Cocktails with a pedigree are popular choices for consumers, and bars and bartenders are glad to accommodate them


If you’re feeling hip while sipping a whiskey sour or perfect Manhattan, then you may need a reality check. You’re actually going old school. Both cocktails rose to fame in the late 19th century.  And that trendy Moscow mule in the copper cup? The recipe was created to promote Smirnoff Vodka after World War II.

A prime example of the phrase “everything old is new again,” classic cocktails are popping up on bar menus. For bartenders—known as mixologists in today’s parlance—there are distinct advantages to bowing before the tried-and-true before developing the new.

“One has to know the basics and go back to basics to create a signature cocktail,” says John Kelly, beverage manager at Tonic Bar and Grille in Wilmington. “Once you know the standards and have perfected your craft, then you—as a bartender—can begin your attempt of a ‘signature’ cocktail.”

If mixologists need a reason to master the standards—and understand their origin—they need only look across the bar. Millennials, who grew up during the rebirth of the martini, are often discerning, particularly when it comes to spirits, says Thomas Houser, who opened the cocktail-centric The Copper Dram, formerly The Copperhead Saloon, in Greenville in 2016.

A Potent History
Thanks to Mad Men, many people believe cocktails were born in the swinging ‘60s. However, the practice of mixing spirits with other ingredients to create a tasty beverage existed long before the three-martini lunch.

Colonists, for instance, made fermented beverages out of pumpkins, parsnips, turnips, rhubarbs and walnuts and flavored them with birch, pine and sassafras, according to mixologist Dale DeGroff, author of The Craft of the Cocktail.

A Colonial favorite was the shrub, which is gaining new fans in the 21st century. It’s made by mixing a vinegar-based sweetened syrup—known as drinking vinegar—with a spirit. (In those pre-refrigeration days, the vinegar acted as a stabilizing agent.) There are also alcohol-free shrubs.

Since October, bartenders at Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen—which has locations in Newark, Kennett Square and Bear—have been mixing canned shrubs with tequila, bourbon or vodka to create cocktails. The shrub mule, for instance, is a blend of an apple-ginger shrub, Makers Mark bourbon, and ginger ale.

Andy Costello making a shrub mule at Grain. Photo Anthony Santoro

“People are very curious,” says Grain co-owner Jim O’Donoghue. “They look it up on their phone.” To make it easier on the staff and the guests, Grain has printed an explanation on the beverage menu.

Even so, the name too often elicits images of bushy trees, not delicious drinks. “People don’t know what to do with them—it’s a mental thing,” says Joe Renaud, general manager of Home Grown Café in Newark. 

Houser, however, has featured shrubs since The Copper Dram opened. Granted, his customers expect the unusual as well as the familiar; it’s part of the cocktail-centric establishment’s appeal. While The Copper Dram has food, it bills itself as a cocktail bar, not a restaurant, and the knowledgeable Houser loves describing the origin of drinks such as the shrub.

Although mixed drinks like the shrub have been around for centuries, the word “cocktail” first appeared in an 1806 publication. By definition, it was a “stimulating” liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.

By the 1870s, bars—and the cocktails they served—were big business. Recipe books flooded the market. The invention of refrigeration, mechanical ice systems, and soda water created the perfect storm for cocktail mania.

Prohibition and the Great Depression put a damper on the bar business, which often was viewed as corrupt after the bootlegging era. And once cocktails regained their footing in the 1950s and 1960s, many recipes fell victim to prepackaged powders. A bartender could just shake and serve what DeGroff calls “Kool-Aid cocktails.”

The Fresh Factor
DeGroff credits the return of the classic cocktail to restaurateur Joe Baum, who was devoted to fresh ingredients. DeGroff worked for Baum at The Rainbow Room in 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Under Baum’s demanding eye, DeGroff took a chef-like approach to mixing and muddling. The interest in the old recipes caught on.

In the 1990s, Houser says, there were AOL chat rooms devoted to craft cocktails. “Bartenders nationwide started looking up old recipes,” he says. “More and more books [with cocktail recipes] were being republished. It was a movement led by [bar] professionals.” The mixologists began looking for old ingredients. As a result, products that had all but disappeared from the market, such as Old Tom gin, earned new shelf space.

As DeGroff notes, the foundation for a stellar cocktail is fresh ingredients. It’s easy to taste the reasoning. Just compare a whiskey sour made with a mix to one made from lemon juice and homemade simple syrup.

“They are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum,” says Lizzie Wadsworth, assistant manager at Redfire Grill in Hockessin and a seasoned bartender. “Flavors taste like they do because of where they come from. Lemon juice will only taste like lemon juice if you use real lemons.” 

