Issue 13
Words by

The cocktail revolution

15th November 2023
16 Mins

Cocktails aren’t what they used to be – and that’s a good thing. The search for fresher and more novel ingredients from ever further afield continues to revolutionize mixology for the better.

If you’ve sidled up to bars over the past decade or two, you’ve probably noticed a change. Gone are the days of boat-sized, vaguely fruity concoctions listed out on a menu of x-tinis; of haphazardly made Old-Fashioneds topped with club soda and what might as well be a complete fruit salad. Sour mix is out, and fresh juice and homemade syrups are in. 

Bars – especially those billing themselves as cocktail bars, but also restaurants with what we now call ‘cocktail programs’ – are taking time with their drinks, carefully measuring ingredients, making syrups and infusions in-house. They painstakingly press and strain fresh juice (or construct acid-adjusted simulacra of the same), reconstruct long-forgotten classics and obscurities, and build novel drinks out of an ever-expanding array of unusual, unexpected, and – even to sophisticated drinkers – largely unknown ingredients. If you want a Manhattan variation made with Fey Anmè – a forest liqueur inspired by Haitian botanicals and made from hibiscus buds, dandelion, and bitter melon . . . well, some enterprising bartender probably has you covered. And if not, with a little bit of effort, you can probably stir one up at home.

This is a far cry from the simplistic, slapdash, thoughtlessly boozy drinking culture that ruled from the 1970s through the 1990s. It’s fussy, precise, thoughtful – at times almost overeducated – and it has resulted in a rapid improvement in the quality and creativity of craft cocktails since the turn of the century. This period of improvement has been called the cocktail renaissance. 

The question of how, exactly, modern cocktails achieved such significant quality gains in such a short period of time has been answered in book-length form by multiple authors, including but not limited to cocktail writer Robert Simonson (A Proper Drink), bartender and drinks expert Derek Brown (Spirits Sugar Water Bitters), and cocktail historian David Wondrich (Imbibe!). Many factors contributed to the boom, including the role of the internet in information sharing, the long tail of the culinary revolution that began in the 1970s, the evolution of craft beer and the elevated expectations of educated drinkers that went along with it, and a renewed emphasis on rigorous bartending technique. 

But as much as anything, the revitalization of the cocktail has been built on an obsession with ingredient quality and variety, and a pursuant explosion in product availability. Put simply, cocktails are better and more interesting because what we put in them is better and more interesting, thanks to a combination of demand from knowledgeable practitioners and supply from importers and entrepreneurs delivering products to meet that demand. 

As modern cocktails continue to evolve, so will the revolution in ingredients, as ever more sophisticated customized creations become part of the tool kit for both top-flight bars and home bartenders. Indeed, you can already see the seeds of the next stage of the renaissance beginning to flower, as modern cocktail wizards apply increasingly abstruse culinary techniques to both classic drinks and novel creations. 

To understand the role that ingredient availability has played in the cocktail renaissance, consider the Aviation. 

The Aviation is a shaken gin-based cocktail with a distinctive lavender hue; conceptually, it’s best understood as a tailored variation of the sour – a broad cocktail category that, in its most basic form, involves a spirit, citrus juice, and some sort of sugar or other sweetener. 

The first known appearance of the classic recipe came in Hugo R. Ensslin’s pre-Prohibition cocktail guide, Recipes for Mixed Drinks. In Ensslin’s formulation, the drink calls for four ingredients, as follows:

  • ⅓ lemon juice
  • ⅔ El-Bart gin
  • 2 dashes maraschino
  • 2 dashes crème de violette

Readers are then instructed to shake these ingredients with ice before straining into a glass. 

Modern readers might notice a few historical quirks about the recipe. For one thing, there are no units of measurement specified – no ounces, no teaspoons, just ratios and ‘dashes’. The book was published in 1916, before today’s standardized measurements were in use.

For another, the listing of ‘maraschino’ would have referred to some form of maraschino-flavored liqueur. Today, there are multiple brands available in many parts of the country, and even if a recipe writer did not specify a brand, he or she would probably have noted the fact that it’s a liqueur in order to differentiate it from the thick, sugary, nonalcoholic syrup one finds in a bottle of preserved maraschino cherries. 

