Retro Cocktails Revisited
One night each month, the otherwise thoroughly modern Pouring Ribbons in New York City takes a trip back to the 1980s, celebrating the pop culture and, of course, the drinks of the decade.
But these are no ordinary cocktails. The bar has given them a thorough re-engineering, creating drinks like a kamikaze made with gin and lime cordial, served in a glass rimmed with Pop Rocks. It’s ideal for toasting an evening dedicated to the film Weird Science.
“These drinks have the feeling or flavors the originals were supposed to,” says Amanda Elder, creative director for Pouring Ribbons. “We’ve just finessed them a little.”
A growing number of bartenders are rescuing drinks once dismissed as awful or undrinkable. The problem? Many were too sweet or made with inferior ingredients like prefab sour mix instead of fresh citrus.
Bartenders are giving these drinks a much-needed update, resulting in fun retro cocktails worth bringing back. And while the Big ’80s had its share of makeover-worthy drinks, it’s far from the only decade that provides inspiration. The 1970s’ Midori Sour and the 1990s’ Cosmopolitan both get an update here.
After years of super-serious speakeasy drinks, many mixologists are happy to loosen the bowtie and crank up the music to give these colorful drinks a deserved second round.
“It’s about having a sense of humor,” says Elder, with a smile. “Everyone loves a drink they can laugh about.”
Courtesy Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bartender, Pépé le Moko, Portland, Oregon
The wisecracking Morgenthaler refers to green crème de menthe as “the Danny Bonaduce of liquors—artificially colored, full of chemicals, and nobody has said anything nice about it since the 1970s.”
But Morgenthaler has transformed the original Grasshopper, traditionally served in a martini glass, into a creamy green milkshake that may be one of the most delicious drinks you’ve ever had.
It gets a bitter edge from Fernet Branca, plus a mouthwatering dash of sea salt. Served at Pépé le Moko, a small bar in the basement of Portland’s Ace Hotel, this gorgeous drink is Instagram catnip.
- 1½ ounces green crème de menthe
- 1½ ounces white crème de cacao
- 1 ounce half and half
- 1 teaspoon Fernet Branca
- 1 pinch sea salt
- 4 ounces vanilla ice cream
- Mint sprig (for garnish)
In a blender, combine all ingredients, except garnish, with 1 cup crushed ice. Blend on low until smooth. Pour into a fountain soda glass or Collins glass. Garnish with a mint sprig, and serve with a colorful straw.
Courtesy Jeff Morgenthaler, bartender, Pépé le Moko, Portland, Oregon
When Morgenthaler bragged, “I make the best Amaretto Sour in the world,” I was skeptical, too. But after trying it, I’m a convert. The secret? Add Bourbon, specifically a high-strength version, to add punch to the nutty liqueur. In place of prefab sour mix, Morgenthaler makes his own sour (lemon plus simple syrup), then adds egg white for body and froth. A word on technique: a “dry shake” (without ice) emulsifies the egg white for a nice foamy head. A second shake with ice chills and dilutes the drink.
- 1½ ounces amaretto liqueur
- ¾ ounce cask-proof Bourbon, like Booker’s
- 1 ounce lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar, 1 part water)
- ½ ounce beaten egg white
- Thick piece of lemon peel (for garnish)
- Brandied cherry (for garnish)
In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients except garnishes. Shake well. Scoop in ice, and shake again. Strain into an Old-Fashioned glass over fresh ice cubes. Garnish with lemon peel and brandied cherry (wrap the peel around the cherry and spear with a toothpick).
Courtesy Mary Bartlett, bartender, Honeycut/The Deep End, Los Angeles
Leave it to Honeycut, known for its Saturday Night Fever-styled light-up disco floor, to update one of the sauciest drinks of the ’70s: Sex on the Beach. This riff rolled out for the May debut of The Deep End, a lounge within Honeycut that nods to the “new escapism” and futuristic, forward-looking themes. At the bar, the drink is made with clarified juices and house-made Honeycut Citrus Soda. This home-friendly version uses regular citrus juice: opt for fresh-squeezed, if possible.
- 1½ ounces Grey Goose Le Citron Vodka
- ½ ounce Giffard Crème de Pêche de Vigne Liqueur
- 1¼ ounces organic cranberry juice
- 1 ounce orange juice
- ¼ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce brewed hibiscus tea, cooled
- Orange slice (for garnish)
In a cocktail shaker, combine first five ingredients with 1 ice cube. Shake well, and strain into a Collins glass over crushed ice. Invert a spoon over the glass, and gently pour the tea over the backside to “float” atop of the drink. Garnish with an orange slice, and serve with a straw. (Garnish note: Honeycut peels away about ¼ of the orange rind, then perches it on the edge of the glass with the fruit facing away from the glass.)
