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Defining classic cocktails

What makes some cocktails enduringly popular and others destined for obscurity? We speak to four industry-leading experts to find out.

Ever tasted a Flower Thrower? What about a Nuts for Nuts? If they don’t sound familiar, no wonder; they’re both cocktails served in just one bar (London’s excellent Coupette, as it happens). However, if asked whether you’ve ever sipped a Martini or Mojito, an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, bets are you’ll know.

While some cocktails lodge in our collective consciousness, others remain one-bar wonders. But why? We asked some of the world’s top bartenders. Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan, of London’s award-winning Lyaness, Chelsie Bailey of The Savoy’s American Bar, Simone Caporale of Barcelona’s innovative Sips, and Linden Pride of Italian favourite Dante NYC weigh in.

Inside the glass

Let’s start with the practicalities. Our experts agree that in order to become a classic in the first place, a cocktail has to be easy to replicate; otherwise it’ll never make it beyond the bar in which it was invented. Replicability depends on how simple the recipe is to make, and how easy the ingredients are to find.

Chetiyawardana and Caporale suggest that the world’s most successful cocktails, for example the Martini or Margarita, tend to contain between three and five ingredients, most of which have long shelf lives. ‘The ingredients for a Manhattan [whiskey, vermouth, bitters] have been available in most bars from day one,’ points out Caporale, but the likes of fresh citrus and mint are relatively recent additions, even if they might be commonplace now. Bailey points to 1930s The Savoy Cocktail Book as the perfect example of how availability has changed in a century: ‘Read it and you’ll see how often the same few ingredients are put together. At the time, half the stuff Harry Craddock had was gin and Dubonnet.’

Meanwhile, any obscure homemade tinctures, infusions or liqueurs are an obvious roadblock to widespread duplication. ‘If you’re making something using a proprietary ingredient or something ultra-local, it’s hard for it to become timeless because it’s all about that place, or even that specific bar,’ says Chetiyawardana. Martinis and Margaritas can be made anywhere by anyone, without specialist skills, so little wonder drinking holes worldwide have added them to menus.

And we mustn’t forget the home bar, either. Our mixologists agree that making a cocktail yourself captures imagination and awareness. Even more so here, simplicity is key. ‘At home, people aren’t going to spend hours infusing one element for a cocktail,’ says Bailey, while Caporale notes that unless you’re cocktail-obsessed, you’re unlikely to want to invest in a thousand different ingredients either.

But when people make the effort to prepare a drink at home, they can forge a personal connection with it that can be long-lasting. ‘People like to have ownership over their drinks; they play with ratios, swap in different gins or vodkas,’ notes Pride. ‘They then like to share that education with their friends.’ The thinking is, if a cocktail becomes a part of your own routine and story, chances are you’ll turn to it again and again.

Outside influences

But let’s zoom out for a moment. Simplicity and replicability may be key to widespread awareness, but what makes a cocktail truly iconic?

In the case of Bailey’s long-running American Bar, it’s easier to generalise. Numerous now-celebrated cocktails were invented within its lauded walls, so customers are naturally drawn to ordering them here. ‘People come in and say they’ve read about this or that cocktail in the Savoy book’, she says. The Hanky Panky, invented by the Savoy’s first female head bartender Ada Coleman in the early 20th century, remains one of the most popular serves, with gin, sweet vermouth and Fernet-Branca.

The root of fame elsewhere can be harder to place. Caporale feels pop culture is one influence. ‘When you say “Martini”, 90% of people think of James Bond, even if they’ve never drunk one,’ he says. ‘It’s just like Cosmopolitans and Sex and the City.’ Chetiyawardana mentions a connection between Mad Men and the Old Fashioned revival a few years ago, but notes other factors at play. ‘The timing also corresponded with the opening up of the whisky category, as whisky was catching up with the modern day and becoming more accessible.’ Spirit marketing campaigns are certainly a factor (Bailey points out the explosive popularity of Aperol Spritz in recent years as another example), but for Chetiyawardana the cocktails that reach our societal consciousness also seem to capture a wider mood or collective moment. ‘Martinis just feel sophisticated; like you’re having something special, but accessible. That’s very powerful. The Mojito was about escapism, while Sex on the Beach was all about a period of 1980s and ’90s excess.’

Our experts agree that cocktail popularity is a very complex picture with plenty of local nuance, but that the world’s leading bars certainly have strong influence. Bailey compares it to fashion houses such as Gucci that set a style agenda, while Chetiyawardana references restaurants. ‘You need a cutting-edge restaurant to put something on a menu to normalise it. In an extreme example, think about when Noma first served insects. Now it’s not that outrageous any more.’

There’s definitely a trickle-down effect, but also it ultimately comes down to what people are ordering. Caporale believes the dialogue between customer and bartender is key. ‘Maybe a bar suggests something to a customer and over a weekend 10 people try it. Then over a month, 100 people. Then it becomes more and more popular, maybe all through a city like New York. But it’s the space between the bartender and the guests where the magic happens.’

