As the drinks scene has grown and transformed, so too have its classic cocktails, though many of the changes to these tipples occurred long before craft cocktail bars and bespoke spirits rose to their current prominence. Whether ingredients and methods shifted because the booze changed (often for the better), drinkers’ palates evolved, flavors went in and out of fashion or a combination of the above, these nine drinks have evolved beyond their original forms.
When the Sazerac was reportedly invented in the mid-1800s at the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans, it was made with Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac. As the drink became more popular, it got a twist by bartender Leon Lamothe, who in 1873 added a swirl of absinthe to the glass. It was around the time that French vineyards were overrun by phylloxera insects, causing the Great French Wine Blight of the mid-19th century. Because of this, brandy and cognac, the main ingredients used to make the original Sazeracs, became scarce.
That's where American rye came in, and now most Sazeracs feature this spirit (often alongside cognac), plus a rinse of absinthe or Herbsaint, a sugar cube and lemon twist.
The French 75 is another cocktail that started with brandy—apple brandy, to be exact. Created around 1915 and named after a field gun used in World War I, the original recipe for the drink, then called the Soixante-Quinze, or 75, also featured dry gin, grenadine and lemon juice, according to a recipe that appeared in The Washington Herald in 1915.
Over time, the cocktail morphed into a lemon juice, powdered sugar, gin and Champagne drink, as “French” also got tacked on to the name. The latter version first appeared in Harry Craddock's “The Savoy Cocktail Book” in 1930. Today, the powdered sugar has been replaced with simple syrup, and the whole delicious thing gets served in a flute glass.
The Sour, says Jesse Torres, the bar manager at American Elm in Denver, “started in the mid-to-late 1800s and is a drink with a spirit, often rye whiskey, fresh citrus like lemon juice and sugar, which was made into a syrup," he says. "But now, go into any regular bar, and they’re using a premade sweet-and-sour mix, not fresh fruits."
While that’s disputable—most cocktail bars nowadays shun any sort of prepackaged mixes—it certainly was the case for decades before the current cocktail revival. Torres chalks it up to the wave of technology in the 1960s. "Americans were fascinated with space age and science, and you start to see, not just in drinks but also in food, a lot of things in production and constructions," he says. That's when sour mix entered the picture, an ingredient that removed the need for expensive citrus and made the mix shelf-stable. Fortunately, most cocktail bars have now transitioned back to using fresh fruit juice in the drink, as the recipe originally called for.
For Lynnette Marrero, bartender and a co-founder of the all-female bartending competition Speed Rack, it's Martinis that have had a big change over time—or rather, small to big and back to small again. You know the jokes about midcentury three-Martini lunches? That was possible back in the day, since the drink was then served in glasses that would be considered tiny by today’s standards, but its size ballooned in the intervening years. Recently, however, there has been a shift back toward more modestly sized Martinis.
It’s also worth noting that the drink started out sweet and with as much vermouth as what we now call a 50/50 Martini. A bartending tome from the 1890s, “Cocktail Boothby’s American Bar-Tender,” calls for equal amounts of gin and sweet vermouth. Over the years, drinkers switched to dry vermouth, and trends began to call for much less of it. Winston Churchill, for example, was reported to merely fill his glass with cold gin and “nod in the direction of France.” But the fashion has changed once again, back to a more vermouth-heavy style, with a five-to-one or sometimes three-to-one ratio of gin to dry vermouth. "The shift to a more well-balanced Martini has made that drink more approachable," says Marrero.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
While plenty will argue the merits of making a Martini with gin versus vodka, one drink that certainly features the latter spirit is the Moscow Mule. Or does it? When this ginger beer, lime and vodka drink debuted, it was part of a marketing campaign by Smirnoff in the early 1940s as a way to sell vodka. But what most people don't realize is it's based on the Mamie Taylor, a now-obscure drink that debuted in 1899. That highball features scotch instead of vodka and is most commonly served in a tall glass rather than the distinctive copper mug for which the Moscow Mule is known.
One of the best adventure stories surrounding a drink features the Mojito. The first iteration of the beverage is said to have taken place in the 1500s, when Spanish explorers landed on the island we now call Cuba. The sailors suffered from dysentery and scurvy and were helped tremendously by downing a local mixture of cane spirit, mint, lime and sugar juice. It's possible the El Draque, the precursor to the Mojito, was modeled after this concoction and named after the leader of the voyage, Sir Francis Drake.
Fast forward to Cuban farmers drinking a potent rum that they downed with a bit of lime, fresh mint and sugar to make it more palatable. Eventually, the Mojito migrated to Havana, where it was diluted with a splash of soda water and cooled with ice. While the basic ingredients of this cocktail haven't changed in centuries, the way it's made has.
"The Mojito has gone through a bit of a shift from being shaken with mint and topped with club soda to now, where people are crushing the ice and swizzling it with muddled mint and sugar," says Marrero. The different preparation has altered the drink some, though the base of this boozy refreshment remains the same.
The Daiquiri is another drink that has gone from being made one way into becoming a different version of the same idea—and then back again. In this case, it became frozen and filled with all sorts of fruity flavors during the cocktail nadir between the second World War and the revival of the craft cocktail bar. But that version of the century-plus-old Daiquiri has become so widespread that many imbibers don’t realize it was a simple cocktail to start with. In Havana in the late 1800s, a Daiquiri was a way to showcase rum by mixing it with lime and sugar, served up—a style to which cocktail bars have returned.
"The Daiquiri is an institutional drink; it may change its face or clothes but maintains its essence," says Jackson Cannon, the owner of The Hawthorn in Boston. "I think it kind of has an amazing place right now, and there are some great ways to do it and some bad ways."
The White Lady started out featuring an entirely different spirit than its modern incarnation. Originally, says Brendan Bartley, the beverage director of The 18th Room in New York City, the drink was made with creme de menthe, triple sec and lemon. The original, created in 1919 by Harry MacElhone at Ciro’s Club in London, was in fact white in color, as it featured Menthe-Pastille. But by 1929, MacElhone had changed venues, to Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, and also the recipe by replacing the mint liqueur with gin.
"It’s a dramatic change," says Bartley, adding that the reason MacElhone made the change isn’t known but confirms that based on a taste comparison between the recipes the newer version is indeed an improvement over the original.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
When the Old Fashioned first entered popular bar culture in the 1880s, it was made by melting a sugar cube with a little water and a few dashes of bitters and then stirring in the whiskey. Along the way, the cube found itself getting muddled with orange and a maraschino cherry too, which fortunately has fallen largely out of fashion. But another change has started to come about: Some bartenders have begun to forgo the muddled sugar cube in favor of instead using rich simple syrup which, says Cannon, is easier and better.
"I think that gives you a platform that's more luxurious, and it's actually faster and cleaner to do in a bar—definitely an improvement that has been made over time," says Cannon. "This is a better version of that drink, and that's how things change; when it's a sexier, cleaner version, people copy it."