And then there is that final ingredient: crème de violette. Crème de violette is exactly what it sounds like – a ‘crème’ or sweet liqueur flavored with, among other things, flowers. It’s purplish in tint, and it can give the cocktail a distinctive lavender hue. Arguably, it’s the cocktail’s signature ingredient, the element that piques a drinker’s interest both in terms of how it looks and how it tastes. 

Flash forward to the turn of century, however, and the ingredient had disappeared. New York Times cocktail scribe William Grimes once reportedly told cocktail enthusiast and author Ted Haigh that the Aviation was his favorite forgotten cocktail. But in Straight Up or On the Rocks, Grimes’s groundbreaking 2001 book of cocktail history and recipes, a recipe for the Aviation appears without any mention of crème de violette. Other highly regarded, thoroughly researched cocktail books from around the same time followed suit: Haigh’s book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails prints an Aviation recipe without the flower liqueur, as does legendary bartender Dale DeGroff’s book The Essential Cocktail

Both Haigh and DeGroff are modern legends in the cocktail world, known for their thorough research and exacting cocktail preparation methods. Both would have been aware of Ensslin’s original, historic formulation. So why the omission? 

One reason is that more than a decade after Ensslin’s book appeared, British bartender Harry Craddock published The Savoy Cocktail Book, which compiled drinks served at the Savoy Hotel in London. It has since become a sacred text for bartenders, and Craddock’s version of the Aviation did not include any crème de violette. (Haigh also writes that the original had both maraschino and either crème de violette or Crème Yvette, a proprietary violet petal liqueur, and notes that substituting either Yvette or crème de violette for maraschino results in a different cocktail: the Blue Moon.)

Another reason, however, is availability. Even as recently as the 2000s, crème de violette was all but impossible to obtain in the United States. 

Crème de violette was produced in Europe, and Prohibition’s near-total restriction on alcohol sales and purchases shut down legal trade in spirits through the 1920s and early 1930s. Meanwhile, according to Dinah Sanders’s entry in The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, European interest in crème de violette faded around the same time, in part because some felt the flowery spirit tasted a bit too much like soap. 

So even though Prohibition ended in 1933, crème de violette did not return to American bars and liquor stores. The unique floral booze was gone from domestic distribution, and while one could still obtain a bottle in France, even there it was relatively obscure. Thus, Ensslin’s Aviation became a thing of legend. 

At least, that is, until the late 2000s. Credit for the return of crème de violette goes to spirits and wine importer Eric Seed. In 2005, Seed founded Haus Alpenz, initially to distribute a relatively obscure Australian pine liqueur, Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur of the Alps, which he marketed to upscale bars at ski resorts, according to a 2009 Atlantic article on Seed’s importing business. 

But Seed was also aware of growing interest in other arcane ingredients, including some liqueurs mentioned in historical cocktail recipe books that could no longer be found in American liquor stores. So in 2007, Sanders writes, Haus Alpenz responded to ‘a small but persistent demand from modern mixologists’ by bringing crème de violette back to the US via the Rothman & Winter brand. Its primary intended use was as a cocktail ingredient for the nascent cocktail revival. 

At first, it was difficult to find, as many liquor stores didn’t see the need to stock something so strange and obscure. But a small number of dedicated craft cocktail bartenders began to put the Aviation on their menus or make them off-menu for friends, and within several years, crème de violette became one of Seed’s top sellers. By the early 2010s, the drink became a sort of secret handshake between discerning drinkers and barkeeps – a wink and a nod between those who knew. 

Today, you can order or make at home any number of purple-hued drinks that use the stuff. Some, like the Purple Reign 75, a riff on the French 75, are modern riffs on historical cocktails. Others are wholly modern creations like the Stormy Morning, which combines one flower ingredient with another – elderflower liqueur. If you’ve ever seen a lilac-colored cocktail served at a bar, there’s a good chance that it was made with crème de violette.

And Rothman & Winter is no longer the only brand that produces it; there are now at least a half dozen brands available. I currently possess three different bottles, each with its own subtly different character – one is a little sweeter, one is a little more floral, one is a little more earthy. They all work in an Aviation cocktail, but the drink’s flavor profile differs subtly depending on which bottle you employ. 

