Defining what is a “Classic” mixed drink

I know @Splificator will have some interesting new analysis to add to the “canon” discussion in coming weeks, but I also wanted to note this intersecting piece by @RobertSimonson:

I like the article, but I also noted what struck me as a redefinition or repurposing of the word classic. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, classic drinks were basically anything that came before the mainstream drinking culture of the late 1960s through the 1980s. We were discovering a huge trove of recipes, and there was little consideration of which drinks may or may not have been popular. (At the time, we had no idea.) Even hugely famous old drinks that had persisted, like the Martini and Manhattan, were under reevaluation: restoring the dry vermouth in the former, restoring the straight rye in the latter (and upgrading the sweet vermouth, and upgrading the cherry), stirring. Everything old was new. We were into classic cocktails. Classic drinks were the drinks of the old way.

In more recent years, first-and-foremost through @RobertSimonson own work, we got contemporary classics, which were popular new drinks that were fundamentally all informed by the old way. This is where the word classic becomes associated with some popularity metric. Next, classic may be restricted to only the mainstream drinks of the old way.


Interesting point, Martin. And a valid way to think about the term “classic.”

I started thinking about how to categorize drinks like the Last Word when the topic kept being introduced at book tour events for my book “Modern Classic Cocktails.” People would ask why the Last Word or Jungle Bird wasn’t in the book. I’d reply that they weren’t modern, that is, new. However, I had to admit their popularity was a modern phenomenon. So, it’s an interesting question.

I look forward to @Splificator’s thoughts on the subject. I know he’s working on an article about the matter for Flaviar.


I’m not sure I agree that with “contemporary [or modern] classics,” “the word classic becomes associated with some popularity metric” (though I see that a blurb for @RobertSimonson’s book asserts that as well).

Perhaps (probably?) it’s the circles I travel in, but I don’t have a strong sense that the Death Flip (for example) is well known or often ordered.

For me “modern classic” is a drink that those in the know judge as worthy of the canonical status given to the best “true” classics. Expert consensus about quality rather than quantitive measure of popularity.

But maybe alongside picking apart what we mean by “classic” we need to do the same with “popularity”! (Namely, who is the populus we’re talking about.)

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I think @RobertSimonson has been pretty thoughtful about choosing a three-pronged criteria for what constitutes a “modern classic” and pretty rigorous about applying it. I think one of the principle virtues of Simonson’s approach is that the “expert” opinions of “those in the know”—whomever* that might be—are balanced by some simple facts. On our Modern Classics app, we even have a separate category of “critic picks” for recipes that Robert or I think should not be overlooked, even though they don’t really meet the criteria.

It’s gonna be inherently more challenging to apply the same model to drinks from the 19th Century through the late 20th Century, simply because information is far harder to come by. One has to get creative.

There are so many recipes that were reproduced over and over again in books, sometimes with tweaks, that it’s easy to conclude “gee, that drink must be important”, but it may just be filler. Here’s an example I’m quite interested in: the Sweet Martini seems to have achieved at least a little traction before the Dry Martini juggernaut, and recipes for the Sweet Martini pretty much run through all the literature right through the 20th Century. Was anybody actually drinking them, or is it just filler? (Thoughtfully executed, the Sweet Martini is a great drink, IMO.)

*At this point, there aren’t that many “experts” whose opinions I take seriously, and it depends significantly on context.

Seems to me you need some evidence that significant numbers of people are ordering the drink and the recipe (or at least a sketch/interpretation of the recipe) is spreading around. So, I feel the Zombie and Mai Tai are classics, even though the vast majority of those consumed are arguably incorrectly made, even egregiously so.


My long–too long–piece on some of these issues is finally up on the Flaviar Times site. One thing I didn’t have space to discuss (it may seem like the only thing) is how the canon of classic cocktails established in the 1930s, which I delve into to a certain depth, was also constructed in response to issues of the time, just as the modern one is. There’s always more to talk about.


Not too long. Just right.

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Great piece!
The “Lone Tree” was new to me. I wonder what the historiography of that name vs. “Gin & It” is.

