Why There Will Be No More Modern Classics

Words by Evan Stroeve

Photography by Trent van der Jagt & Parker Blain

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Evan Stroeve looks back at the era of replicable modern classics and why this concept is on its way to the crematorium.

We have so much to thank for the “Classic Cocktail Renaissance”. The era that gave us fresh ingredients, big ice, cold glasses, stressing the importance of the sum of all parts. Bartending received an overhaul: sour-mix and McDonalds ice abolished. What remained was an industry of professionals who now took themselves and their product seriously. They studied their predecessors, they recreated forgotten cocktails under their new doctrines, and this gave way to a creative license that gave birth to new original cocktails, under the template of drinks from a bygone genre. These drinks travelled from bar to bar, city to city, across the world, all in an era without the immediacy of social media. These drinks captivated bartenders as well as their guests. In a perfect marriage of supply, demand and bartender reverence, the Modern Classic was born.

That concept is dying, if not already dead.

What do I mean by “Modern Classic”? A few examples; The Penicillin, created by Sam Ross in 2005 at Milk & Honey, New York, a drink known and revered the world over, by bartenders, guests and celebrities (shout out to Rose Byrne). You’d be hard pressed to find an Australian who hasn’t had an Espresso Martini (Vodka Espresso, RIP Dick Bradsell). Even the Aperol Spritz, so synonymous with day drinking and arguably the vehicle that drove the modern spritz movement is little more than a commercial marketing exercise gone extremely, extremely right.

Gold Rush, Jasmine, Gin Basil Smash, Tommy’s Margarita. All examples of very simple changes to already prevalent formulas, now worldwide phenomena and identities in their own rights. How did this happen? How did this phenomenon occur? These were drinks that relied on new ingredients, that remained easily accessible. Ginger syrup, agave, espresso coffee etc. Easily obtainable ingredients coupled with easily remembered specs is a recipe for success. It was a beautiful marriage of time, place and simplicity, all positioned within an industry that was really (in hindsight) in its creative infancy.

Sasha Petraske gave rebirth to a myriad of forgotten drinks, framed within his unwavering adherence to standards. How many modern classics can we trace back to Milk & Honey, its family tree of venues, and the bartenders who learnt and served there?

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a Bulletin Place cocktail from 2019

It wasn’t long before brands caught on to this phenomenon. Cocktail competitions soon came to emphasise the importance of replicability and partner success with the notion of a “legacy”. This makes sense, the Aperol Spritz became a license to print money. What brand wouldn’t want to be associated with a product that had the potential to become paradigmatic on a global scale?

However, I’d argue that we’ve now left that renaissance behind. I don’t know what to call our new era, but what can be certain is that the approach to drink creation has changed markedly. If that was the renaissance, the golden age of cocktails, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for progression. So where are we now…some kind of post-post-modern?

The beginning of this shift away from modern classics is noticeable around the beginning of the 2010s. Aside from Chris Hysted’s Death Flip (Black Pearl, 2010) and Joaquin Simo’s Naked & Famous (Death & Co, 2011), there really is little to be said of modern classic cocktails in this era. Considerably less now. How many bartenders can, with good conscience, say that they can name five cocktails of global reverence created in the last ten years? Who even knows the recipe for last year's Bacardi Legacy winner? Who knows who even won it five years before? Remember, this is a competition to find a new classic, run by one of the largest liquor companies in the world. The truth is that this notion of ‘legacy’ (not explicitly Bacardi’s, but the idea that a single cocktail can now propel your name globally) seems to be dead, and really, it has done for years.

Why? I think there are a number of factors.

The first is social media. We now live in an age where the transmission of information, be they recipes, concepts, loose ideas or just sexy looking drinks, is instant. We are all connected with an immediacy that has come to define a lot of how we live and work, and how we define ourselves. Bartenders have built brands and an image off the back of their social media presence, and new venues would be crazy to not include some budget for social media strategy. What this means, however, is that new information, new recipes, new drinks change daily. The information fades as rapidly as we are bombarded with it.

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Evan Stroeve at work, Bulletin Place

Another factor is that bartending has moved more and more into a culinary landscape. In the same way chefs want to find unique ways to define their philosophy and service, so bars want to stand out uniquely from one another, either because they want to be different as a selling point or because they hope they actually have something to say.

The bars that are now the spearheads of our industry are considerably different from those that were five years ago. Commercial kitchens, specialist equipment and tools that have, up until now, lived purely in science labs, now define the modern bar. This is interesting. New ideas and new concepts are exciting, and rightfully, have a new wave of fans who assume that possession of a rotary evaporator is a signpost of your bar's value. A shout out here to the bars that continue to blow minds with this machinery, yet continue to put their philosophy and the interests of the customer first. Scout, Byrdi etc. However, it is easy to see a degree of elitism here. That shit is expensive, and I’d argue it’s hard to see how it is really going to make a difference to revenue at the end of the day.

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Not Mezcal from Byrdi

What this all represents is a value shift. A shift away from the replicability of cocktails, and towards their individuality. Creativity is now the supreme value. Is this self-serving? Is there a circularity to this that serves the ego, and not the guest? Sometimes … A different article, maybe.

However, we are now in an industry where uniqueness is everything, whether through a proclivity to spend thousands on ultra-super-mega sonicators. Maybe it’s focusing on the micro-availability of seasonal produce, which is only available in the second week of March, directly from the Hunter Valley, from an old guy named Peter. Maybe it’s the simple recognition of the value of time (months, years) in techniques of preservation and fermentation.

In this world, is there any place for a 50:20:20 daiquiri variation?

Is this a force for good? Probably. An entire generation of young bartenders flexing their creative muscle cannot be bad. But it poses the question: “Does this new age value replicability of drinks?”. The answer seems to be a striking “No”. The death of replicability is the death of modern classics.

There will always be a place for classic cocktails. They are the foundation on which all else is built. The prospect of not being able to acquire a Gibson when I feel like one is unthinkable. There will always be a home for Daiquiris, Margaritas, Penicillins and Aperol Spritzes. But the door is locked. There is no more room in the house.

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