New versions of less classy cocktails gain popularity

Chaim Dauermann, head bartender at the Up & Up, a cocktail bar in Greenwich Village, New York, makes a Midori sour.
Chaim Dauermann, head bartender at the Up & Up, a cocktail bar in Greenwich Village, New York, makes a Midori sour.PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Just as the cocktail renaissance has brought renewed fame to classics like the martini, the Manhattan and the Negroni, it has heaped fresh infamy on a rogues' gallery of less classy concoctions, most of which emerged during the final decades of the last century.

Now a backlash of sorts has begun, as some high-end bartenders apply their skills to a new challenge: doing bad drinks well.

Chaim Dauermann, the head bartender at the Up & Up, a New York City cocktail bar, has taken up the cause of what many of his colleagues consider a trashy disco drink - the Midori sour - by giving it a full modern-mixology makeover. He was driven in part by a love for the taste of melon. (Midori is the only melon-flavoured liqueur of note.) But there were other, more political motivations.

"I hate pretence," he said. "I particularly hate the dividing of products that happened for a time in our industry. 'Here's something we carry and celebrate for reasons; and here's something we don't carry and don't celebrate for other reasons.'"

Bars like Holiday Cocktail Lounge in New York; Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon; and the Automatic in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the martini shares space on the menu with a blue margarita, have risen to this curious challenge.

Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the bar manager of Pépé Le Moko and Clyde Common (also in Portland), is arguably the high priest of this populist trend. His new-and-improved rendition of the lowly amaretto sour, now served at bars around the world, began as a secret, under-the-bar special he would serve only to friends.

  • Amaretto Sour

  • Yield: 1 drink
  • Ingredients

    45ml amaretto
    20ml cask-proof bourbon, such as Booker's

    30ml fresh lemon juice
    1 tsp rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water; see note)
    15ml egg white, beaten
    Lemon twist, for garnish
    Brandied cherries, for garnish

  • Preparation

    Step 1: Combine the amaretto, bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white in a cocktail shaker and shake without ice, about 10 seconds, to integrate. Add ice and shake until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain over fresh ice in an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with the lemon peel and brandied cherries.

    (Note: To make rich simple syrup, warm 1 cup sugar in 1/2 cup water in a saucepan over low heat until dissolved. Cool to room temperature before using. There will be extra syrup; refrigerate if not using immediately.)

"It wasn't cool to say you liked amaretto sours," Morgenthaler said. "I didn't want to be excommunicated from the cocktail world for serving it."

When Pépé Le Moko opened in 2014, however, he let his democratic colours fly. "We had reached the maximum density on cocktail snobbery," he said. "People were getting fed up with the cocktail nerd who would judge your drink order." Joining the amaretto sour on the menu were reimagined recipes for the Grasshopper and the Blue Hawaii.

Just referring to any cocktail as bad is enough to get Morgenthaler's back up. ("There are no bad drinks, only bad bartenders," he has said.) But generally speaking, in mixology circles, cocktails are deemed subpar for any number of reasons: a lack of subtlety or balance; an overreliance on alcohol or sugar; the past use of poor ingredients, including spirits with artificial colors or flavors; silly names; or just a negative reputation as a favorite of undiscriminating bars and drinkers.

The new versions of these shady drinks, however, are not the cocktails your parents knew. While some bartenders may champion underdog cocktails, they are also aware that the drinks need a little work under the hood. Morgenthaler's amaretto sour is bolstered by a dose of bourbon. Dauermann's Midori sour calls for gin, homemade lime cordial and egg white. And the hue of the blue margarita at the Automatic comes not from blue Curaçao but from butterfly pea flower.

"I can't do it poorly," said Dave Cagle, an owner of the Automatic. "I can't look people in the face and sell them an US$11 (S$15) cup of food colouring and corn syrup." The Long Island iced tea may be the cocktail that most often inspires quixotic bartenders to don their lifeguard gear. Morgenthaler improves his with Mexican Coke, which contains cane sugar, not corn syrup. The Long Island iced tea at Holiday Cocktail Lounge uses vodka infused with actual tea, and has no Coke in it at all.

If a cocktail requires so much surgery to make it suitable, why bother with it at all?

"I'm someone who thinks you can get more out of something by adding more to it," Dauermann said. "I'm just saying my Midori sour is a way to showcase the potential of the flavor in Midori in a way that does it more service than just serving Midori." Also, customers order the things.

"We sell so much of it," Cagle said. "Mudslides, blue margaritas, Miami Vices. They're right up with Sazeracs, martinis and Manhattans. I think it's the irony thing. And they do taste great."