Hemingway daiquiri, an absinthe-tinged Navy Strength daiquiri or a lower-proof Sherry daiquiri. But even with tweaks and alterations, there’s no doubt that it’s still a daiquiri.

They aren’t tied to a single bar or region.

A drink made with obscure ingredients, complicated tools or fussy techniques will never be a classic, though it might be popular, even a niche or cult cocktail. Simo points to a solid “edible cocktail” served at Tailor, a long-closed New York City bar famed for pioneering molecular mixology. “As delicious as the Ramos Gin Fizz Marshmallow was, it literally cannot be replicated in most places,” he says.

By comparison, the equal-parts Negroni may have originated in Italy, but it can be ordered reliably almost anywhere. As Simo says, “a classic has transcended the place where it was made.”

Published on July 7, 2020
Topics: Drinks