The old-fashioned boozy cocktail has returned — this time with a fresh, modern twist
It seems like the cocktail scene at Canada’s hippest bars has time–travelled into a bygone era. Just as TV’s hit show Sex and the City catapulted the cranberry- and vodka-based Cosmopolitan onto every bar’s drink list, the popularity of Mad Men (set in the early 1960s) and Boardwalk Empire (set in the 1920s) is being credited for making it hip to drink classic concoctions based on strong spirits, such as whisky, rum and gin.
“Whisky-based drinks are becoming more popular,” says Jay Jones, lead bartender for Shangri-La Hotel in Vancouver. “The classics — the Old Fashioned, the Sazerac, the Mint Julep, the Manhattan — all of these great American drinks are resurging in popularity. And the importance of doing it right as well as the importance of the base spirit you’re using is certainly at the forefront of a well-crafted rendition of those drinks.”
Interestingly, Colin Tait, bar manager and mixologist at Calgary’s Raw Bar, is also seeing the re-emergence of a drink that dates farther back. “A lot of people are experimenting with old-school punches,” he says. His bar tried selling a “tiki-style” rum punch for a limited time this summer. He was quite pleased with the customer response. “At first, they were like, ‘This is a little bit different,’ because you’re giving them something pre-made and batched,” he says. But they soon warmed to it and inspired him to try more punches. For instance, Raw Bar’s winter menu features the Punch Serene ($12), which “takes its inspiration from the classic brandy milk punch of New Orleans fame. It was more popular in colonial times, and it’s said Ben Franklin had his own recipe,” Tait says. The recipe includes Grand Marnier, house-made vanilla lavender syrup, whole milk, orange blossom water and mole bitters, garnished with nutmeg. In general, punch is the perfect drink with which to innovate: you can start with the basic idea behind the drink and then add your own twist.
Most mixologists agree that part of the art of bartending is creatively tweaking classic recipes. “We can’t just sit around making cocktails that are 150 years old; we have to keep moving forward,” says Shangri-La’s Jones. “So we take those classics as a jumping off point for our modern inventions — to include seasonal ingredients, to include regional inspiration, to supplant individual ingredients in those recipes for new ones.”
This summer, for example, Raw Bar’s cocktail menu offered the Guava Hurricane ($11) — a twist on the 1940s-originated cocktail — described in the menu with this blurb: “The original Hurricane asks for passion fruit syrup, [but] at Raw Bar we decided to use guava juice and lemon juice, then shake with Appleton’s 12-year-old Jamaica Rum and Goslings black seal rum.”
Katrina Roberts, wine and beverage director for Halifax’s Morris East, agrees with the merits of adding a modern spin to the classics. She’s a fan of “vintage cocktails” and a proponent of the local-food movement. This summer she created a drink called the Baja ($11), which featured local cantaloupes. “I was thinking, what were things in our produce section that I was seeing that Nova Scotia was doing really well? And I saw a lot of cantaloupe and all these beautiful melons. So I decided to do a drink with melon,” she explains. The Baja included puréed cantaloupe, a red chili cordial she made, fresh-squeezed lime juice, tequila and soda.
“My thing has always been fresh and local,” she says, adding, “I also take inspiration from my own life, from things I taste. It could be a dessert I had somewhere or a taste I had from my childhood, and I try to put those flavours in there. I ask myself, how can I put them in a drink?”
Photo by Tieran Green