Lord Grantham’s Scotch, Nucky Thompson’s whiskey, Gatsby’s champagne cocktails and Don Draper’s martini lunches are all inspiring today’s drinkers to soak up an older generation’s libations. “Downton Abbey,” “Boardwalk Empire,” a “Great Gatsby” remake and “Mad Men” … the nation is in the midst of a love affair with the past, and the cocktails are stealing the show. As we’re learning the way our favorite characters used to drink, we want a taste, too. From pre-prohibition to the ’60s, old-fashioned cocktails are making a big splash on bar menus today.
Marianne Hunnel, former Disney chef who has managed the Epcot Food & Wine Festival for the past eight years, has seen an outpouring of interest over old-fashioned cocktails. “Being part of the festival as long as I have, for a while people were talking about wines, a little about beer, but then it became more about cocktails,” Hunnel says.
A salute to the past doesn’t mean you should expect your grandmother’s martini. Venues are shaking things up by creating old-fashioned cocktails, but with a modern twist.
“People like to have fun and experiment,” says Hunnel. “They are intrigued with the past, but they like to try different things. Companies are coming in with old principles but with new ingredients. Bartenders are now mixologists, bar chefs. It’s a form of art, a culture, and figuring out how the flavors will play on a palate.”
Tyler Brassil and his wife, Loren, who own a 1920s-style speakeasy with partner Dominick Tardugno called Pharmacy on Sand Lake Road’s “Restaurant Row,” are prime examples of chefs-turned-bar-owners. “I’m a chef by trade, so when it comes to cocktails, I think about the components, just like food,” Brassil says.
One of the ways bartenders are making these old-fashioned drinks modern is by embodying the farm-to-table moment, using local and seasonal ingredients along with hand-crafted liquor or beer that not only benefit the taste buds, but the environment and the economy as well.
“Our menu changes weekly to reflect what’s in season,” says Brassil. “In the spring, blueberries are in season and we’ll do something with that. In the summer, we did a ginger shine, with moonshine, watermelon and ginger.”
Yes, even moonshine is making a comeback, and it’s a far cry from the white-lightning corn whiskey of bootleggers. William Faulkner once said, “Well, between scotch and nothin’ I suppose I’d take the scotch. It’s nearest thing to good moonshine I can find.” Faulkner’s quote is featured on the cocktail menu at David’s at the Hilton Orlando off International Drive, where guests can choose from innovative specialty drinks made with moonshine. The Florida Sun Shine includes house-infused moonshine, strawberry puree, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and simple syrup. Emeril’s at Universal Orlando Resort makes a Moonshine Cobbler with white moonshine, Peach Schnapps and fresh berries.
Over at the Epcot Food & Wine Festival, which has become one of the world’s largest festivals of its kind, Hunnel is working with artisan liquor companies to create innovative and fresh concoctions. “We’re taking that traditional thought of a martini and giving it a little twist,” says Hunnel. “We’ve been working with a Florida vodka distiller who instills his product with local Plant City strawberries.”
Festival goers can learn about creating their own specialty drinks and even try their hand at the bar. Mixology seminars are held nightly, and celebrity bartenders fly in to spill their tricks of the trade.
With this craze for cocktails, the Brassils’ business is booming, with sometimes three-hour waits to get into the Pharmacy. Yet, customers keep coming back. “I think people are more aware of quality now,” Brassil says. “For so long it didn’t matter. Buy a drink, it’s a drink. There was once that “Sex and the City” fruity craze of the ’90s. But now it’s back to old school. It’s not about getting drunk anymore; it’s about sipping a cocktail, really enjoying it.”
Harkening back to the World War I era, downtown’s Bohemian Hotel, showcases the works of early-20th-century painter Gustav Klimt and plays nightly jazz in its piano bar where patrons savor high-end drinks. The bar menu includes “Sipping Tequila,” “Sipping Rum,” artisan whiskey, Scotch and classic cocktails such as the Pisco Sour. The drink, dating back to the 1920s in Peru includes the grape brandy pisco, egg white, simple syrup and lemon. For a fresh take, the Bohemian has added the liqueur du jour St. Germain for that French flavor of elderflower Americans are craving of late.
Down the street at Corona Cigars, which has another location on Restaurant Row, aficionados puff away on exclusive cigars while sipping pre-embargo rum and pre-Prohibition whiskey, which can carry hefty price tags of $3,000 a bottle for sealed 1930s vintages off the Historical Spirits List.
“When you buy a nice cigar, you don’t want to pair it with a sour apple martini but instead with single malt scotches, cognacs, bourbons and dark rums,” says owner Jeff Borysiewicz, who’s become a serious collector and history buff. “George Washington had a rye distillery at Mount Vernon. Then during prohibition, they had rye distilleries where you had to get a prescription from a doctor or else you had to get it illegally.”
The bar menu has a little fun with this history, depicting old advertisements and political cartoons.
“I think this generation has become appreciative of more quality and hand-crafted products, the art of the distilling process and the time spent in the barrels,” Borysiewicz says.
Patrons have this luxury of quality because the very best products are available on the market—from even the smallest distilleries—and it’s leading to a rise in whiskey consumption.
One popular bourbon drink, the Manhattan, has been cropping up on menus around the city. While the cocktail dates back to the late 1800s, today’s venues offer their own interpretation. In the Prohibition days when whiskey was made fast and cheap from Canada, masking the flavor was a must to make it palatable. Manhattans often were made with muddled oranges and cherries. The Bohemian honors this tradition by using a blood orange liqueur, red vermouth and chocolate Aztec bitters. The Pharmacy uses classic ingredients of vermouth, bitters and bourbon, but then carbonates and bottles it, yielding a type of grown-up cherry cream soda. But if tradition is more your style and you don’t mind paying $300, you can have the Millionaire’s Manhattan at Corona Cigars, which is poured with Four Roses 1940 Rye Whiskey.
The Old Fashioned is also getting a makeover. Guests at Universal’s new Cabana Bay Beach Resort can immerse themselves in the property’s 1960s theme, while enjoying a “New Old Fashioned,” made with bourbon, orange bitters, muddled cherry and orange, and a sugar cube.
This blend of time-honored traditions with modern methods gives drinkers the best of both worlds. Fortunately today, mixing drinks is not out of necessity to mask the horrible taste of bathtub-brewed rot gut, but rather to enhance the existing flavors of a high-end spirit. Each new experiment of ingredients brings a new experience for the drinker. And enjoying those variations is what traveling is all about, says Hunnel.
"When you first go to a place, it’s really nice to have that celebratory cocktail and start your adventure,” she says. “We all need to eat and drink. But when you’re a foodie, you really take in the cultures in the different parts of the world, and when you take the time to really taste the food and spirits, you’ll find, most likely, there is so much passion that goes into making it.”
So pony up to the bar and order a creative cocktail or a whiskey neat. Whether you’re soaking up the past or pondering the future, just remember to pause to take in the moment.