“Do you remember the 90’s? You know, people were talking about getting piercings, getting tribal tattoos; people were singing about saving the planet, forming bands. There’s a place where that idea still exists as a reality, and I’ve been there.” –Fred Armisen, Portlandia
Not long ago a fellow bartender recounted a little story about a guy who sat at her fancy cocktail bar. She tossed a cocktail napkin down in front of him and asked what he was drinking.
“How ‘bout a Blue Hawaiian?” the guest inquired.
“Never heard of that. What’s in it?” she replied sarcastically, reaching for her OXO jigger and crystal mixing glass.
She proceeded to carefully measure out the recipe he recited and, using her 50cm Japanese barspoon, stirred and strained the classic party shot into a vintage coupe glass. The patron proclaimed it was the best version of the traditional shooter he’d ever had, but it led me to wonder what ever happened to the fun kind of drinking? When all that mattered was that your drink was strong, colorful, and tasted like candy. You know, the good ol’ days when flair bartenders ruled and Will Smith was still the Fresh Prince rocking a high top fade.
It’s safe to say that the spirit of 80’s and 90’s has been kept alive in Las Vegas and Miami. But places like New York, San Francisco, Portland, and Chicago have gone through a booze revolution over the past five or ten years. Cocktail bars have become abundant and even the diviest bars have small batch spirits and a few house infusions hanging around.
Recently, though, bars adept at sophisticated libations have been taking us on a journey down memory lane.
New York’s Fatty Johnson’s hosted an event last month they called ‘The Night the Cocktail Died’ with a menu of 70’s and 80’s bar staples like the Alabama Slammer. Party drinks were prepared by two of the city’s premier craft barmen, including Toby Cecchini who had a hand in popularizing the Cosmopolitan. (He’s the bartender who started using fresh lime juice and Cointreau, in case you were wondering which character on “Sex and the City” he played.)
Most sources credit South Beach bartender Cheryl Cook with the original Cosmo that she created around 1985 using Rose’s lime cordial and a splash of triple sec.
“What overwhelmed me was the number of people who ordered Martinis just to be seen with a Martini glass in their hand,” proclaimed Cook. “It was on this realization that gave me the idea to create a drink that everyone could palate and was visually stunning in that classic glass.”
To many of us this period is a forgettable, even shameful, time when our stonewashed jeans or hammer pants were only slightly less horrifying than the rounds of Purple Hooters we tossed back. Blogger Robert Simonson called this period ‘the nadir of cocktail culture of drinks historians,’ but for many it was a glorious and carefree time.
Dan de Oliveira of Chicago paid homage with a menu of Phil Collins inspired drinks at a Pops for Champagne industry night a while back as well, with San Francisco cocktail destination, Heaven’s Dog, throwing a party recently, entitled “The 80’s and the Drinks You Love to Hate”.
With Charlie Sheen all over the news and the flannel clad grunge look back in fashion it’s starting to feel like the 90’s are back with a vengeance, but not everyone in the bar community agrees community. Beginning in 2008, Tales of the Cocktail has held a yearly ‘Cocktail Funeral’ in memoriam of a drink’s death. The ceremony of retiring a cocktail so far has been devoted strictly to these 80’s and 90’s party drinks beginning with the Appletini, Red-Headed Slut, and last year’s Sex on the Beach.
So what gives? Are party drinks really experiencing a comeback or is the bar community just poking fun at our embarrassing past?
Hard to tell just yet, but for the moment, let’s all enjoy this journey to a simpler time. A time when people rode skateboards, wore flannel shirts, slept till 11, and drank Flaming Dr. Pepper shots. What a magical time indeed.
~Brandon Wise, Presiding barman of Portland’s Irving Street Kitchen