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Kent Wang

What to call the genre of new cocktails?

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I'm writing an article and have run into this conundrum: What would you call the kind of drinks Death & Co., PDT, etc. are serving?

"Classic cocktails" implies actual classics like the Manhattan, while these bars are primarily serving new creations.

"Innovative" or "modern cocktails" could be mistaken for chocolate martinis and the like.

Perhaps modern cocktails in the vein of classic cocktails?

For brevity, would you simply say "classic cocktails" anyway?

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I think that you're going to have a hard time finding a phrase here that works. "Classic cocktails" can mean so many different things, from hard-n-fast Jerry Thomas recipes to drinks that follow Thomas's principles (Wondrich's Improved riffs, for example, or his Weeski) to drinks that use classic ratios with newly invented ingredients: Manhattans with fat-washed this, housemade that, and bitters-of-the-moment.

Maybe the problem isn't the phrase but how to define it. In the course I'm teaching, I laid out a few principles that I consider crucial to "classic cocktails":

  • enhance (don't hide) the spirit base
  • layer and balance different flavors
  • beware the sweet & befriend the sour & bitter
  • technique serves the cocktail
  • treat your ingredients with respect

I think that if you look at the current offerings at PDT, VH, Teardrop Lounge, Death & Co., etc. etc. the drinks adhere to those principles.

Interested to hear what others have to say on this matter.

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I'm also interested to hear what others have to say here, because I've had this question before as well. "Classic Cocktails" seems to be the shorthand people are using, but I agree that it isn't right, for a number of reasons.

I'm tempted to pull an old advertising word from the 70s out of retirement: Gourmet. It's a word that doesn't mean much to us anymore, since the whole world went foodie back in the 90s. But "Gourmet cocktails" kind of says what we mean. Made by and for someone with a focus on taste, quality, and a level of sophistication. Likely to be a little more expensive than the average. The word "Gourmet" these days kind of works against its own meaning, like calling something "Classy". But its meaning is accurate, and maybe the word has been dead in advertising long enough that it could be returned to use in daily language?

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If I were to elbow up to the stick and ask for "one of those gourmet cocktails you're famous for making," I think that the vast majority of the bartenders making these cocktails would hit me on the head with a muddler. Especially if I made air quotes around "gourmet cocktails."

Didn't there used to be a magazine with that title?

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Personally, I think the word "gourmet" in food and drink descriptions is like the word "democratic" in country names: If you have to use it, it probably isn't true.

Who is the target audience for the article, Kent? If it's aimed at people who are conversant with the current scene, then "modern" should be fine. Otherwise, it probably bears explanation anyway, in which case you can say, "Modern cocktails, which doesn't mean chocolate 'Martinis' and their ilk..." Or you could just go with the slightly awkward "Classic-inspired cocktails".

Edited to add: One thing I would hasten to point out is that the current scene really isn't just one genre. Take, for example, this discussion on "East Coast" versus "West Coast" cocktails. Then there's the so-called "molecular mixology" style. Are you trying to pin down only one of these styles, or encompass all of them?


Edited by mkayahara (log)

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Okay, so Gourmet isn't the word, and likely for the reasons I mentioned. Although in fairness, if I went up to the bar at PDT and asked for "one of those dandy "Classic Cocktails" you're famous for making", and used "air quotes" around "Classic Cocktails", my guess is that I wouldn't be anybody's favorite customer either. Maybe if they could tell I was spelling the phrase as "Klassik Kocktails"...

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Okay, so Gourmet isn't the word, and likely for the reasons I mentioned. Although in fairness, if I went up to the bar at PDT and asked for "one of those dandy "Classic Cocktails" you're famous for making", and used "air quotes" around "Classic Cocktails", my guess is that I wouldn't be anybody's favorite customer either.

Heh. It's a fair cop.

Maybe if they could tell I was spelling the phrase as "Klassik Kocktails"...

Now that's a name I could get behind.

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How about "Innovative Cocktails"?? Or "Innovative, Classic Inspired"?? I've been known to describe my drinks as "Left turns off the Classics".

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There are a number of things to consider here.

For example, at places like Milk & Honey, Dutch Kills, etc. the style is typified by what I call "neo-Classic cocktails." This is to say, cocktails that did not come from the pre-Prohibition era, but might as well have because they would feel right at home alongside historical cocktails. An example: The Silver Lining.

Beyond that, there is a larger school of what I might call "Classical Tradition." These are cocktails founded upon the same principles of balance, brevity, focus, etc. as pre-Prohibition cocktails, but which have grown the tradition forward so that we now have cocktails that would not be at home alongside historical cocktails but are still clearly sprung from the underlying aesthetic and values. This is a pretty wide net, however, encompassing most of everything that's going on in the NYC top cocktail bars -- from Pegu Club's Intro to Aperol to D&C's Cooper Union.

