Here we have a collection of modern marvels, a curated list of contemporary cocktails that have earned their place as modern classic cocktails. These drinks have reached far beyond the bar where they were created. They have not only gained popularity among patrons but have earned the respect of the of the bartending community.
Their Prohibition era predecessors that paved their way inspired this select group of second generation drinks. They use both familiar and revolutionary ingredients in innovative ways. These features and the creative craftsmen behind them set them apart from their other fleeting contemporaries as enduring modern classics.
1. Espresso Martini
Let’s start with the ubiquitous Espresso Martini. The “cocktail king” and father of modern bartending, Dick Bradsell created it in 1983. During his time at the Soho Brasserie in London, he created this cold caffeinated alcoholic beverage. It is a lethal combination of vodka, espresso, and coffee liqueur. The story behind its inception is that a customer, supposedly a top-model, asked him for something to “wake her up, and fuck her up.”
It is the oldest cocktail on this list and is meant to establish what we consider modern. While not a true martini, it is part of a group of drinks that have incorporated it in their name. Bradsell originally named it the Vodka Espresso, but at some point was referred to as a martini and obviously its current name caught on.
The drink can be made at just about any bar that serves cocktails. It however, can be met with apprehension by bartender for the time and effort required to make it. The Espresso Martini continues to be in high demand nearly 40 years later. It has achieved the notoriety to not only have a place in the modern classics list, but to be the first among many other great contemporaries.
This drink is an iconic creation from New York’s Milk & Honey bartender Sam Ross. He first served the Penicillin in 2005 and it has since found its way onto the menus of bars across the world. Sam Ross has also graced us with other great cocktails like the Paper Plane (#4).
The Penicillin is composed of two types of scotch, lemon juice, honey, and ginger. The name is derived from the revolutionary drug of the same name, hinting at the healing properties of some of the drink’s ingredients. Its medicinal qualities are likened to the effects of a Hot Toddy that are said to help with cold and flu symptoms.
Much like the drug discovered by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, the Penicillin has spread like a celebrated remedy across the globe. There’s hardly a 21st century modern classic that rivals it in popularity and influence.
The origin of the Cosmopolitan, or informally the Cosmo, is disputed. Some believe it to be a riff on the Kamikazi which uses vodka, triple sec, and lime juice. Others believe it to be an adaptation of a 1930s daisy recipe with the same name, that consists of gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, and raspberry syrup.
In modern history, it was wildly popular in New York and London in the 1990s when vodka was the choice spirit. The name itself evokes the cultured and sophisticated attitude of the world’s two most influential metropolises. Its dazzling pink hue makes it unmistakable on bar tops. Its repeated feature in the hit TV show Sex in the City further confirmed its status as a modern classic.
Sam Ross gets a second mention here for good reason. The success of his Penicillin brought him notoriety in the industry, but that was just the beginning. In 2007 he was asked to create a cocktail for Chicago’s The Violet Hour, during his time at New York’s Milk & Honey. Enter his next major achievement, the Paper Plane. It is named after the M.I.A. song of the same name that was playing on constant repeat that summer. The drink is composed of equal parts bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino, and lemon juice.
The original Paper Plane recipe that was first served at The Violet Hour used Campari instead of Aperol. Ross made the switch because he found “It was slightly too bitter and the sweetness wasn’t there. I subbed in Aperol and was immediately satisfied with the result.” The drink is a riff on the classic Last Word which also inspired the modern classic by Joaquín Simó, the Naked and Famous (mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Aperol, and lime juice).
The cocktail rivals Ross’s Penicillin (#2) in popularity. He says “I still think the Penicillin is more popular, but I’m actually prouder of the Paper Plane because of its simplicity, deliciousness and its uniqueness,” says Ross. “I had never had anything that tasted like that before this drink.”
The Red Hook is a cross between a Brooklyn and Manhattan, named after the Brooklyn neighborhood. It combines rye whiskey, Punt E Mes (a bitter Italian vermouth), and maraschino liqueur. It’s boozy, dry, with a hint of sweetness and can be enjoyed up or on the rocks.
It was created by Enzo Errico in 2003, another Milk & Honey alum. There have been many riffs on the Manhattan, however, Errico’s has proven to be one of the more enduring modern variations. Its flavor is well-balanced, strong, and complex, earning it a place on many menus across the country.
It’s no coincidence that Milk & Honey gets another mention here. From its inception in 1999, it has been responsible for pioneering the cocktail renaissance globally. While its Lower East Side haunt is no longer, its lasting effect on the industry continues to be impactful.
A riff on the classic Negroni, the White Negroni, is the fairer of the two. Sharing only gin as the principal ingredient, it swaps out sweet vermouth for Lillet Blanc and swaps the bitter Italian aperitivo Campari for the bitter French apéritif Suze. The flavor is boozy and dry, much like the original, but is lighter on the palate.
This current variation was created by London bartender Wayne Collins in 2001. He created it for Plymouth Gin‘s director at the time. The brand’s ambassador then introduced it to Audrey Saunders of New York’s Pegu Club in its early days. It became hit on the menu and has become more than an alternative to deep and bitter Negroni but a modern icon standing on its own.
We have saved the most salacious for last. Created in 2002 by Douglas Ankrah of London’s Townhouse bar, the Porn Star Martini is only martini in name. It was meant for stardom from its inception, with its innovative key ingredients passion fruit liqueur and purée. These ingredients combined with vanilla vodka and lime juice create a fruit-forward and zesty cocktail.
While the name has been controversial, Ankrah has said he did not name the drink to be intentionally provocative but rather because it’s “pure indulgence… sexy, fun, and evocative.” It has led some establishments to rename the drink to the Passion Star Martini.
The drink is traditionally served with a glass of chilled champagne on the side, as a suggested palate cleanser between sips. Extravagant and bubbly, like a “movie” star, it is immediately recognizable and people flock to it (on a menu) like a flame.