.Food and Drink: Santa Cruz Bartenders Rebuild the Retro Cocktail

Classic drinks are getting a modern spin

It’s the summer of 2022, and chances are you’re drinking something involving fresh fruit and ice. Every bar in California today is stocked with lemons, limes, oranges, watermelon, mangoes and passionfruit. Add a blender filled with ice—oh, and some liquor—and you’ve got the perfect warm-weather cocktail.

But let’s back up a minute. I seem to remember gatherings with my grandparents and their favorite cocktails, all of which involved citrus. From mai tais and tequila sunrises to gimlets and margaritas, cocktails have long had a serious, if not exactly monogamous, love affair with citrus. The reason may be that almost no flavor sensation packs the refreshment and palate thrill of citrus. We describe lemons as tangy, limes as zesty, and oranges seem to be universally adored for both tanginess and sweetness. All citrus fruits have flavors that can cut through heavy, fatty, thick flavors. Always a counterbalance to sugar, citrus adds sparkle to any cocktail. A twist of lemon makes a gin and tonic perfect, tastewise, as well as visually. Fifty years ago, the Tom Collins was king, and why not? Gin, club soda, a splash of simple syrup and a healthy squeeze of fresh lemon. What’s not to like? Again, note the crucial addition of fresh lemon juice.

One of the quickest ways to refresh a cocktail menu is to reach back for the favorites of yesteryear. Margaritas, daiquiris, gin and tonics—all top drinks many decades ago—are having a moment right now. A major reason the retro drinks are popping up on bar menus is their sheer durability. There’s a reason the Manhattan is called a classic. The flavors are balanced, the ingredients shimmer and the recipe is uncomplicated enough that the results are always on target. And yes, you can make this at home.

The old-fashioned is another trusty retro drink that has earned its place in every bartender’s repertoire. Basic and direct, it never fails to refresh the palate—whiskey, bitters and simple syrup. The irresistible fragrance of fresh-peeled orange slice, and yes, that cherry on top. The old-fashioned is dialed toward the bourbon lover, with just enough finesse to make it a cocktail rather than just a shot. The bitters and simple syrup partner each other and add a bit of depth. The fresh orange refreshes both nose and palate. The cherry is visual adornment. Makes it more fun to sip. Another virtue of the old-fashioned: it’s easy to make. Every bar can handle it, any bartender can make it.

Before the mojito, there was the daiquiri, in which that sultry liquor rum was given a sexy date with lime, a splash of simple syrup and a blender. The frosted glass added even more chill, which is why my uncles always made sure they had daiquiri makings in the freezer all summer long. Actually, half the beauty of the daiquiri, which dates back into the mid-19th century, is its simplicity. If you have limes, rum, sugar and ice, you have a daiquiri. Well, at least a deconstructed one. Toss those ingredients into a blender, and you have constructed a frozen daiquiri. Those who love slushy drinks will favor the blender daiquiri (ditto the blender margarita). Ernest Hemingway loved the unblended version, where the vanilla and caramel flavors of rum emerge more clearly.

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The margarita’s popularity has never been bigger, especially with the proliferation of craft tequila and agave liqueurs. I once had a margarita made from scratch at a bar in Juarez Mexico. Limes were hand-squeezed into a silver shaker filled with ice, Cointreau was splashed in, and then blanco tequila. After shaking vigorously, the elixir was poured into stemmed cocktail glasses with salted rims. Heaven. So frankly delicious is a margarita, whether made with clear tequila or with smokier reposado, that it has given birth to endless variations involving fresh fruit of all kinds. Watermelon, passionfruit, kumquat. A float of mezcal adds excitement. A splash of serrano hibiscus syrup, like they do at Crepe Place, adds heat and tease to a margarita.

Perhaps the most popular retro revival is the gin and tonic and its imaginative variations busy filling bar menus everywhere. Purists have always loved gin for its juniper-forward perfume, and few gins deliver quite the juniper hit as Beefeater London Dry, which has its origins in the 1860s.

But gin thrives not by juniper alone. Botanical notes fill all the finest gins, botanicals such as coriander, angelica root, liquorice and gentian. These add intrigue to the juniper mother ship, and inventive bars rev up the retro joys of gin and tonics by intensifying gin’s botanical tendencies. For example Front & Cooper at Abbott Square is currently playing with four variations on England’s favorite cocktail. Consider the gin and tonic with berries and cassis. Or with pineapple, sage and thyme. Or grapefruit, cloves and mint. Or lavender and orange. Here the breathtaking bite of gin, one of the celestial liquids and the heart of the world-favorite Negroni cocktail, is if not exactly softened by these various herbal and fruit additions, certainly complexified. The gin is given new and worthy flavor partners, a new way of playing a favorite song. At Venus Spirits Cocktails and Kitchen, the gin and tonics are offered with three different housemade gins (different botanicals from bay to citrus make each distinctive in their very DNA), as well as with distinctive garnishes. Star anise, lavender, basil.

So seek out your own picks for classics and variations, because retro is the newest way to cocktail.

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  1. Oh, the nostalgia! When my brothers and I were kids, on the rare occasions my parents dared to take us all out to dinner, my mom always ordered a Tom Collins — a ladies’ drink just a jigger away from lemonade. Years later, we upgraded her to Margaritas (blended, thank you very much), which she adored all the rest of her life. Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane, Christina!


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