The modern cocktail revival we’re enjoying these days (and if you’re not, you should be—these times do nothing to discourage the taking of a good stiff drink, and bartenders are better than ever at mixing such things up) began as a sort of barflies’ revolt, when drinkers who cared about what they sipped got fed up with the sloth and ignorance that had invaded the venerable American craft of drink-mixing. We wanted our classic cocktails, and we wanted them made right. Now, we’ve got them—indeed, we’ve had them long enough that some cocktail aficionados are starting to turn on them.
The loose constellation of recipes that are generally considered to be “classic cocktails” isn’t very large, even when you include, as is generally done, all the classic fizzes, sours, juleps, punches, and other drinks that are not technically cocktails. It certainly doesn’t stretch beyond a hundred recipes and is probably much shorter than that. The International Bartenders Association cuts things too close with its list, divided into “Unforgettables” and “Modern Classics,” which total 61 drinks, but it’s not all that far off (even if some of its individual choices—the list has an odd penchant for 1970s drinks—might be head-scratching).
Putting aside those disco drinks, the Godfathers, Godmothers, and Golden Dreams, the canon of classics has been stable since the 1950s, with only a few additions and almost no deletions. Indeed, many of the drinks are utterly unassailable. Not a minute goes by without someone, somewhere in the world, stirring up a martini or a Manhattan, shaking up a daiquiri or a margarita, muddling mint for a mojito or chunks of lime for a caipirinha. These are the drinks that are universally known, universally appreciated, beyond fad or fashion.
Others might be slightly less universal, but make up for that deficit by inspiring unusually deep devotion. You can’t get New Orleans’s Sazerac and Ramos Gin Fizz, Italy’s Negroni or Trader Vic’s Mai Tai in every single cocktail bar on earth, but nobody in their right mind would deny them classic status. The same goes for certain heritage recipes, old achievers that might be spending most of their time nowadays rocking gently back and forth on the front porch, but yet there burns the old fire in their eyes and the memory of their great deeds still lives on. Here you’ll find the mighty mint julep, Fish House Punch, the French 75, and the Jack Rose.
But that still leaves a couple of dozen drinks that are famous enough that every serious bartender knows them but not so famous or beloved that you’ll look like an ignoramus for dissing them. Which is just what some bartenders and mixographers have taken to doing of late. Recently, it has become somewhat fashionable among cocktail writers and mixologically-inclined bartenders to pick one or another of these classics and proclaim a long-harbored disdain for it; to claim that it should be kicked out of the canon of classic cocktails because it’s no good and it never was any good, with a strong implication that the only reason that those who like it do so because they’re unthinking slaves to tradition. (Usually, the plaintiff in this argument also produces a trendy-ingredient-packed recipe that he or she just happens to have come up with that fixes all the alleged problems with said formula.)
It’s always the same eight or 10 drinks that come under fire. Some of them, even I wouldn’t stick up for, much, and I’m as big a classicist as you’ll find in these matters. The Bronx, a perfect martini smoothed out with a hit of orange juice, has never moved the needle for me, although it certainly did for a lot of other folks (it was to the beginning of the 20th century what the Cosmopolitan was to the end of it: the drink that made it okay for normal people to drink cocktails).
Others, such as the venerable Hot Toddy, a simple, strong and satisfying drink without any frills whatsoever (it’s basically single-malt Scotch, sugar, and boiling water), are out of step with our times, but for that very reason it’s perhaps a better use of one’s mental energy to cultivate an appreciation for them than to hate on them. After all, that sort of cultivation brought us the return of the Old-Fashioned, one of the great successes of the cocktail revival.
Some of the current punching-bags are good drinks that just aren’t for everyone. No classic cocktail is more reviled these days than Harry Craddock’s Blood and Sand Cocktail, which he created in London at the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar in the 1920s as a tribute to the Rudolph Valentino movie of the same name. A mix of equal parts Scotch whisky, sweet vermouth, cherry brandy, and fresh-squeezed orange juice, it’s definitely unusual. According to its critics, it’s also murky, oversweet, unbalanced, insipid, and unappetizing.
The Blood and Sand is really none of those things—well, OK, it is kinda murky. And whether it’s appetizing or not is, I guess, a function of taste. But if, with its portion of orange juice, the drink lacks the tartness of a Sour, the drink actually isn’t all that sweet, certainly no more so than, say, a Manhattan. Moreover, the Scotch (use a high-quality blend here, as Craddock would have) adds pungency to keep it from being insipid. And in fact, for every Blood and Sand hater you’ll find somebody who knows his or her cocktails and appreciates the drink.
But while I’ll dig a foxhole on the hill of the Blood and Sand and put a couple of sandbags around it, I must admit that if its critics start in on me with heavy artillery and airstrikes I’ll skeedadle and leave it to its fate. Not so the Sidecar, another drink that has come in for a surprising amount of abuse lately. Marshal Zhukov did not defend Stalingrad any more tenaciously than I will defend the Sidecar.
The Sidecar. Three ingredients: one or two parts cognac, one part Cointreau, and one part lemon juice, shaken together and customarily served in a sugar-rimmed glass, although that is a late addition to the drink. Invented in Paris, as far as we can tell, in the late 1910s or early 1920s, adopted with great enthusiasm at the time by Parisians and tourists alike, carried across the Atlantic to become a speakeasy favorite during Prohibition and a Society drink afterwards, the Sidecar has as illustrious a history as any drink in the canon. Made properly, it’s also as delicious as any.
This is where I have a problem with its critics. For them, the Sidecar is unbalanced, so that it’s either too hot and boozy or too sweet and insipid, depending on how you make it. And they’re not wrong: Go around to most craft cocktail bars and order a Sidecar and it will fall into one of those camps. Bars, of course, are businesses, and businesses have to make a profit on what they sell. There, when it comes to the Sidecar, is the rub.
Through the 1960s, if you were to buy a bottle of VSOP-grade cognac from a reputable producer, the sort of thing a good cocktail bar would be using in its Sidecars, the brandy within would be a blend of spirits aged from around 10 to 20 years (back then, even a lowly VS would be a blend of 4- to 10-year-old spirits). That age gives a brandy a pungent, rich, and concentrated flavor that, in a mixed drink, makes for a velvety texture and plenty of dark, old-brandy notes. Unfortunately, today, a VSOP is more like a VS was back then, and a VS is even lighter in flavor—so light that, when mixed with Cointreau and lemon juice, its flavor practically disappears, unless you up the proportion to the point that the drink is hot and boozy and harsh. And VS is what bars use—at over $30 a bottle, it’s what they can afford. To equal one of those old VSOPs, you’d need to use a good XO, which retails these days for $100 a bottle and up.
If, however, you lay out the cash for a bottle of, say, Martell Cordon Bleu (on the darker end of the flavor spectrum) or Courvoisier XO (on the brighter end) and mix up your own Sidecar, even an equal-parts Sidecar will be rich and velvety and as elegant as an Art Nouveau bedroom set, particularly if you jiggle the proportions just slightly so that the brandy part is just a bit more equal and the lemon part just a bit less. Made thus, a Sidecar is a uniquely luxurious drink, and you can get 25 of them out of that bottle. In this case, it’s best to be your own bartender.
In other words, don’t hate on the Sidecar, hate on the economics of the brandy industry.