Speaking on stage at the 10th anniversary of The World’s 50 Best Bars, Milk & Honey London owner Jonathan Downey told the audience that innovation is overrated. Later, he projected a slide that read: “You will never create a new drink that is better than a Daiquiri.”
He’s far from alone in his reverence for the classics. “The reason they are classics is that they have a story behind them,” says British bar star Declan McGurk prior to Downey taking the stage. “I believe if you launch an empire of themed menus and interesting drinks you should give the same attention to your classic cocktails as you do on your original drinks.”
Yet original drinks are one of the key ways a bar can stand out amid the overwhelming number of cocktail bars open today. Menus clue a guest into the ethos of what a bar specializes in but also must list what the people want.
The Case for Listing Classics
Part of what makes a classic a classic is that the cocktail is recognized by name at bars around the world. This ranges from centuries-old drinks like those in Jerry Thomas’ “Bartenders Guide” to modern classics like the Cosmopolitan and Penicillin.
“Most American guests, especially in New York, are pretty savvy about these drinks,” says Naren Young, creative director at NYC’s Dante. Still, he adds, “there’s such a vast canon of classics that there’s always a place for them on the menu, and there are sure to be ones that even drinks geeks aren’t familiar with.”
There were 63 cocktails on the menu at the time I stopped by Dante to speak with Young. Most were classics or slightly altered versions of classics. “When you have that many drinks on the menu, it’s kind of silly really,” he says. “But it works for us.”
New York City bar Slowly Shirley also places heavy emphasis on the classics with a dedicated menu featuring more than 50 options. Beverage director Jim Kearns has, however, noticed an uptick in bars opting for more originals on the menu.
“This is really unfortunate, in my opinion,” says Kearns. “Because not only are classics the theoretical underpinning of how to make a good, well-balanced cocktail, but there are literally thousands of lesser-known dusty gems that no one would recognize as classics, even if they were on a menu. On top of that, I don’t think anyone is good enough to come up with that many consistently outstanding drinks. A well-placed classic on a menu, with a few originals, can serve to elevate the entire offering and offer a little dimension to a menu.”
With so many classic options, there’s always the question of which ones make the list. Straight Martinis, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds are known enough to list only when made with a rare spirit you want to highlight, says Kearns. At The Flatiron Room, where the focus is on whiskey, only classics that best showcase the brown spirit make the list, says beverage director Young Kim.
While original cocktails get plenty of hype, there are ways to make classic menus more inspiring. The Flatiron Room lists cocktail invention dates, for example, which piques guests’ interest and “helps drive a conversation between the guest and our staff in a simple yet effective way,” says Kim.
Another example is Dante’s Martini Hour menu, which is filled with lesser-known variations and twists. “Our goal,” says Young, “is to make the best example of that classic that anyone has ever had.”
The Case for an Originals-Focused Cocktail Menu
It’s easy to feel like everything has been done when it comes to cocktails. Most original drinks are, at their heart, just riffs on the classics. But those riffs can make or break a cocktail menu when it comes to a drinking public that’s always looking for the next new thing.
“If you talk to any bar purest, they will tell you that, technically, every drink can be traced down to one of about six classic cocktails,” says Amanda Swanson, the bar manager at Fine & Rare in NYC. In the end, these new drinks can increase interest in the classics. “Seeing all the new trends has deepened the conversation and brought a lot of the old classics back into the spotlight as they get modified and expanded on.”
At R17 in lower Manhattan, beverage director David Orellana aimed to combine a classics menu and an originals menu into one concise offering. “We always start with the classics and play with more ingredients,” he says. This led to cocktails like the Royal Mail, made with rum, Champagne, Earl Grey tea and grapefruit. R17 doesn’t list any classics, and most people, one bartender says, don’t realize they’re ordering revamped classics when ordering off the menu of R17’s originals.
Choosing to forego classics can also help a location convey a theme. At Baar Baar, an Indian restaurant and bar, chef Sujan Sarkar and bartender Suyash Pande created a drink menu with options inspired by traditional spices and ingredients like turmeric and ginger, and Indian spirits. They considered listing classics, says Pande, but in the end chose to focus on originals.
“There are always risks and rewards when one tries to do something new and not seen, but really we feel that is the fun part here,” says Pande. “Our idea of introducing Indian ingredients and flavors and having our cocktails complement the food was our priority. Though the bar team is well-trained to churn out classic cocktails, we were bent on having people try our originals.”
On either side of the debate, the one thing that bartenders and bar owners agree on is that putting classics on a menu is a statement that speaks to the clientele the bar has or wants to attract.
“I think the golden rule about how many [classic cocktails] to include on a list is to evaluate your establishment and the team working with you,” says Kim. Even the best cocktail recipe, after all, only works if the person making it knows what they’re doing.