Joseph Polecaro, a mixologist and sommelier at BBC Tavern and Grill in Greenville, would agree. “Our clients have expectations for a cocktail that are historically sound and aesthetically riveting,” he says. 

Balance is key. After working in the yard on a sweltering summer day, you wouldn’t down a tall glass of lemon juice. Nor would you pour a glass of simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar cooked and blended together). Mix the two, however, and you create “a formidable lemonade,” Polecaro says.

A Season For Spirits
With the increased interest in the classics—and the tweaks on the traditional—Delaware consumers are budging off the familiar vodka-based drinks.

In the summer, gin found favor. The trend is buoyed by the variety of new botanical gins that are hitting the market and inspiring new cocktails, says Polecaro. Last summer, he whipped up gin smashes with house-made strawberry simple syrup for his thirsty patrons.

Variety, however, is yet another nod to the past. A Tom Collins was initially made with the sweeter Old Tom-style gin, now offered by several distilleries. The Dutch style, genever, inspired the standard Collins, and the more familiar London dry led to the John Collins.

Now that the temperatures have fallen, cocktails made with bourbon, rye or whiskey are leading the charge. “I’ve noticed rye whiskey has been making a great comeback over the past decade, and we try to capitalize on that,” says Kelly of Tonic.

Simply put, Scotch is whisky (note the spelling) made in Scotland, and bourbon is made in the United States. Like vodka, whiskey can be made from different ingredients. As the name implies, rye whiskey is at least 51 percent rye.

DeGroff calls the Manhattan the “quintessential rye cocktail” but notes that in the South it’s made with bourbon. Regardless of the whiskey, it’s an elegant drink served in a martini glass sans ice. The alcohol-heavy presentation can be intimidating to the uninitiated, says Renaud of Home Grown, which doesn’t count the drink among its top sellers.

It’s a different story at Tonic, where the clientele is mostly “bankers, lawyers, and everyone who works for those bankers and lawyers,” Kelly says. “Our most common classic cocktail is the Manhattan.”

Aficionados have their preferences. O’Donoghue of Grain likes a perfect Manhattan made with Maker’s Mark bourbon and both sweet and dry vermouth. (The original recipe only used sweet vermouth.)

The old fashioned, usually made with bourbon and served on ice, is a hit even with younger guests, Renaud says. What’s in a name? Remember, the first cocktails contained bitters, sugar, water, and spirits. That combo came back into vogue in the 1860s, and most were made with whiskey. DeGroff’s version has sugar, Angostura bitters, orange slices, cherries, water or soda water and bourbon. ?

An Old Fashioned with bitters at Grain. Photo Anthony Santoro

Details Count
A cocktail’s costar is as important as the leading spirit. Houser wishes some guests were as picky about their vermouth as they are their brand of whiskey or vodka.

Vermouth is aromatized, fortified wine flavored with various botanicals. There is a wide range of complex versions, and many bartenders have a favorite. For the Manhattan, Kelly likes Noilly Prat, a French sweet vermouth. “It’s affordable and does the job nicely,” he explains. An Italian brand might better suit another cocktail.

Bitters, including the well-known Angostura, are critical to many cocktails, and that market is also exploding. Kelly says there are bitters flavored with chocolate, habanero, and spices. The choice depends on whether the drink is a tweak on the traditional or a classic. Kelly’s “Ryte Manhattan”—as in the “right choice”—is made with 100-proof Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Noilly Prat, Angostura bitters and a garnish of three Italian amarena cherries.

Today’s cocktail-lovers aren’t relying on just a dash to get a bitter fix. Campari and Aperol are experiencing a resurgence. In 2016, the Campari Group announced that the U.S. had become its largest market, accounting for nearly 25 percent of total sales. Amari, an herbal liqueur, is also coming on strong.

“Personally, I love bitters, which balance out many drinks,” says Redfire Grill’s Wadsworth, a seasoned bartender.

A Creative License
Respecting the classics doesn’t mean you must limit your imagination. Redfire’s Manhattan gets a boost from a blood orange twist. “People love it,” Wadsworth says. Home Grown has five types of mules, including one made with whiskey and blueberries. In summer, Home Grown has featured a gin mojito laced with jalapeno.

What’s next? Mezcal drinks, Kelly predicts. “It is clean, strong and is not named tequila, so people aren’t so inclined to fight it with some story about how they’ll never drink that again because they drank too much tequila one night in college or at a bar.”

Not sure what to order? A good bartender asks questions that go beyond whether you like vodka, gin or whiskey, Houser says. “Are you in the mood for something boozy and alcohol-forward, floral and aromatic, or zippy and citrusy?” he asks.  “Do you want bitter or herbaceous?”

With each question, he says, the goal is the same: “You want to get a cocktail in their hands that they are actually going to appreciate.”

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.

    More in:Food & Drink