clock menu more-arrow no yes
(Matthew Hollister)
(Matthew Hollister)

Filed under:

Spirited Away

From the indomitable Manhattan to the Last Word, a closer look at the evolution of cocktail culture in America and around the world

If a bartender can’t make a decent Manhattan, odds are they’ll flub flashier concoctions made of fernet and truffle oil. So we start with recipe one. The Manhattan is the alpha and omega of cocktails, gracing social clubs and recipe books since the second half of the 19th century — a keystone for all spirits innovation to follow. "For hundreds of years, bars have always had whiskey, vermouth, and some bitters," says Matthew Houlihan.

Houlihan manages Featherweight, a cash-only speakeasy-style bar that mixologist Kathryn Weatherup and designer Matthew Maddy founded three years ago in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Featherweight is basically a playground for Houlihan and his staff to revel in executions of odd throwbacks such as the Jungle Bird (a mix of pineapple juice, rum, and Campari developed at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton in 1978) as well as craft cocktails like the Regal Oaxacanite (a mix of grapefruit juice and mezcal). But the flip side of Featherweight’s menu simply lists a few classics, including the Tom Collins, the old-fashioned, and, inevitably, the Manhattan. "Can’t kill the Manhattan," says Houlihan. "If you fuck up a Manhattan, I’m still going to drink it because it’s so good."

Jade Aldrighette, who manages D.C.’s beloved Passenger bar, says the Manhattan’s basic elegance contributes to its ubiquity. "Manhattans are delicious and simple," she says. "Just the right amount of bitters. A quality vermouth that’s kept well. And then a nice, spicy rye. It’s the ideal drink." By design, the Manhattan is timeless. It has survived the whims of commerce, law, and popular taste that gave birth to American cocktail culture in the 17th century. And that culture, now a global tradition, has since reinvented the spirits enthusiast’s palate several times over for more than 250 years.

"There was a time when there were people who had never seen a grapefruit," Houlihan says. He’s talking about life in Middle America before the spread of supermarkets and the concurrent popularization of household refrigeration in the 1930s. "Grapefruit didn’t ship from California. But you would go on vacation, and you’d go to a hotel bar, where the bartender would take gin, cream, maybe an egg white, and grapefruit juice, and he’d make a fizz. They had cold seltzer water. They had ice cubes." At the time, Houlihan says, "It was like nothing you’d ever seen."

From the Manhattan, an antebellum cocktail, to the gin fizz, a Prohibition-era cocktail, to contemporary favorites such as the piña colada, Houlihan says the lineage of all great American cocktails is tied to the commercial history of the United States. In 1770, New England was home to 159 distilleries that produced rum from the 6 million gallons of molasses imported from the Caribbean that year. As the Royal Navy disrupted molasses importation during the Revolutionary War, domestic rum production declined, and Southern states such as Kentucky weaned the country on whiskey made from homegrown corn. Given whiskey’s ubiquity in the U.S. from independence onward, early mixologists naturally gravitated toward the development of bourbon-based cocktails, including the Manhattan, the old-fashioned, and the mint julep.

There are two key post-industrial innovations that revolutionized cocktail culture: the modernization of household iceboxes at the turn of the 20th century, followed by the proliferation of consumer-grade fridges in the ’30s. Only then did bartenders start working with fruit juices, dairy, egg whites, and ice slush as popular cocktail components. "The Manhattan is a couple hundred years old, and the piña colada" — invented by two bartenders in San Juan, Puerto Rico — "is about 50 years old," Houlihan says. Without ice and refrigeration, the piña colada doesn’t exist.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In the U.S., the resurgence of cocktail culture in the early 21st century largely coincides with the rise of foodies. The two drinks that best symbolize this cocktail renaissance are the cosmopolitan, widely popularized by Sex and the City, and the Last Word, born in the old speakeasies of Detroit. In the 2000s, bartender Murray Stenson revived the Last Word on his menu at Zig Zag Café in Seattle, and from there the cocktail’s reputation spread to New York. A mix of green Chartreuse, gin, maraschino, and lime, the Last Word has now found itself in bar repertoires all across the country. "When people started drinking cocktails again, craft cocktail bars opened," Aldrighette says. "As bartenders started serving the Last Word, Chartreuse became more popular, and everybody was into it for a while."

Reyangelo Honrade, a mixologist based in New York, credits digital media with the expansion of amateurs’ knowledge about cocktails in recent years. "Some people are connoisseurs, or they’re just curious and want to try everything," Honrade says. "But sometimes — with older, obscure cocktails — you can’t find the ingredients anywhere. So you have to find a way how to incorporate the flavor with the same classic ones." For patrons and bartenders alike, the pleasure of cocktails is largely bound up in the thrill of the improvisation and slight variety that might elevate a standard cocktail from good to uniquely great to orgasmically impressive.

You can’t talk about cocktails without also talking about foreplay. "When you make a drink," Honrade says, "the customer sees it first. It catches their eye. When they drink it, their nose goes first. And then you take a sip."

