Our correspondent toasts a growing trend: the return of the classic cocktail

Image credit: Justin Ide

An online reviewer of a new cocktail bar in Boston recently wrote, “The real highlight of this place is their ability to give you what you want, even when you don’t know what that is.”

The bar is called Drink, and I stopped in with a friend right after it opened, last fall. It has a clean, almost apothecary spareness, with lots of sharp angles and galvanized steel and slate. No bottles are on display. Spirits are measured from stainless-steel jiggers that resemble beakers, and the aromatic bitters are kept in eyedroppers, for precise dispensing. And there’s no cocktail list. The idea is that your bartender is your pharmacist and, after a brief chat, will prescribe something based on your needs and past preferences. (Pharmacy is evidently ascendant in modern cocktail culture; in the past year, Apothecary opened in Philadelphia, and Apothéke in New York.)

We found seats next to the ice station, where our bartender was doing an admirable imitation of Tony Perkins in Psycho, attacking a massive block of ice with a frightful-looking pick and afflicting those in the vicinity with small, sleety squalls. Other tools were arrayed on a white towel, like an exhibit of Civil War medical instruments: three-pronged ice tongs, dull knives, a wooden mallet. After carving out several fist-sized hunks of ice, she came over to take our order. Her diagnostic abilities were not yet fully honed, however, and I ended up self-prescribing an Old-Fashioned, with extra bitters. The drink that arrived was exactly the healing tonic I’d hoped for, with a perfect balance of sweet and bitter and the alcohol’s sharpness, none bullying the others—and such beautiful ice!

Drink’s decision to eschew a cocktail menu is a rarity, but the bar is representative of a welcome new trend: lounges that celebrate classic cocktails and take pains to make them with the best ingredients and according to the canon of the great cocktail books (which, happily, are also coming back: Jerry Thomas’s pioneering 1862 cocktail guide, How to Mix Drinks, and David Embury’s 1948 classic, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, have recently been released in new editions). These sorts of bars have sprouted up in a number of cities, including Seattle, San Francisco, and New York.

The bartenders at such places are often referred to as “mixologists.” People tend to smirk at the term, and I don’t blame them. It sounds preposterous and self-aggrandizing—but it’s historically accurate. It first appeared in 1856, when cocktails were compounded like patent medicines, and it was intended to suggest precision and care. As the cocktail authority Dale DeGroff has noted, the cocktail is “as American as jazz, apple pie, and baseball.” Classic cocktail bars are to the toper what the new crop of “classic” baseball stadiums are to the sports fan—places where we can cheer a return to our roots.

For me, the best aspect of these bars isn’t that they’re essentially theme parks where you can drink, but that the drinks highlight rather than mask the tastes of the spirits. This is as it should be. Lading drinks with overly sweet mixers, thick juices, and fruits amounts, in a way, to a continuation of Prohibition. During the 13-year drought, Americans applied considerable creativity to hiding the taste of bathtub gin and bootlegged liquor, and then never really broke the habit. Seventy-five years after Prohibition’s repeal, we’re returning to the basics at last.

I admire what Drink is doing in eliminating the cocktail menu: asking you to put yourself in the hands of a knowledgeable guide who can edge you beyond your comfort zone into a new experience. Still, I hope it eventually prints one up. Sometimes the bartender will be too harried to take a full patient history, and perusing a list of drinks and their ingredients is a great education. I also hope Drink might embrace another new trend, that of listing obscure classic cocktails interpreted by and credited to talented bartenders working today in other cities. Such a list is like a blog with links to other worthwhile blogs, except that the links are potable.

I like to think that bars such as Drink are not a fad, but rather part of a growing network of universities that will teach a new generation of mixologists and drinkers how to make and appreciate a proper cocktail. And that one day, with a little luck, we’ll be able to order a perfectly crafted Manhattan or Jack Rose or Sidecar at any airport bar.