Smart cocktail bars from New York to Los Angeles are continually creating new drinks to showcase the sweet, smoky, savory flavors of whiskey.
Whether it’s a modern twist on a classic, the use of cutting-edge technology, like a spin in a centrifuge, or simply a new combination of ingredients, whiskey cocktails are fertile ground for a bartender’s imagination.
But are these new cocktails actually being ordered, or just ogled and posted on Instagram?
Recently, I was thinking about this question and what I drink when I’m out. Nine times out of 10, I order an Old-Fashioned or a Manhattan, and every now and then a Frisco, a nifty little coupe of bourbon and Bénédictine that my Daily Beast colleague David Wondrich introduced me to. When I’m at home, my drinks are even simpler: neat/rocks whiskey, a Highball, maybe a Boilermaker.
I wondered if other people are as stuck in the mud as I am, so I started talking to bartenders at whiskey bars across the country. The first person I got hold of was Dave Marks, who manages the Ashton Cigar Bar in Philadelphia. He immediately reassured me that I wasn’t alone. “The classics are so-called for a reason,” he reminded me. “They’re great cocktails.”
It’s also true that the Old-Fashioned has lately made a fantastic comeback. (It is essentially the original definition of a cocktail: spirit, sugar, water and bitters.) It has also benefited from the return of straight rye whiskey, which, in my opinion, makes a superior Old-Fashioned.
Marks confirmed that the drink is king at Ashton. “We sell Old-Fashioneds way more than any other single cocktail,” he said. “The house pour is with Knob Creek Rye, and that accounts for about two-thirds of them.” The Manhattan has also been popular recently (the house recipe is Wild Turkey 101 Rye and Dolin Rouge Vermouth) but still lags far behind the Old-Fashioned.
A few days later, I found myself at Longman & Eagle in Chicago, and asked bartender Allen Epley what sold, shift after shift. “The orders are about 50-percent classics,” he said, as he made me a twist on a Manhattan (with Laird’s Apple Brandy). “That’s the Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Sazerac, or a Whiskey Sour. But if we have a cocktail special on, and it’s red and fruity and people see it at the bar, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’ll have one of those.’”
That conversation led me to wonder: Would a more menu-driven bar see more action on the non-classics, since the drinks come with colorful descriptions? I got in touch with Adam Fournier, one of the bar managers at the NoMad Hotel in Los Angeles. The NoMad has three bars, and like the original in New York, they’re serving a clientele that’s already hip to cocktail culture.
“The drinking crowd is much more educated than they were five (even two) years ago,” Fournier said. “They’re international travelers who have a cosmopolitan experience of drinking. They know the classics, and they want to try them here.” But with the NoMad being beside Seven Grand, one of the country’s top whiskey bars, just doing standards isn’t enough, so Fournier and company have dialed up totally new versions of many classics.
One of the best sellers currently is the Start Me Up—a mix of Elijah Craig Bourbon, a little Strega, ginger syrup, lemon, orange bitters and rum. It’s “a Fall, robust type of Old-Fashioned,” he says.
It’s also what was called a fancy Old-Fashioned back in the day and is exactly the kind of riff Chad Solomon is playing with at his bar, Midnight Rambler, in Dallas. Solomon, who worked at legendary New York institutions Milk & Honey and Pegu Club, says the drinks on his menu “are built on classic structures: Old-Fashioned, Sour, Manhattan-style.” I was surprised given some of the intriguing combinations but he assured me, “It doesn’t seem that way, but they drink in that fashion.”
Take for example his version of the classic tipple the Cuffs & Buttons. The drink was created in 1874 in New Orleans by Martin Wilkes Heron, and later came out as a bottled drink better known as Southern Comfort. (Yes, that Southern Comfort.)
“Supposedly,” Solomon said, “Heron flavored the bourbon with honey, vanilla, orange, lemon, cinnamon, clove, cherries, and peach brandy. We kind of re-lensed it through the focus of a fancy cocktail. We get spice notes in it through a sous-vide method in the bottle. It’s more like an Old-Fashioned, and it’s just sold like bananas since we opened.”
How do you get from an Old-Fashioned to a house-made Southern Comfort homage? More to the point, how do you bring the customers along on that trip? It’s the menu. “The totality of creating a backstory and narrative, attaching it to a cocktail, makes for a richer drinking experience,” Solomon explained. “It allows for some interaction to unpack that at the bar top. There are Easter eggs and tripwires in the menu verbiage.” That’s some next-level menu design.
Which made me think of something Epley said to me in Chicago. “A lot of times it comes down to the bartender’s authority,” he told me as he slid my drink across the bar. “People are looking for advice, and you’ll figure out what they want. We’re whiskey’s ambassadors to the world.”
So, what am I going to order next time I’m out? Maybe something red and fruity; maybe just another rye Old-Fashioned; or maybe something from the menu I’ve gotten excited about. Whatever I decide, it’s cool with Dave Marks at the Ashton.
“Give the people what they want, within reason,” he said. “We have a big selection. We don’t care if they order the stuff neat, rocks, mixed. That’s just personal preference, and we’re happy to accommodate.” I’ll have a double of that.