The summer heat is frying my brain. Opening a bar located inside of a refitted Airstream trailer in July is not something I recommend.
Once again, I find myself doing the most odious part of my job: naming cocktails. Just as with a rock band, the name of a cocktail can help make it—or break it. This might be my cynical Gen X mentality, but I’m starting to think that every cocktail has already been invented, and younger bartenders are making the rent by simply renaming classic tipples more cleverly than the drink jock down the street. I get it.
Because I’ve been thinking about names too much, I’ve decided to give my unsolicited opinions on some names of classic (and modern classic) cocktails, to see if some of them need a marketing update. I think I’ll start in the past and move toward the modern era … very loosely.
Grog: Named after a maligned admiral of the British Navy’s preferred manner of dress, this drink is a mix of rum and water (and sugar and lime, if available). The name won’t win any awards, but it sounds like a caveman from a cartoon, so it’s fine by me.
The Julep (or Mint Julep): This is pure perfection—mystery in a glass. Julep comes from a Persian word for medicine, much like how we get syrup (and shrub) from “sharab.” In the mid-1800s, the earliest days of cocktail, they were considered medicine. It was a way to get that life-restoring spirit into the infirm, the young and the elderly. Is a “julep,” mint or otherwise, truly medicine? I suppose it’s not by today’s standards, but I’m also not getting a tooth extracted pre-novocaine, right? The only questions that matter are: 1) bourbon or brandy, and 2) mint-muddled or as garnish only?
The Toddy (and the Hot Toddy): I’m a sucker for these old names. It’s like sports—give me those old team names (even the Yankees and Lakers, if you must) over Raptors and Rays. Yeah, the drink is just whiskey, water, sweetener and a citrus peel; it’s nothing remarkable … until you see a steaming one coming toward you in a friendly hand on a raw winter’s evening. It’s a keeper.
The Old Fashioned: This cocktail is so old that one wonders what could have been older than it. Despite what you say, Wisconsin, this is a simple mix of whiskey, bitters and sugar. It sounds easy to make, but you probably have been disappointed as often as I have. The name is fine; since it’s a cocktail lacking any “sizzle,” it gets a pass.
The Clover Club: Here we start with the drinks named after the places where they were supposedly invented. These names are always classy, and the cocktails are generally good, too. This raspberry gin sour is no exception—it’s one of my favorite names and drinks! You can feel free to add the Manhattan, the Algonquin, the Daiquiri, the Army-Navy and other place-name drinks to the list.
The Martini: This drink’s name and origin is shrouded in mystery. Sorry, San Franciscans; I’m not buying that “Martinez” story. It’s as good a story as any, and you sure like your martinis, so have at it. More likely, to me, is that a lot of bartenders were probably making something similar at the time. The name is timeless, chic, sexy and cool enough that people order them just to sound sophisticated while pounding cold Tito’s four ounces at a time.
The Margarita: As with the martini, the naming and the origin of this classic are lost to competing tales and no hard evidence. It’s the ultimate party drink; nothing says, “Stop what you’re doing and come hang out!” like the margarita. For my money, the name is a translation of “Daisy” into Spanish, as the drink is a Mexican take on a Daisy. Sorry, Margaret.
The Last Word: How do you top this one? It’s the “last word” in cocktails. Named after a popular monologuist, it’s an unforgettable drink with an unforgettable name. It’s certainly the best cocktail to come out of Detroit.
The Vesper: I hate this drink. Just have a damned martini. (There, I know you were waiting for my signature snark.) I must concede that the name is great, and it’s probably the real reason you’re ordering it.
The Cuba Libre, the Cape Codder, the Madras, the Presbyterian, etc.: Is it pretentious to order a drink by these names instead of the ingredients? I suppose it is, but I think it’s romantic, in a sense. When I first moved to Palm Springs, I bristled at a vodka-soda-cran being called a Rose Kennedy; I am from Kennedy country, after all, and I’d never heard of that. Once I realized it was part of gay bar culture, I had a change of heart, and I now almost bristle when someone doesn’t call it that. When in Rome, as they say. Anyway, keep the youngster bartenders on their toes, and order a Press (basically a highball with a little ginger ale or lemon-lime soda added) or a Madras (vodka and juices) on your next dive-bar outing. I’m putting almost all of the dive-bar classics on the “good” list—Fuzzy Navel, Seabreeze, Bay Breeze, etc.
Sex on the Beach: You’re on my “naughty” list.
Speaking of that list … here are my most-hated drink names.
The Porn Star Martini: Porn is fine, no shame. But this ain’t a martini. Also it’s a clunky name, straight out of the late ’90s, where it belongs. It’s actually a decent drink when made well. The name, however, is a hot mess.
The Oaxacan Old Fashioned: I’m guilty. I admit it: I have lazily put “Oaxacan” in front of an innocent mezcal cocktail instead of giving it a proper name. I repented long ago, and I call all of you sinners into the light! For that matter, stop adding mezcal to a classic cocktail and renaming it in Spanish, please. At least use Zapotec or something, and be original!
Jeesh, I feel like I’m just getting to the good part, and I’ve hit my word-count limit. Perhaps we need a part deux … so feel free to email me with your most loved and hated cocktail names!