Disco’s heyday was a time when people flocked to the dance floor, led by members of the art, music, fashion, entertainment and other worlds.
The era is also known, however, for ushering in what are widely considered to have been the dark days of cocktailing in America. The 1970s through the 1990s or mid-2000s, depending on whom you ask, are (not inaccurately) thought to be a time of lackluster cocktail-making. The drinks created and widely consumed during the disco era, such as the Harvey Wallbanger and Midori Sour, were typically sweet, sometimes to the point of being unpalatable, and often vibrantly hued—more appealing to look at than to actually imbibe.
In recent years, more than a decade after the resurgence of craft cocktails conjured a more serious (and one might say often humorless) approach to bartending, cocktail enthusiasts have become eager to embrace the playful side of drink culture once again, including drinks last seen on disco dance floors. These days, bartenders are applying their cocktail knowledge and skills to refine these vintage drinks, setting a new standard of quality and palatability.
These lighthearted nostalgic cocktails can now be seen, sometimes slightly or significantly reimagined, on cocktail bar menus. For example, in New York City, The Up & Up perennially offers its Insanely Good Midori Sour, while Porchlight has a Harvey Wallbanger on its summer menu. The highly regarded Artesian at The Langham London even developed its entire winter 2020-2021 menu around disco drinks. If you prefer your cocktails fun as well as delicious, these are the cocktails to try today.
The Harvey Wallbanger, a combination of vodka, orange juice and Galliano—an Italian liqueur made with vanilla and a blend of herbs and spices including star anise, juniper, lavender and cinnamon—is essentially just a fancy Screwdriver. Although it was invented in the 1950s, this drink didn’t really become popular until a marketing campaign in the 1970s made it a household name. It’s an easy drink to mix up, since all ingredients get added directly into the glass. The classic recipe can be a great template to work off for a savvy home bartender: Try adding some fresh lemon juice to up the ante.
After the melon liqueur was launched in the U.S. in 1978 by Japanese company Suntory, the rest was history. The unmistakable neon-green bottle found itself on backbars at some of the country’s biggest nightclubs, including New York City’s Studio 54, where the liqueur made its debut. Its eponymous sour—a mixture of lemon and lime juices, Midori, vodka and soda water—was consumed heavily throughout the 1980s and ’90s and has recently seen a rise once again as Japanese cocktail bar culture becomes more popular in the U.S. Contemporary cocktail bartenders employ Midori to create all sorts of visually appealing cocktails that taste delicious, too, and what was once a bottle that collected dust on the shelf is now a desirable ingredient once more.
The classic tropical drink known as the Blue Hawaii was created at Honolulu’s Kaiser Hawaiian Village (now Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Resort) in the late 1950s after the bar team was tasked with creating a cocktail using blue curaçao. This upgraded and simplified version retains the vibe of the original in a much more delicious format. The classic version became popular during the disco era because of the cocktail’s electric-blue color. This riff keeps the color but takes the drink in even more of a tropical direction by essentially transforming it into a blue Piña Colada. Rum, fresh lemon juice, cream of coconut, pineapple juice and blue curaçao come together over crushed or pebble ice to create a beautiful drink that looks and tastes like a vacation.
Named for the Oscar-winning film series of the same title, this two-ingredient cocktail is a simple combination of blended scotch and amaretto. While some cocktail enthusiasts opt for a different whiskey (such as bourbon), a Scotch whisky provides the most complementary flavors for the amaretto, with its typical notes of honey, a delicate smoke (depending on how it’s produced) and subtle nutty characteristics. The Godfather is classically made with equal parts of both its ingredients, but the version Michael Dietsch offers in his book “Whiskey: A Spirited Story with 75 Classic & Original Cocktails,” in which the amaretto is dialed far back, renders a less sweet, more balanced drink.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
As the story goes, this cocktail was originally crafted in Puerto Rico in the early 1950s by Ramón “Monchito” Marrero, then a bartender at the Caribe Hilton. It’s said its creation was, in part, due to the 1954 launch of the iconic coconut cream brand Coco Lopez. The drink became so popular that by 1970, Puerto Rico declared the Piña Colada to be the island’s official drink. It satisfies all the requirements for a popular disco cocktail: It’s fruity, juicy, easy to drink and visually alluring; its garnish, which often includes a cherry, pineapple fronds and wedge, and a paper parasol, seals the deal. It can be either blended or shaken and strained over pebble ice. All you need is a decent rum, pineapple juice, cream of coconut and some lime juice to craft this crowd-pleaser.
Amaretto is a nutty Italian liqueur typically flavored with almonds or apricot stones. Disaronno is the category’s most recognized brand, which you can find at just about any liquor store. Back in the 1970s, this cocktail was made using the sweet amaretto, plus sour mix, possibly triple sec and other ingredients that left the drink cloyingly sweet. Portland, Oregon, bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler gave the drink a complete rethink with the addition of fresh lemon juice, a high-proof bourbon and an egg white. The egg white, a common component in sour-style cocktails, adds richness and body but also dampens the sweetness from the amaretto; the bourbon provides the missing boozy backbone necessary for structure; and fresh juice speaks for itself. Morgenthaler adds a touch of rich simple syrup as well and garnishes it with a lemon twist and brandied cherries. His version is such an improvement over the original formula that it brought the drink back into the mainstream and is now served on bar menus all around the world.
The White Russian is an evolution of the Black Russian and made with vodka, a coffee liqueur (traditionally Kahlúa) and a splash of either heavy cream or whole milk. Even though it has been around since the 1960s and proved a go-to nightcap during the disco era, it wasn’t until 1998 that the cocktail saw a meteoric rise thanks to its prominent appearance in “The Big Lebowski,” in which Jeff Bridges’ character drank the concoction at every opportunity. It’s a cocktail that still makes the rounds at bars, and thanks to a greater selection of craft coffee liqueurs (such as Mr. Black) in modern times, this drink is actually enjoyable as a liquid dessert.
The original recipe calls for just three ingredients in equal parts: creme de menthe, creme de cacao and heavy cream. The result is a cocktail that looked like melted mint-chocolate-chip ice cream and kind of tasted like it too. Even though it was allegedly first created in 1919 in New Orleans, this drink didn’t really become a household name until the 1950s, as Prohibition squandered the growth and familiarity of many cocktails created just before that time. The rich green-hued dessert cocktail became a mainstay during the disco era, and in contemporary times, bartenders have taken the concept and run with it, creating clarified grasshoppers, grasshopper milkshakes and all sorts of other playful riffs on the flavorful classic. Our version breaks the equal-parts formula and cranks up the heavy cream to round out the drink.