Honrade works at Jeepney, a Filipino American fusion restaurant in the East Village. He also tends bar at various spots across Manhattan, occasionally working pop-up shifts where he serves a limited run of ornate, specialty tiki cocktails that he’s developed himself. (Wherever you happen to find him, Honrade is likely cutting a little something-something with coconut milk.) Honrade’s mixes are as distinct and playful as his presentations, and he’s conscious of how the appeal of any given cocktail is a matter of aesthetics as much as it’s also about flavors. After all, if I ask you to think of a martini, you’re likely thinking of not just a liquid or a taste, but also a particular glass, with olive and toothpick included — a presentation so universal and iconic that it’s got its own emoji. Without its classic presentation and all the prestige that it confers, the vodka martini is just gray spirits in a glass. For many less discriminating drinkers, the cone glass and toothpick make all the difference.

It’s a seductive art form. In fact, an attractive cocktail can deceive novice drinkers who may not initially know what they’re getting into when it comes to the liquor itself. "Customers make mistakes," Honrade says. "They order a Manhattan, they drink it, and they say, ‘Ah, this is so strong!’ And I tell them, ‘Sir, you ordered a Manhattan — did you know that a Manhattan is all booze?’ You pull them aside, and you help them find their way to a whiskey sour."

For bartenders and customers alike, the dynamism of certain cocktails is a crucial component of their appeal: bourbon vs. rye, shaken vs. stirred, up vs. rocks. "We decide, ‘OK, we’re gonna do something that’s Manhattan-ish,’" Aldrighette says, "and we go from there. We pick what we want to use to balance everything out so we don’t have all shaken drinks, or all stirred drinks, and so there’s a mixture of different glassware, juices, and spirits." Every evening at the Passenger, a chalkboard posted above the bar lists a new slate of cocktails often named (in true Beltway fashion) as a nod to the news and politics of the day. (Ten days into Donald Trump’s presidency, the bar posted a #NoBanNoWall cocktail menu including drinks called the Executive Order, the Not My Presidente, and the Resist.) "We do four cocktails a day plus a beer-and-shot combo," Aldrighette says. "It seems daunting, but we’re used to it."

The current, hyperinventive wave of cocktail culture has spread far beyond the U.S. Natasha Abou Moghli, an award-winning mixologist based in Beirut, managed both Bar ThreeSixty and Cherry On the Rooftop at the five-star Le Gray hotel before recently transitioning to work as a sommelier at La Petite Maison. "Beirut is indeed the place where bartenders are always looking for ways to make their cocktails stand out," Moghli says. While cocktail culture was born in the 19th-century U.S., its global spread has expanded the profession’s canon beyond the original, American classics to the development of local and national signatures abroad. Moghli describes cocktails as an art form driven largely by a bartender’s intuition for returning customers’ fickle palates. Moghli prefers working with gin. "It goes well with almost everything. I like to use herbs and spices. With a little bit of chili and fresh vegetables, you are ready to create magic," she says. "It all comes down to balance. You have to know what goes with what, or it’s a lost cause."

Gen Yamamoto (Justin Charity)
Gen Yamamoto (Justin Charity)

Some mixologists make great sport of developing specialty cocktails around fresh, rare ingredients. Gen Yamamoto, a native of Japan, spent much of his 20s working as a bartender in New York City and the greater tri-state region, making his reputation as an herb-obsessive mixologist at the Japanese restaurant Brushstroke in Tribeca. In 2012, Yamamoto moved back to Tokyo and launched his own, cozy, six-seat bar, which he owns and operates single-handedly and on a reservation-only basis. At a dark, wood slab counter located in Tokyo’s steep Azabu Juban neighborhood, Yamamoto presented me four to six rounds of unique cocktails incorporating ingredients such as sweet potato shochu, flower sprig garnishes, and the sweetest plums I’ve ever tasted. His cocktails are about as far away from common and "classic" as it gets, with premium liquors, odd spices, and fresh fruit that all together make for exceedingly rare combinations. (Gen doesn’t even drink cocktails himself. As far as spirits go, he prefers sake and straight whiskey.)

Yamamoto and Houlihan both compare cocktails to jazz, another definitively American art form that took the world by storm in the mid-20th century. And, in the spirit of jazz, mixologists have made improvisation an indispensable skill. Where Aldrighette and her staff develop and serve new concoctions on a daily basis, Honrade plans new menus three months in advance, sourcing uncommon ingredients and gradually tweaking his recipes. "The best cocktail bartenders nail the classics first, just to learn textures and complements," Honrade says. "Then, you can do whatever you want. You can use chicken feet," he jokes. And if chicken feet plus mezcal tastes as strange and stressful as it certainly sounds, you can always wash it down with the same old vermouth, Angostura, and rye.

An earlier version of this piece misspelled the name of the Passenger’s bar manager; it is Jade Aldrighette, not Aldrighetti.

The Ringer Reality TV Podcast

‘The Great British Bake Off’ Season 9, Episode 4: “Dessert Week”

The Dave Chang Show

The Future of Food and Dinner Party Music, With Morgan Neville

The Dave Chang Show

The Wide World of Groceries, Part 1 | My Opinion Is Fact

View all stories in Food