The Lone Tree was invented at the Myopia Hunt Club (its real name!) in Hamilton, Massachusetts some time before 1900, when a party of golfers dropped in at the president’s house on Lone Tree Hill, next to the 5th hole, also named Lone Tree. Said prez was out of the bitters needed to make Martinis, but they made 'em anyway, and liked 'em. Originally it was just equal parts Old Tom gin and Italian vermouth. Eventually it gravitated to dry gin, and some liked to add a spoonful of maraschino. In any case, a very WASPy drink.


I am in urgent, practical need of terse terminology to identify (label) the never-popular recipes of the past that have been exhumed from dusty books and made popular during the Cocktail Renaissance (and after). As discussed in the articles above, this would be the Aviation, Jungle Bird, Corpse Reviver, etc. and the neologism needs to make sense beside “Classic” and “Modern Classic”. (I like the word “exhumed” but it maybe doesn’t imply quite enough.)

My proposal is: Modern Renewal

Modern, as in recent time frame. Renewal as in both resurrection and relaunch.

Thoughts? Alternatives?

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Depends on if you want witty and poetic, or academic. I do prefer Modern Resurrection though.

You’ve probably gone through the similar phrases in other fields… Trash to Treasure… Hidden Treasures… Moldy Oldies… Diamond in the Rough… Cinderellas…

Diamond in the Rough is nice but doesn’t really imply age. It does get across that the original might have needed some work, or at least some attention.


I’ve been thinking about a term for these for my own project. I don’t have a good answer for you, but here are some of the ones I’ve toyed with:

Modern Revivals
Forgotten Gems
Rediscovered Classics
Contemporary Rediscoveries

I think I had a few more contenders, but I can’t find the scrap of paper where I was writing them down. I’m also dealing with a limited amount of space where this text can appear, so the current candidate is the narrowest (Forgotten Gems)

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Seems like the problem is that apt terminology can be rather unappealing. “Unearthed finds” makes me think of dirt. “Revivified” makes me think of zombies.

How about combining academic & amusing, e.g. Archaeologic GlowUps?

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I’m not interested in names that overlap with individual opinion, like “forgotten gems” or “diamond in the rough”. I’m specifically fishing for a term for old drink ideas that have categorically been established in the present era and were either ignored in their own era, or were at least never mainstream.

One area of inspiration for me is architectural preservation, which has the term “adaptive reuse” (old buildings updated for present needs while respecting their historical character). That’s quite analogous to what has happened with these old drinks: they’re in a completely new context today. “Modern Adaptation” might be a possibility, although that would describe any modern adaptation, not just the ones that have become ubiquitous. It would be nice to nail the remaining distinction.

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Sticking with the building materials/antiques/etc lens, maybe “reclaim” is a useful verb. Modern Reclamation? Reclaimed Classic?

Rehab/rehabilitation also plays in that space, but probably implies too much that something needed to be fixed.


Ooh! I like Modern Reclamation.


Regenerative Reboot of the Relegated

(regardless of the redundant ring)

Ok retiring from comments right away

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What is the determining factor of this historical obscurity?

These you referenced were still mainstream enough to be repeatedly included in some rather established books and lists. They are certainly more widely-known these days, but that could reasonably be said of nearly any cocktail that wasn’t on the IBA list from the 60s to the 90s.

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Well, there are stone cold Classics. Most of these are obvious, but the articles above address what they are (and aren’t).

Then there are drinks may have gotten around for a while, at least somewhere—drinks that fall short of Classic, but that seem to have had some traction. To my knowledge, we’ve no clear plan how to identify these drinks, yet, but I’m starting to have some ideas, and we have no name for them, but “Minor Classics” works for me. These are the second tier to the kind of analysis @Splificator proposes.

Then there are drinks that—as far as we can tell—are just recipes in a book (or books), that few people ever actually drank in the past, but that modern bartenders have jumped on AND they have gained traction—second chance. Those are our Modern Reclamations, or Modern Renewals, or whatever.

In the (long) article I linked to, those drinks in the last category–old recipes in a book somewhere that got suddenly declared classic–I dubbed “Mustangs,” using the old American Army term for soldiers of the rank and file who get suddenly promoted to officers. I like it because it’s short and because it accurately describes what happened to them. They were there, but not in the high-status group; then it was perceived that they filled a gap or answered a need (“is there an old Tiki drink with something bitter in it?”) and they were elevated to a new rank.

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Buried Treasures? Acknowledging that their value was previously obscure, as well as their existence?