Courtesy Bobby Heugel, bartender, Nightingale Room, Houston
This is an “anti-fancy cocktail,” Heugel says. Along with co-owner Mike Criss, Heugel learned to tend bar in nightclubs, where it’s all about speed and visual impact. They carried aspects of that over to this bar, focusing on drinks that are familiar and fun (think fire, umbrellas and shots), made with fresh ingredients and quality spirits. Heugel mixes a large batch of “Mydori” base (puréed honeydew, house-made sour and green food coloring) ahead of time. At the last minute, it’s poured and shaken with vodka and gin, a trick you can steal for mixing multiples at home for guests.
- 1 ounce Aylesbury Duck Vodka
- ½ ounce Citadelle Gin
- 1 ounce strained honeydew melon purée
- ½ ounce simple syrup
- ¼ ounce lemon juice
- 4 drops green food coloring (optional)
- 2 small honeydew melon balls (for garnish)
In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients except garnish with ice. Shake well, and strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with melon balls speared on a pick.
Courtesy Amanda Elder, creative director, Pouring Ribbons, New York City
When I think of kamikazes, I think of puckery green shots, usually procured with fake IDs made as badly as the drink. But this version is almost elegant, a riff on a gimlet that I could sip all night. Elder gave the ’80s version an upgrade by switching vodka for gin and adding a dose of herbal Dimmi liqueur (in a pinch, swap in a good-quality dry vermouth). A half-rim of crazy-crackly Pop Rocks adds a surprising, whimsical touch.
“We used a variety pack of Pop Rocks, which included watermelon, strawberry and tropical punch, and all were as silly and delightful as the rest of the drink,” says Elder.
- 1 lime wedge, to rim glass (optional)
- Pop Rocks, to rim glass (optional)
- 2 ounces Bombay Original London Dry Gin
- ½ ounce Dimmi Liquore di Milano
- ¾ ounce lime cordial, like 1883 Lime Juice Cordial Syrup (or recipe below)
- ¼ ounce lime juice
To rim the glass: Pour Pop Rocks into a dish or shallow bowl. Cut a slit in the middle of a lime wedge and run it halfway around the rim of a coupe glass. Roll the moistened edge of the glass in the Pop Rocks to coat. Set glass in the freezer to chill.
In a cocktail shaker, combine remaining ingredients with ice. Shake well, and strain into prepared coupe glass.
- Peels of 3 limes
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup lime juice
Muddle lime peels with sugar. Let sit overnight. Add lime juice to mixture, remove peels and whisk until incorporated. Decant into a bottle with a tight cover. Refrigerated, it will keep for up to 1 month.
Courtesy Dan Rook, bartender, South Water Kitchen, Chicago
Love a good cover band? Here, a section of the drink menu is entitled “Covers,” house variations on classic cocktails, with names that reference songs. Enter this version of the 1990s classic Cosmopolitan, named for a 1994 song by Irish rock group The Cranberries. Compared to the classic cocktail, made with lemon-flavored vodka, this deconstructed Cosmo takes a lighter approach. It’s more like a cranberry-accented vodka martini. Don’t be intimidated by the cranberry-sage-honey syrup. Made the same way as simple syrup, any extra can be splashed into sparkling wine.
- 1 ounce Belvedere Vodka
- ½ ounce Cocchi Americano
- ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
- ¾ ounce cranberry-sage-honey syrup (recipe below)
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- 1 dash Fee Brothers Black Walnut Bitters
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously, and strain into a coupe glass.
- 1 cup cranberry juice cocktail
- 1 cup honey
- 2 sage leaves
In a saucepan, combine cranberry juice cocktail, honey and one sage leaf. Simmer for 15 minutes over medium heat. Make sure the mixture doesn’t boil to avoid scorching the honey. Remove from heat, and add remaining sage leaf. Allow to cool completely. Strain with a fine mesh sieve and decant into a bottle. Refrigerated, it can be stored for up to 1 month.
Makes enough for several cocktails. Alternatively, you can purchase cranberry syrup, like those made by Monin or Toriani.
- 1Blended Grasshopper
- 2Amaretto Sour
- 3Basic Space
- 4Mydori Sour
- 6No Need To Argue