Another quality of enduring cocktails is their ability to move with the times, adapting to other drinks trends. For example, our bartenders noted that mezcal has seen a recent boom, and that the agave spirit is finding a home in classic serves such as the Margarita or Old Fashioned.

‘People might use a recognisable cocktail DNA but plug in a new spirit,’ says Chetiyawardana, and he adds that a familiar drink format doesn’t only help consumers to get their head around a ‘new’ alcohol, but gives bartenders an easy way to serve it, too.

The Espresso Martini, invented in London, is perhaps the perfect example of a popular classic-inspired variation, with vodka, espresso and coffee liqueur. All our experts agree it’s among the most popular drinks ordered in their bars right now.

‘Life has been tough for people since the pandemic,’ says Chetiyawardana, ‘and with this people aren’t thinking about calories or caffeine, it’s just a chance to embrace fun.’ Caporale echoes his thoughts, noting it’s a young and approachable drink that’s designed to be enjoyed in clubs as well as cocktail bars. It doesn’t hurt, no doubt, that the artisan coffee scene has grown, too; cult bean brands such as Pact Coffee have even got behind the movement with their own recipes.

And if a cocktail can’t adapt to current trends? It might be that, especially if the ingredients are unfashionable, it gets relegated – at least for now. Customers are more educated about food and drink sourcing than ever, and there’s been a shift away from sweeter or visibly processed ingredients. Cocktails that rely heavily on artificial colourings or confected flavourings – say the Blue Hawaiian, starring blue curaçao, pineapple juice and coconut – can have a harder time holding attention.

A bitter future

What’s the iconic cocktail of the future? The picture is just too complicated to say. But our experts agree that the drink du jour is the Negroni – a perfect example of a rejuvenated classic. It was invented in Italy in 1919, but Pride at Dante NYC was pivotal to the current craze.

‘When we took over the bar in 2015 the Negroni was a cult drink; bartenders loved it, but it wasn’t popular,’ says Pride. Fascinated by the Italian aperitivo culture, he created a range of Negronis for his menu and as word grew, it exploded in popularity in New York and further afield. It ticks all the aforementioned boxes of a classic – it’s easy to replicate with long-life ingredients (gin, sweet vermouth, Campari) and is easily customisable in infinite small ways.

‘It’s hard to make a bad Negroni,’ he says, ‘it’s just three ingredients, arguably equal parts. Yet there’s so much complexity in the combination of bitter, strong and sweet. People have a lot of opinions about what kind of vermouths or gins they like; there are so many variations and that’s what makes it interesting.’

The Negroni movement has been supported by a wider availability of niche vermouths and amaros, which allow people to customise. Pride says that when starting out he collected many of his bottles in Europe, but now, less than a decade later, plenty are available in the US market.

Caporale also notes how the rise of vermouth and amaro-based drinks ties in with the growing low-abv movement; both are substantially less punchy than spirits and can be mixed simply with tonic or soda for a low-alcohol serve. With such concentrated flavours from herbs and botanicals, lower alcohol here doesn’t equal lesser taste.

As the Negroni wave continues, Pride has found one of its most surprising iterations back at its roots. ‘We asked 10 Italian bartenders to share their Negroni recipe with us last year, and two were vodka-based, which we don’t have on our menu,’ he explains. ‘Here we were in New York, trying hard to be Negroni purists, and over in Milan, the mecca of aperitivo, they’re using vodka.’ That’s the crux with classic cocktails – whatever else you say about them, the one thing they aren’t is boring.

Ryan Chetiyawardana’s perfect Martini

60ml Beefeater gin, 15ml Martini Extra Dry, 1 drop orange bitters

Stir over ice, then carefully strain into a very cold, small cocktail glass with a Nocellara olive. Spritz a lemon twist over the top, but discard.

Chelsie Bailey’s tried-and-tested Savoy Hanky Panky

Credit: Will Stanley

30ml gin, 30ml sweet vermouth, 5ml Fernet-Branca

Stir with ice in a cocktail mixer, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel coin.

Linden Pride’s award-winning Negroni

Credit: Steve Freihon

30ml Bombay Sapphire gin, 22ml Campari, 22ml Martini Rosso

Stir in your cocktail mixer with ice. Pour over fresh ice in a glass (ideally frozen). Garnish with an orange wedge.

Simone Caporale’s Espresso Martini

Credit: Mireia Rodriguez

25g instant coffee, 55g white sugar, 25ml Macallan Double Cask 12 Year Old, 15ml Amaro Santoni, 25ml good-quality cold brew coffee, 25ml palo cortado Sherry

Using a hand mixer, combine the instant coffee and sugar with 200ml cold water for 30 seconds, until foamy. Add the other ingredients to an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with coffee foam.

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