If popular media can teach us anything, it’s that the minds of people who came of age in the ’90s are like steel traps. To put it another way: If you can cobble together any memories through the haze of a Zima-induced hangover, you can remember anything.
Perhaps that’s why drinks from this era are so ingrained in mainstream memory. Consider fruity, vodka-based cocktails like the Appletini, Sex on The Beach, Skyy Vodka Martini and gin and juice. Often neon-hued and brashly-flavored, these beverages weren’t subtle in any sense of the word. Less boozy but equally iconic were coolers such as Arbor Mist, Boone’s Farm or, dare we say, Mad Dog 20/20, which earned fans for their low-alcohol content and candy-like flavors. As a result of their popularity, spirit brands like Seagram’s and Bartle’s & Jaymes joined the “cooler-craze” and created variety packs featuring tropical flavors reminiscent of the Caribbean.
As we nostalgically revisit this liquor-splashed time, we’re left wondering, “What is the quintessential drink of the ’90s?” For the answer, we turned to beverage industry pros for what they believe was the drink of the decade—or at least what they can remember.
Anyone who turned on a television in the 1990s knows that the rise in popularity of The Cosmopolitan was largely attributed to the success of the pink drink-sippin’ women of the hit show Sex and The City. In retrospect, the character of Carrie might have been more flawed than we realized at the time, but her drink of choice remains downright iconic. However, she’s not the only one responsible for the Cosmo’s storied status.
“Dale Degroff, aka the ‘King of The Cocktail’ and author of the book The Craft of the Cocktail, perfected this cocktail while working in NYC and helped make this drink more popular than ever before,” says Shannon Michelle, beverage director for Josephine in Jacksonville, Florida. “It’s tart and bright, so it won’t ruin your palate for whatever your plans are afterward, and it packs enough punch to remind you that you’re still drinking a stiff cocktail. Plus, a pink drink just looks sexy in your hand no matter who you are. This is a crowd pleaser with stamina.”
A precursor to the modern Mudslide, the White Russian is perhaps remembered best as the drink of choice of The Dude in the ’90s cult classic The Big Lebowski. In this movie, actor Jeff Bridges’ character imbibes the cocktail in almost every scene.
Why did The Dude love White Russians so much? The drink’s appeal is immediately obvious: It’s boozy, creamy, sweet, and unfailingly drinkable. Plus, it’s hard to be a nihilist with one of these in hand.
A nice glass of red wine in a good piece of stemware was arguably the height of sophistication in the ’90s. Think: Nicole Kidman’s classy Dr. Chase Meridian from 1995’s Batman Forever ordering a glass of Merlot with dinner.
“Wildly (and a little sadly), the 2004 cult classic film Sideways did such an incredible job lambasting Merlot (we all remember the scene!) that it went from hero to zero overnight,” says Vanessa Price, author of Big Macs & Burgundy. “Decades later it still hasn’t recovered its rep!”
Before it gained a chokehold on U.S. drinkers in the early aughts, Vodka Red Bull was already a hit across the pond in the U.K. “It’s the drink that gave you wings… and insomnia after a heavy night clubbing,” notes Danny Bouvery, founder of BouveryCV, citing the energy drink’s popular ad campaign. What better beverage to seamlessly transition you from a night out on the town to pretending to be a somewhat functional, beeper-wearing human (who hopefully has a friend who works in cardiology)?
The track 40oz to Freedom on the eponymous album of quintessential 90’s band Sublime takes its name from the era’s “paper bag-covered malt liquor of choice,” says Chris Blasman, owner of Four Brothers Wine Co., located in Los Olivos, CA. Olde English 800, aka “OE,” wasn’t looking to be anything else than what it was: a big ‘ole $3 bottle of beer here for a good time.
“It was easy to slide one of these down the leg of my JNCO jeans and head off to a house party,” Blasman says.
Remember the Absolut Vodka ads from the ’90s? These colorful liquor advertisements really resonated with young adults—to the point that many cut them out of magazines and tacked them onto walls. Case in point, the character Meadow Soprano from the HBO cult classic series The Sopranos, who had an entire wall dedicated to a collage of clipped Absolut advertisements. It’s little wonder, then, that it soon became the popular spirit of choice for mixing vodka tonics.
“Absolut vodka tonics with a twist of lemon and lime,” recalls Sonja Magdevski, owner of Casa Dumetz Wines. “Those go down way too easy.”
And what about the bubbly? At that time, Champagne was a mainstay of big events and celebrations more so than Prosecco and Cava, which hadn’t hit the U.S. mainstream quite yet. Will Blackmon, former NFL star and Super Bowl Champion for the New York Giants, clearly remembers the cascade of bubbles that followed Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ defeat of the Utah Jazz in the NBA finals in 1998. “They cracked open a bottle of Mumm Cordon Rouge in the locker room to celebrate their ‘Last Dance,’” he recalls.
“Anytime I’ve walked into a bar or restaurant, and I am greeted by the sounds of ’90s hip hop or Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Oasis or Alanis Morrisette, I know that the owner/operators are of my generation,” says Eric Alperin, owner of Alperin Enterprise cocktail bar.
“So, when it comes to ’90s cocktail classics, I think that ‘anxiety cocktails’”—aka caffeinated drinks with a jolt—“like the Espresso Martini, are coming back with a thunderclap.”