The story of the Aviation, then, is the story of the entire cocktail renaissance – a story of rediscovery and revitalization, with novel ingredients coming back to the bar. It’s a story we’ve seen over and over again, with ingredients like Smith and Cross navy-strength Jamaican rum, another Haus Alpenz product that helped improve ultra-funky tiki cocktails, or Old Tom gin, a sweeter type of gin that was crucial to pre-Prohibition cocktails like the Martinez, a sweet vermouth–inflected variation on the Martini

Arguably the most important innovation in cocktail construction over the last few decades was the reintroduction of fresh juice. 

Although pre-Prohibition bartenders relied on fresh-squeezed citrus for large numbers of cocktails, most of which are what we now think of as sours – spirit, citrus, sugar – mid-century bartenders fell under the sway of premade convenience ingredients like sour mix, a sickly, shelf-stable, mass-produced liquid that was meant to replicate, in a single bottle, both sugar syrup and citrus juice. The problem was that sour mix tasted saccharine, artificial, and – there is no polite way to say this – frankly rather gross. 

That began to change through the 1980s and 1990s. Innovative bartenders like DeGroff (whose Aviation recipe we looked at previously), who worked at New York’s Rainbow Room, and London-based bartender Dick Bradsell made drinks using lemon and lime juice squeezed on the same day the drink was served, combining them with sugar syrups made in-house. 

Bradsell’s Bramble, created at a London bar in 1984, is a simple gin sour served over ice and topped with crème de mûre, a blackberry fruit liqueur. It’s a fairly basic drink, the sort of thing that’s relatively easy to make at home, but the freshness and directness of the flavors made it an international hit that lives on today. 

Sour mix was unpleasant enough that it was usually a mistake to mix it with quality liquor. But the return of fresh juice helped open the world to the possibilities of better booze. As the influence of innovators like Bradsell and DeGroff spread, bartenders began looking for higher-quality, rarer ingredients with which to perfect classic drinks and modern iterations on pre-Prohibition formulas. 

Among other things, that meant bringing back American rye whiskey – the base ingredient for cocktails like the Manhattan. Rye whiskey ruled American bars before Prohibition, but during the second half of the twentieth century, it all but disappeared from the market. In the 1980s and 1990s, only a few US whiskey brands still produced rye whiskey at all, and production was in some cases limited to a single day a year. 

But as with crème de violette, rye came back in large part because of bartender demand. In Michael Ruhlman’s The Book of Cocktail Ratios, Audrey Saunders, a New York cocktail bar entrepreneur and important figure in the cocktail renaissance, describes becoming obsessed with Rittenhouse rye in the early 2000s after having been served a Rittenhouse rye Manhattan at Crobar in London, which she describes as a ‘hole-in-the-wall heavy metal bar’. To this day, rye remains somewhat more rare in Europe and the UK, but in this case the bar had ‘a tiny shrine to American rye whiskey with a better selection than you could find anywhere in the US’ – including a bottle of Rittenhouse rye. And Saunders fell hard for the stuff. 

She wasn’t certain about Rittenhouse’s availability in the United States, and hatched a plan to commit to buying a pallet if she could get it distributed in New York. But, she writes, when she called the producer, Heaven Hill, it turned out they had some sitting in the warehouse, waiting to be used. Saunders then made Rittenhouse rye the foundation for one of her most enduringly popular cocktails, a Manhattan riff called the Little Italy

Today, multiple craft distilleries within driving distance of my home in Washington, DC, produce some sort of rye whiskey; there are more brands available at my corner liquor store than I’ll ever be able to try. I personally consider Rittenhouse rye to be the foundation of any cocktail-oriented home bar

The Manhattan has never been better. 

In other cases, bartenders simply made their own ingredients. Before Prohibition, bitters – strongly flavored root- and spice-infused alcohols typically used in very small dashes in cocktails – were widely available, partly as an outgrowth of the dubious medicinal-booze industry from which they originated. The snake oil didn’t make anyone much healthier, but it did enliven the taste of a cocktail. 

Yet by the late 1990s, the only mass-market brands available were Angostura, the yellow-topped brand that produced an aromatic bitters that had become the standard bottle, and Peychaud’s, a New Orleans brand that was the key to one of the city’s signature drinks, the Sazerac. 

