By Sonu Purhar
Fancy infusions, liquid nitrogen and inventive ice… these days, it’s par for the course to find your coupe filled with a (damn delicious) work of art – but let’s not forget from whence they came. Yes, I’m talking about The Classic Cocktail.
As with any historical certainty, no one is certain when and where the cocktail originated. What we can agree on is that these stimulating brews traditionally consisted of spirits, sugar and bitters. By the mid-1800s, liqueur had joined as the fourth horseman. And shortly thereafter, the first genuine “cocktails” were born, including our friends the Sazerac, Old Fashioned and Manhattan. If it weren’t for these forerunners, you’d be sipping on bitter bathtub gin.
But even now, centuries later, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a really good classic cocktail. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t easy to make. And that’s reason #562 Vancouver is the best city in the world: because our bartenders are rock stars, and they know how to craft an old-world drink with as much skill as they can whip up a mind-bending original.
So for just one night, let’s set aside the flames, electric blue hues and decorative garnishes. Tonight we’re drinking the classics: elegant cocktails that are infinitely complex in their utter simplicity. Let’s revisit a few of our favourites.
The Drink: Sazerac
The Venue: UVA Wine + Cocktail Bar (900 Seymour Street)
The Bartender: Sabrine Dhaliwal
What makes it a classic cocktail? Conceived at the historic Sazerac Bar in New Orleans circa 1850, the Sazerac is one of the oldest cocktails ever recorded. The drink consists of either cognac or rye (the former is richer and full-bodied; the latter, sharp and spicy), Peychaud’s bitters, sugar and a kiss of lemon oils; the glass is chilled and sprayed with a delicate dusting of absinthe. Elegant, complex and timeless – the very definition of what a classic cocktail should be.
Why is it so hard to find a good classic cocktail? “Because simplicity is essential, and it’s a skill,” says Sabrine. “You have to let the spirit shine, and that’s why classic cocktails are not easy – there are so few ingredients that the slightest shift in balance can completely change the taste. But once you’ve mastered the classics, everything is possible.”
The Drink: Brandy Crusta
The Venue: Cascade Room (2616 Main Street)
The Bartenders: Rob Scope and Justin Taylor
What makes it a classic cocktail? The inspiration that launched a thousand Sidecars – and even more Margaritas – this subtle yet glamorous drink first appeared in 1850s New Orleans. The Crusta is a sour-style cocktail featuring some variation of brandy (usually cognac), orange liqueur, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, bitters and lemon peel. Cascade Room’s enhanced rendition uses cognac and Cointreau, and replaces the syrup with maraschino liqueur. The goblet is then topped off with a diamond-like sugared rim and thick curl of lemon, all of which combine for a deliciously dry, flavourful drink that dispenses with the froufrou and gets straight to the point.
Why don’t people order Brandy Crustas anymore? “From my perspective, Brandy is out of fashion – it’s what your grandfather used to keep in the garage,” says Justin. “The Crusta is a classic cocktail that really only gets recognition within the bar community. The more recent Sidecar, which only varies in proportions and presentation, is definitely more common. But give the Crusta a chance, at least once!”
The Drink: Daiquiri
The Venue: Lobby Lounge (at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, 1038 Canada Place)
The Bartender: Grant Sceney
What makes it a classic cocktail? Having surfaced in Cuba in the late 1800s – though some records say British sailors were the first to combine the drink’s base of rum, water and citrus wayyyy back in the mid-1700s – the Daiquiri was one of the world’s first rum cocktails. A punchy, refreshing combination of white rum, sugar and citrus, the drink was a favourite of esteemed drinker Ernest Hemingway (so you’re in good company). Flirty, citrusy and bold, the drink is proof positive that not all classics have to be stern and stormy.
Why do people gravitate to the classics? “Because you know what to expect when you order a classic cocktail, if it’s well-made,” says Grant. “New and original drinks are uncharted territory, and that’s exciting for sure. But it really depends on the day, the mood. Sometimes you just want to fall back on something familiar and known. Sometimes you just want a classic.”
The Drink: Manhattan
The Venue: Pourhouse (162 Water Street)
The Bartender: Christopher Flett
What makes it a classic cocktail? True to its glamorous origins – it’s rumoured the drink was conceived at the Manhattan Club in the 1870s to honour a presidential candidate – the Manhattan is a staple in the cocktail repertoire and has never really gone out of style. And why should it? Rye, sweet vermouth and bitters: a straight shooter, booze-forward with a maraschino cherry on top. It’s one of few drinks you can’t fake your way through – and that’s why the mark of a skilled bartender can rest largely on his ability to produce a flawless Manhattan.
Why do we still order cocktails that are more than a century old? “Mixed drinks adhere to certain principles and techniques – it’s like cooking,” says Christopher. “Bartenders understood this at the turn of the century, but we have yet to formally determine how those standards can be adapted in contemporary bartending. Also, in a time where everything is mass-produced and designed to be replaced, people are gravitating more towards stories and history. On some level, it’s comforting to order something handcrafted that’s been around for much longer than we have.”
The Drink: Inception Negroni
The Venue: Prohibition (801 West Georgia Street)
The Bartender: Robyn Gray
What makes it a classic cocktail? Technically it’s not – it’s a play on the Negroni, a three-ingredient classic introduced in Florence in the early 1900s. But Robyn has somehow managed to take the bare-bones combination of gin, Campari and vermouth and enhance it into a mind-blowing rendition that’s at once innovative and Matrix-like while staying true to the original. You see, Robyn’s drink is essentially two Negronis harmonized in one glass: the traditional red Negroni trapped in an ice cube sphere, floating in a white Negroni whose flavour profile is softer, sweeter and more feminine. As the sphere melts, the inner drink bleeds into the outer, melding into a complex multi-cocktail that flashes in turns bittersweet, smooth, sharp, delicate and aggressive. Don’t overthink it – just sit back and savour.
Should classics be adapted, or are they unchangeable? “Classics should absolutely be adapted. The ingredients used a hundred years ago are different from what they are today, so bartenders need to constantly reassess,” explains Robyn. “That said, every bartender should know how to make the classics. Once you’ve learned how to properly balance drinks with so few ingredients, you’ll have mastered the basic equation and can have fun experimenting and crafting originals that are all your own.”
The Drink: Vieux Carré
The Venue: Hy’s Cocktail Bar (637 Hornby Street)
The Bartender: Ryan Shimozawa
What makes it a classic cocktail? The recipe for this potent drink, named for the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré (“old square”), comes from the Hotel Monteleone’s famed Carousel Bar. Ryan mixes his with 100 percent Canadian rye, Benedictine, cognac, vermouth, and Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. You can taste each flavour swirling around the other, at once distinct yet beautifully harmonized in this booze-forward cocktail that goes down unexpectedly easy.
What drinks are people ordering these days? “In recent years, I’ve seen a definite shift back to the classics,” says Ryan. “Cocktail culture is so prescient now, and people have become more knowledgeable and educated about what they’re drinking. It’s neat to see a younger generation choosing to drink Manhattans and Old Fashioneds – to know that, after all these years, people still appreciate a solid, consistent and timeless drink.”
Originally published on InsideVancouver.ca