I'm not sure I believe there is a distinctive "house style" at PDT, especially now that the creator of many of their most noteworthy and celebrated cocktails has moved on to Momofuku. The extent to which many of the drinks there may play in the same aesthetic space as Death & Company is, I think, largely due to being influenced by what was going on at D&C. In other words, if you want to find a name to describe those drinks, and "mostly boozy, mostly brown, mostly bitter and mostly stirred" doesn't do it for you -- then "Death & Company style" is probably the most apropos. Although I should hasten to point out that this style didn't spring from their heads fully formed. Not for nothing was Audrey teaching that the Craft could benefit from moving in this direction right at the time most of the D&C guys were at Pegu Club. Nevertheless, this is a style that the D&C crew has very much made its own, and they are appropriately associated with this style.

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How about "Innovative Cocktails"?? Or "Innovative, Classic Inspired"?? I've been known to describe my drinks as "Left turns off the Classics".

To me, "innovative cocktails" sounds like a euphemism for "molecular mixology."

"Artisanal cocktails"? "Craft cocktails"? "Haute cocktails"?

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Both neo-Classic and classic-inspired sound appropriate and, with hyphens, work as category names without requiring the use of quotation marks. Both terms exclude the classics, of course, but I doubt people would be confused enough to think you couldn't get a Manhattan at PDT.

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I use the term "craft cocktails" to describe them.

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I think neo-classical is my favorite pick, and one I use quite often to describe the new-school/old school approach.

Craft cocktails is another good term. However, with the term craft cocktails I don't think it reflects the tradition in the new approach, and could easily be used to describe slamming together some fresh fruits, herbs, etc. and topping with flavored vodka and maybe some soda. A muddled kumquat-sage vodka hi-ball is not exactly what I think of from these places. Sure fresh juice and other ingredients is light years past bottled sour mix, but people have done interesting fresh flavors, but still played "hide the alcohol." Part of what makes the newer approach different is the respect for the flavor of the base spirit.

Neo-classical works because it's not about being slavishly vintage - rather it's about having a deep understanding of the traditions and history, but moving on from there.

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"Classical" is a good word to use as opposed to "classic." What does the "classical" of "classical music" mean, for example? Well it means that there is an established tradition of composing and performing a certain genre of music. The tradition part is important, because the tradition evolves over time (the operatic tradition in the time of Händel was very different from the operatic tradition in the time of Puccini) -- but also because innovations, whether or not they influence the direction in which the tradition evolves, are contextualized by the tradition itself. So, for example, when Beethoven began a his first Symphony in a different tonality than the main tonality of the piece, this could be understood as an innovation. Similarly, in the "classical" cocktail tradition we are describing, cocktails are informed and contextualized by what has gone before them. This is in contrast to some of the other contemporaneous streams of mixology that are not informed and contextualized by an ongoing tradition.

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In Imbibe, Dave Wondrich uses the term "Channeling the Professor", but that's a bit of a mouthful.

How about the term "Post-Modern"? Like the art-world, it gets at the fundamental lack of meaning in any of these naming exercises.

My niece uses a term that might fit, "Adult". As in, "Yes, I'd like a drink but nothing too adult, please." :rolleyes:

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For those people who are obsessed with vermouth, bitters, old recipes:

  • Tweaked Classics,
  • Nouveau Classique,
  • Classically Inspired Cocktails.

For those people who have a more rounded opinion on cocktails/ Mixed Drinks, with an understanding of the past, present, future:

  • Short Drinks
  • Long Drinks

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I don't understand the implied critique ("a more rounded opinion"), nor do I understand how a drink's measurable stature addresses the question Kent is asking here.

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A "more rounded opinion" as opposed to being obsessed with vermouth, bitters, and old recipes.

IMHO There is more to cocktails than the 19th century.

:rolleyes: It is meant to be taken light-heartedly, so do not be overly offended, dear boy.

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I hear people in the Boston area say craft cocktails, when implying the use of quality ingredients and traditional methods vs. the 'tini this or that.

Sean

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A "more rounded opinion" as opposed to being obsessed with vermouth, bitters, and old recipes.

IMHO There is more to cocktails than the 19th century.

:rolleyes: It is meant to be taken light-heartedly, so do not be overly offended, dear boy.

I'm not offended in the least, since none of the categories seem to apply to me. Or to anyone else I know. Or to the categories Kent is asking us to consider.

I hear people in the Boston area say craft cocktails, when implying the use of quality ingredients and traditional methods vs. the 'tini this or that.

That sounds like pretty good shorthand, and a big tent to boot.

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I do like craft cocktails. In meaning, it seems like it would be the same as gourmet cocktails, but I think craft is more apt here. Gourmet has a more food, and not booze orientation, and is rather overused.

My editor has suggested "nostalgic cocktails". What do you think?

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Dave is right. Unless you're going to be discussing White Russians and chablis with ice cubes, no one is still alive who would be nostalgic for the stuff you'll be describing. And, besides: ewww.

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