From Prohibition-era concoctions to accidental mix-ups, these age-old retro cocktail recipes have classics the flavours. They are a great starting point for new experimentation, especially considering how inevitable innovation is in the world of alcoholic beverages.
Between the advent of ’90s flare jeans and silk scarves and the growing popularity of old-world delicacies like deviled eggs and peach melba, the underlying theme for almost everything in the world seems to be nostalgia. We’re jumping on that retro bandwagon with a look at 10 retro cocktails with unique origin stories and delicious flavors. Because the only thing better than a glass of cocktail is one with a great origin story to discuss between sips.
Raise a toast to these retro cocktails reminiscent of the past
The recipe for this rich yet tangy and refreshing concoction is a simple mix of cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice. But his origin story is anything but. A story goes that a captain in the US Army often traveled to Harry’s New York bar in Paris in the sidecar of his friend’s motorcycle. On a cool evening, he asked for a hot drink and was recommended a glass of cognac. Anxious to serve a straight spirit so early in the day, the bartender added Cointreau and lemon juice to his drink. And so, the sidecar was born.
The offshoots of this story credit London Buck’s Club bartender Pat MacGarry with a story quite similar to the one above. Other anecdotes suggest the drink originated in New Orleans as a variation of the Brandy Crusta, which mixes brandy with lemon juice, curacao, and bitters. Despite these fuzzy origin reports, almost everyone agrees that the drink originated in the early 1920s. If you want to add a little pep to your glass of this retro beverage, try a sweet rim.
An 1882 newspaper noted that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters had become fashionable, observing that it was known as Manhattan. A popular theory about this is that the drink was brewed on the fly at a political event at the Manhattan Club in New York City to impress Winston Churchill’s mother. However, theorists claim she was pregnant and at home in England at the time, making this event unlikely.
Other reports point to a man named Black who invented the cocktail at the popular Hoffman House in New York. Despite all the theories, the Manhattan Club still claims ownership of the recipe to this day and the cocktail is a favorite of many bartenders. The earliest records of his recipe are found in William Schmidts’ The flying bowl. Published in 1891, the book lists gum syrup, bitter, wormwood, whiskey, and vermouth as main ingredients. Don’t forget to chill your cocktail coupe before serving this one to really let its slightly bitter, grassy flavor shine.
3. The Widow’s Kiss
A quirky name with a simple story, Widow’s Kiss was born when George Kappelle, the author of Modern American Drinks (1895), ran a bar behind Holland House in Manhattan. The sweet blend with herbaceous undertones calls for yellow chartreuse and benedictine. The drink reflects the palates of yesteryear, which favored cocktails heavy on smoothness and generous in alcohol. The fruity base of the calvados brandy is an unusual addition to something from back then, but makes the drink all the more suitable for a revival now. Garnish it with a theatrical cherry.
4. Bee knees
The origin story of Bee’s Knees, named after a phrase that refers to things at the height of their excellence, is set in the 1920s when the Prohibition era was in full swing. Many Americans are said to make elaborate illegal efforts to sneak into speakeasies for a drink. Some establishments have added a gin-based cocktail to their menu, with honey and lemon to mask the smell of illegally made gin in bathtubs. Customers enjoyed the sweet and aromatic drink and police could not detect the presence of alcohol on them.
The first written account of the recipe for this cocktail is found in a 1930 edition of Drinks of the world and how to mix them by bartender Bill Boothby. A light and creamy gin would be perfect for this retro cocktail.
An ancestor of the contemporary martini, this blend first appeared in the 1884 publication Modern Bartenders’ Guide by OH Byron. He also featured in Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide (1887) where the author claimed to have created the drink for a customer who often traveled to Martinez, California. Despite the lack of a concrete origin story, there’s no denying that the pleasant, heady flavors of maraschino liqueur and sweet vermouth deserve a revival. To liven things up a bit, garnish your drink with an orange twist.
6. Gin Rickey
Perhaps one of the few retro cocktails that doesn’t have a confusing origin story, this one was named after Joe Ricky, a Democrat who lived in Washington DC in the late 19th century. The politician preferred sugar-free drinks, often drinking a mixture of bourbon and soda water. He once asked a bartender at Shoomaker’s Bar to add lime to this drink, resulting in Bourbon Rickey. This drink has taken off, with many bars customizing the dry, tary drink to their tastes. The most popular version was the Gin Rickey since the spirit went well with the freshness of lime.
You’ll recognize this drink from the 1925 classic Gatsby the magnificent where Tom Buchanan serves his guests a platter of Rickeys. Interestingly, it was believed that novelist F Scott Fitzgerald also liked this one.
7. Old school
As its name suggests, this popular drink has been around much longer than Mad Men which is set in the 60s and is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages on record. Developed around the 1880s, cocktail historians say the drink originated at the Pendennis Club in Louisville Kentucky, which was a gentlemen’s club that retained old-fashioned values of decency, decorum, and civility.
From there, bartender and distiller James E. Pepper reportedly took the recipe to the bar at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York where he served iconic businessmen such as John D. Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt and Fred Pabst. The drink is sweet with bitter undertones and is best served chilled in a tumbler.
The official cocktail of New Orleans in the United States, this concoction traces its history back to 1838, when it was invented by Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud in his shop on Royal Street. The story goes that he first served his concoction to his fellow Masons after hours in an egg cup, an egg cup, which people believe was the origin of the current term “cocktail”.
The name of the drink, meanwhile, comes from the brand of cognac that was originally used, Sazerac from Forge et Fils. Whiskey is now used as a substitute and there are several versions of this drink. Common ingredients include sugar, sazerac rye whiskey or bourbon, herbsaint, and peychaud bitters. A twist of lemon adds acidity to this sweet and bitter drink.
An alcoholic milkshake invented in the 1920s and made famous in the 1950s and 1960s, grasshopper is indulgent and tasty thanks to the addition of cream and crème de cacao. Crème de menthe, a minty liqueur, gives this retro cocktail that green hue. Since it took off during the Prohibition era, there aren’t many accounts to pinpoint its exact origin, but reports suggest it was created for a cocktail competition in New York by Philibert Guichet. , where he got second place. Its popularity has taken it to New Orleans, where it has found a permanent place on the cocktail menu of the iconic Tujague restaurant. Make this one when you want to replace your dessert with a drink.
In the 19th century, a naval doctor, Sir Thomas Gimlett, is said to have recommended a mixture of gin and lime to British sailors so they could ward off scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. Citrus fruits were considered as a gift from God and this blend has become extremely popular. However, his first official recipe did not appear until 1953 in the British publication of Raymond Chandler’s The long goodbye. Serve your sour drink over ice.
Which of these retro cocktails are you looking forward to trying?