Words by Simon Difford
There’s no glossing over it, the 1980s were grim for cocktail culture. Bar owners opted for mechanical solutions to a bartending skills deficit. Rather than invest in training their staff to make balanced drinks using freshly squeezed juices they chose to knock out mediocre drinks made using premixes. This was the age of the powdered sour mix. But were the 80s all bad? What were the big cocktails?
The 80s American bar scene was typified by Cheers, the American TV sitcom which screened September 1982 to May 1993. Yup, Sam served cocktails, but Norm and Cliff could hardly be labelled discerning drinkers. In Britain, Derek Trotter hit our screens in 1981, a time when cocktails were so prevalent in London and so badly made that Del Boy, an icon of working class aspiration and bad taste, chose the Piña Colada as his drink of choice.
At least one or two of the following elements comprise your typical 1980s cocktail:
- A name with plenty of sexual innuendo
- A neon colour - preferably electric blue (blue curaçao) or lurid green (melon liqueur)
- Orange juice (usually then packaged rather than freshly squeezed)
- Sour mix (often in powdered form and mixed with water)
- Vodka (Absolut Perfection - the first of Absolut's famous ad campaigns launched in 1980)
- Cream of coconut
- Southern Comfort
- Baileys Original Irish Cream liqueur (launched November 1974)
- Peach schnapps liqueur
- Glassware that was either huge or tiny - yes shots were in vogue and preferably layered
In 1983, the owner of Smirnoff Vodka, the Heublein Company, was purchased by the group that is now Diageo. It was the start of the big drink companies turning into mega-corporations and with each acquisition/merger, so came brand efficiencies to maximize growth and profits. The 1980s was a decade when many niche products disappeared to make way for mega brands, a trend that continued until entrepreneurs and the craft sector emerged in the late 1990s to fill the void.
As the 1980s drew to a close another piece of screen action would sum up what was then aspirational bar culture - the 1988 movie Cocktail starring Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown. "When he pours, he reigns."
It was against this background that I entered this industry in 1989, in midst of my formative drinking years, and as I write this nearly 30 years later it does raise concerns when I hear other folk in the industry talk about an "80s cocktail revival."
However, many of those 1980s cocktails made with fresh juices are tasty drinks - especially with a slug of extra alcohol. The Amaretto Sour for example, which benefits from added bourbon, remains one of the most popular cocktails today - made well it deserves to be. The Piña Colada can also be a superb drink, as evidenced by the Champagne Piña Coladas flying across the bar at London's Coupette. And when it comes to it, apart from the killjoys at the Portman Group, who doesn't like a cocktail served with a large dash of innuendo?
From a shot drink, "Slammer", created at the University of Alabama in the late 1960s-early 70s, the Alabama Slammer grew into a long drink that enjoyed its height of popularity during the 1980s.
More Alabama Slammer recipes and history.
Made to Morgenthaler's recipe, the Amaretto Sour is a great cocktail, but like so many cocktails in the 1980s sadly it tended to be made with sour mix from a packet rather than fresh lemon juice. Recipes also commonly featured "1/2 splash orange juice" - indeed orange juice was in every other cocktail at the time and that tended not to be fresh either.
Shots were hugely popular in the 1980s and the B-52 was the most popular of the lot - a nightmare for bartenders at the time as they battled to achieve clean layers on multiple orders on busy nights. Demand for the B-52, gave birth to a family of similar shots:
B-53 recipe, B-54 recipe and B-55 recipe
This drink from the 1930s has an innuendo loaded name that assured its popularity in the 1980s but don't be deceived, this is a seriously good cocktail.
The 1980 romantic drama film, Blue Lagoon, staring a young Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins stranded on an idyllic Fiji island with little more than a loin cloth between them must have helped drive sales of this fittingly aquamarine blue frozen cocktail over the decade that followed. However, the drink dates from the 1960s.
Blue drinks were huge in the 80s, as was the Piña Colada - add blue curaçao to a Piña Colada and you'll have yourself a Blue Hawaiian.
The popularity of the Buck's Fizz was very much limited to the UK. The French had themselves the very similar Mimosa, both created back in the 1920s, but during the 1980s (and to a degree ever since), the Buck's Fizz became the "drinks on arrival" of choice at British weddings.
Bananas and cream blended with light rum, judging by traffic to the recipe on this website, the Dirty Banana is as popular today as it was in the 1980s.
Creamy advocaat - hugely popular in the UK during the 1980s, smooths generous measures of gin and triple sec. This particular Fluffy Duck is deceptively alcoholic.
Consisting of peach schnapps and orange juice, the Fuzzy Navel is as underwhelming a cocktail as its name suggests it'll be. Add vodka and you have the rather better Hairy Navel.
Like the Fuzzy Navel above, why settle for a Grasshopper when you can have a Flying Grasshopper with an added slug of vodka? The spirit cuts through the creaminess to greatly improve the drink.
Created in 1952 by Donato "Duke" Antone and heavy advertised from 1973 onwards to promote sales of Galliano liqueur, the Harvey Wallbanger may just be a Screwdriver with a splash of liqueur, but folk in the 1980s loved it.
Developed at the Aviary Bar at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton hotel in 1978, this Tiki drink was an instant hit as both the decade and Tiki faded.
This drink was made for flamboyant Tom Cruise bartending. Grab all the white spirits in the rail and upend them all in the shaker at the same time. Yes, people say it was a prohibition drink because it looks like cold tea but it dates from the 1970s with numerous riffs created when it became fashionable in the 80s, then why not browse the following as well:
Long Island Iced Tea recipe
Long Island Spiced Tea recipe
Long Beach Iced Tea recipe
Long Island Lemonade recipe
Tennessee Iced Tea recipe
The Piña Colada may have been created back in the 1950s but enjoyed its height of popularity during the 1970s and into the 1980s. Indeed, it was Del Boy's drink of choice. Cushty!
Filling and calorific, this creamy amaretto and coffee liqueur dessert cocktail has proved enduring with a new generation of drinkers discovering it in the noughties.
There are two versions of this cocktail, one with vodka, peach schnapps, black raspberry liqueur, orange juice, pineapple juice, and cranberry juice, the other later recipe with peach schnapps replaced by green melon liqueur. The trend for shots also saw this cocktail remodelled accordingly. We have four recipes for the Sex On The Beach on this website but the above is our preferred version.
Another cocktail that enjoyed its heyday during the 1980s despite being created sometime between 1899 and 1915. Over the decades, between numerous different versions of the drink emerged, we have many on this site but we're proud of our own.
In his 1987 The Bartender's Cherry (Second Edition), Mark Torre gives the recipe for this extremely sweet shot as 2/3 sambuca, 2/3 Irish cream liqueur and "1 dash Grenadine: to create nipple." That brilliantly sums up 1980s cocktail culture.
Created during the 1970s the popularity of this cocktail continued into the 1980s with more innuendo seemingly added every year to produce a Slow Comfortable family of cocktails.
Probably created at the very end of the 1980s, this vodka, peach schnapps liqueur and cranberry juice cocktail has proven one of the more enduring from the decade.