Supersized Cocktails

The drinking man’s case for smaller servings

The Adios Mo-Fo is among the most popular drinks sold at Howl at the Moon, at Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles. A friend and I ordered one on a recent visit, then watched the bartender deftly hoist and upend four bottles at once—rum, gin, vodka, and blue Curaçao—letting loose long strands of colorful liquid, as if from the udder of a magical cow. Sitting and sipping, I found the drink to be memorable in any number of ways. For one, it was very blue—more blue than any swimming pool I’ve seen, and roughly as enjoyable to drink. But mostly, I was taken by its swimming pool–like proportions: 86 ounces, served in what appeared to be a plastic paint bucket sprouting two-foot-long red straws.

This is the hugest drink I’ve come across—by my calculation, it’s a double-duodecuple—but it’s not an isolated example. Many chain bars have embraced the cartoonishly large cocktail, from the 18-ounce Ultimate Mango Berry Daiquiri at T.G.I. Friday’s to the 24-ounce Big Rita found at Margaritaville. Even in non-cartoon bars, 10-ounce Martini glasses and 12-ounce rocks glasses are not uncommon these days, and drinkers will give bartenders an aggrieved “Dude, where’s the rest of it?” look if a large glass is not filled to the brim. The famous Big Ass Beer sold on Bourbon Street in New Orleans has even been eclipsed: last year I saw a Biggest Ass Beer in Memphis.

Video: SLIDESHOW: Wayne Curtis narrates images of gargantuan and Lilliputian beverages.

Of course, Americans have tippled big drinks as long as they’ve been tippling. Colonial taverns once set out large bowls filled with potent punches and vast tankards of flip, a hot toddy concocted with rum, beer, and molasses. But big drinks fell out of favor around the end of the 19th century, as the golden age of the refined cocktail dawned. Robert Hess, the author of The Essential Bartender’s Guide, told me that pre-Prohibition bar guides generally recommended glasses much smaller than those seen today—one 1917 manual suggested cocktail glassware ranging from just two and a half to four ounces. And the Mad Men swilling their way through the notorious three-Martini lunches of yore? Pantywaists. Those three Martinis combined would barely fill half a Big Rita glass.

Small cocktails were favored for a simple reason: they stay chilled from beginning to end. Few things are as unappealing as a Martini that’s warm when you hit bottom, with the possible exception of an Old-Fashioned on the rocks that’s both watery and warm at bottom. (I cannot attest to the last sip of the Adios Mo-Fo; disturbingly, it gave me a hangover without my ever getting tipsy, and I conceded defeat after an inch or two.) Cocktails should be like tapas: intense hits of complex, well-balanced flavors in small portions that leave one wanting more.

Happily, some of the country’s better bars—like the venerable Pegu Club in New York, and Craigie on Main in Cambridge—are inciting a small-cocktail revival. If I had to nominate one icon to represent this trend, it would be the newly popular coupe glass. This is a small, stemmed glass with a gently rounded bowl that makes it more stable and more comfortable in the hand than a stiffly angled Martini glass. Coupes generally hold only four or five ounces, and they inspire many pleasing myths, the most persistent being that the original was made from a mold of Marie Antoinette’s breast. They were once used to serve champagne, but fell out of favor when flutes proved superior. Today you’ll find classic drinks like the Hanky Panky and the Boulevardier served in them, allowing topers to get a snootful of aromatics as they sip.

Recently, I stopped by the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company, a speakeasy-style basement bar in Philadelphia. I ordered a Diamondback, a beguiling mix of rye, chartreuse, and applejack served in a four-and-a-half-ounce version of a classic Nick and Nora glass. It was cold at the beginning, cold at the end, and delightful all the way through. Alex Day, the beverage manager, has been looking through antique bar guides. He told me he’s intrigued by recipes for even smaller drinks, such as the original Corpse Reviver, consisting of brandy, apple brandy, and dry vermouth—“something very small, with a big burst of flavor, like a little pick-me-up,” he said. Such drinks were originally created as bracers with which to greet the dawn, and Day hopes to add others to his menu. He’s not yet sure how to price them, or if customers will be as intrigued as he is. I’m not sure either. But a Corpse Reviver sounds like the perfect antidote to the Adios Mo-Fo.