Many classic cocktail recipes, however, called for orange bitters. Fee Brothers, which was then a small regional producer based in Rochester, New York, produced a line of orange bitters, but they were largely unknown. 

So when bartender and cocktail book writer Gary Regan wanted to make a drink with orange bitters, he simply made his own, first publishing recipes, then launching a brand: Regan’s. Regan’s orange bitters are practically ubiquitous today, and generally considered the standard in orange bitters. But more adventurous types can order a dozen-plus brands of orange bitters online, not to mention bottlings with far stranger flavors, like dandelion, celery, yuzu, or chocolate chili, just to name a few. 

The quest for high-quality, novel ingredients has even come full circle, with some bars now boasting that they don’t use fresh juice: instead, restlessly innovative bars like Expo in Louisville, Kentucky, produce a sort of juice simulation that is sometimes known as Super Juice. Super Juice is made by combining small amounts of citrus with water and powdered citric or malic acid. This creates a synthetic juice-like liquid that has the same acidity as lemon or lime juice, albeit a somewhat different texture. It’s more consistent than fresh-squeezed juice, and it lasts longer than fresh lemon or lime juice. And since most of the liquid volume is water, it uses far fewer lemons or limes than squeezing juice fresh. It’s thus regarded by many as more environmentally friendly. 

Today’s craft cocktails were born from an obsession with recreating the pre-Prohibition tipples of the past. But Super Juice, which is the product of envelope-pushing culinary-science techniques applied to making novel cocktail ingredients, suggests how craft cocktails are likely to evolve in the future. 

Close observers of the cocktail world can already see that evolution take shape: one of the most notable cocktail books published this year is Tropical Standard, by Garret Richard and Ben Schaffer. It’s a granular and often obsessive guidebook that emphasizes the role of relatively advanced culinary techniques like sugar- and acid-adjustment in making tropical-style cocktails.  

Advanced culinary techniques, meanwhile, are increasingly on display in some of the world’s most influential bars. In May, the 50 Best list named New York’s Double Chicken Please the best bar in North America (and 6th in the world). Double Chicken Please is divided into two separate bars: the back bar, called The Coop, is known for innovative cocktails meant to replicate the taste of comfort foods; their current menu includes drinks with names like French Toast, Japanese Cold Noodle, and Cold Pizza, a drink the bar’s menu bills as being made from ingredients like tomato, basil, and – somehow – ‘burnt toast’. The front bar features cocktails on tap – yes, like beer – that are somewhat less complex, but still include ingredients like seaweed, curry, and winter melon. The elevation of Double Chicken Please’s high-concept, technique-driven cocktails to the top of the bar world provides a hint at the future of high-end mixed drinks. 

Even the classics are evolving. Bars like Death & Company design many of their drinks as cleverly iterated riffs on a handful of classic cocktail formulas; among Death & Company’s most famous creations is the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, an Old-Fashioned variation made with a mix of aged tequila and mezcal. The bar now regularly features cocktails that rely on relatively obscure ingredients like carrot eau-de-vie (a clear brandy distilled directly from carrots) and aloe liqueur. The bar’s newest location in Washington, DC, features a cocktail built on tequila, raspberry brandy, Campari – and hot sauce. (It’s delicious.)  

As in the early days of the cocktail renaissance, cocktails like this exist in large part because of competition and demand. Customers, in particular, have become used to high-quality, rigorously crafted cocktails made with unusual ingredients, and many are now willing and able to make once-obscure drinks like the Aviation at home. Today’s bars – especially those focused on innovation and novelty – have to forge new paths in order to stand out, which means finding and making ever more interesting ingredients in hopes of making ever-tastier, ever-more-novel drinks.

At the same time, that demand for novelty has produced a backlash, or at least a counter-movement, amongst bartenders determined to resurrect the sillier drinks of the 1980s and 1990s. Appletinis are back on the menu at many bars, but often in reimagined form, with high-quality, fresh ingredients born from two decades of cocktail revival. Two decades after bartenders started rejecting the sloppy frivolity of late-twentieth-century drinking, they’ve come back to it for inspiration, with renewed rigor.

It’s not just that Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds have improved; it’s cocktails of all types, from the serious to the silly and everything in between. In some ways that may be the real payoff of the cocktail renaissance: even bad drinks are good now.

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