Dale DeGroff makes predictions for cocktail trends in 2012 and writes:
One trend I expect to gain traction is the celebration of simple and unadulterated classics, like the Daiquiri, Manhattan and Vieux Carré. (Williams & Graham, which just opened in Denver, features more than three dozen old standbys!) In the name of creativity, many bars now offer an endless number of twists on standards; as a result, it’s hard to find a naked drink. I venture to say that some bartenders relatively new to the profession are so wrapped up in creating variations that they may have neglected to master the originals.
Here’s to hoping DeGroff is right. While I enjoy the rampant creativity of the craft cocktail movement, the cocktails which have become classics maintain over the decades and centuries because of their functional perfection. Yes, I like trying new things and any visit to a cocktail bar will involve sampling drinks which are likely unavailable anywhere else. But after a bit of dabbling, I tend to return to the drinks that I know are great. For me, depending on the bar and what sort of mood I’m in, it will vary. But my standbys remain the Dry Martini, Manhattan, Mai Tai, Daiquiri, Hemingway Daiquiri, Negroni, Americano, Cocktail a la Louisiane, Old Fashioned, Margarita, Dark and Stormy, Sazerac, and perhaps in the summer a Painkiller or Pina Colada. If I’m out for brunch, a Bloody Mary with gin.
The same goes for when I drink at home. If it’s not beer, wine, or straight whisk(e)y, I’m probably drinking one of the cocktails listed above. Sure, I might play around with amari and do lots of Negroni or Americano variations, but nothing too wild. If I’m in a Tiki mood, I may explore Tiki cocktails which I’m unfamiliar with, but I rarely spend time crafting my own originals.
For my home bartending, I practice making a better Martini or a better Daiquiri than I can get elsewhere. If I’m in the mood to really test a bartender’s skills, I don’t look for their craziest creation, I see how well they can execute a classic. Creativity is a great thing, but timeless drinks are timeless for a reason. Across all the cocktail bars, speakeasies, and restaurants and hotels with legitimate bar programs, there might be tens of thousands of original cocktails created by contemporary mixologists. If there are ten original, contemporary cocktails of our era which are still being made in fifty or 100 years, it might be a lot. That’s because creating a timeless, classic cocktail is very hard. It must be unique, but simple. Approachable, yet complex. Popular, but alluring. There are certainly some contemporaries which have a good shot at surviving the tests of time (Audrey Saunders’ Gin-Gin Mule comes to mind).
This is not a knock on the creativity of American craft bartenders. Not in the slightest. Waves of creativity are required if our epoch is to produce a drink that achieves the timelessness of the Old Fashioned or Sazerac or the ubiquity of the Margarita. By all means bartenders should be creating. But I do think establishments can and should take cues from some of Japan’s best bartenders, as Derek Brown of The Columbia Room has done, and practice simplicity and perfection of craft over creativity. In this regard, I really hope DeGroff is right about a resurgence of naked, unmodified classic cocktails. I know that if I were to open my own bar, the menu would be almost entirely made up of classics, with a few modern contenders in the mix too. Partly that’s because that’s what I love and partly because I think that the best pathway to exposing the American public to the true grandeur of well-made cocktails.