Writing for CLASS' sister title Drinks International, Hamish Smith asks the global bartenders who have fashioned a classic cocktail how it’s done.

No matter how great you think your new cocktail is, it becoming a classic is ­figuratively and literally out of your hands. You see, you can’t create a classic, but everyone else can. It’s only through a cocktail’s multiplication outside of the creator’s orbit that it transforms from the little-known to the known. And, for an even more privileged circle, its maker too.

Just think about how many bartenders there have been versus the number of cocktails considered classics – we’re probably talking a million-to-one shot. But by establishing the right conditions, you can narrow the odds. Drinks International spoke to some of those who have done just that – created a great-tasting drink and harnessed the winds for flight.

Inspiration and story

So ­first, the creation. “Most classics have been made in the spare of the moment, or for an event – there is normally a moment of inspiration,” says Salvatore Calabrese, creator of the Breakfast Martini back in 1996. His inspiration came one morning at the breakfast table, a jar of marmalade making its way from his home to the Library Bar at The Lanesborough that day, on to the menu and now into history.

Inspiration is so often under the bartender’s nose. “The Sidecar at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, as the story goes, was created in an instant for a patron who arrived in a motorcycle sidecar,” says Calabrese. The same is true of Dick Bradsell’s Espresso Martini, famously created for a model who wanted a drink to “wake her up and fuck her up.”


Once you have your inspiration, keep things as simple as possible, says Calabrese. “As bartenders we have come such a long way, but to create a cocktail with legacy we should not think about how we make a cocktail more complex, but more simple,” he says. Few have employed this thinking better than Attaboy’s Sam Ross, who has created two bonafide global classics in his time – the Penicillin in 2005 (scotch, lemon juice, ginger & honey syrup, peated scotch float) and the Paper Plane in 2008 (bourbon, Aperol, amaro, lemon juice). “Keep it simple,” he tells Drinks International. “You need to be appealing to both the cocktail bar bartender and the home bartender. Any ingredient that uses super-complicated preparations, while it might be delicious, it will not have replicating power,” Ross adds.

“If you want your drink to be made and shared, keep the ingredients to relatively accessible products and your extra syrup prep, let’s say, efficient,” he adds. “We’re all looking for a quick ­fix, let’s get these drinks up to their lips as easy as possible. Also, Quick Fix is a great cocktail name...”

Isn’t it? And that’s not a feature to be overlooked. Don’t make a delicious drink with an ugly name. And let it be said in one to three words (the average in our list of the bestselling classics averages at 1.7 words per name - only six of the 50 are three words). Also, make it catchy or curious. Would the Hanky Panky – named at The Savoy after its recipient exclaimed: “That’s the real hanky panky” – have got as far without its name? The Pornstar Martini certainly wouldn’t have. A good name should speak to the inspiration, the story, or the ingredients.


Don’t be afraid of the judicious twist – a lot of the leg work has been done for you. “The vast majority of new classics, and I say this while struggling to think of outliers, have recipes that are incredibly close to much older cocktails,” says Satan’s Whiskers’ Kevin Armstrong, creator of the London favourite East 8 Hold-Up. “Ever so subtle ingredient swaps or spec/ serve adjustments that make them not only easy to learn but provide just enough deviation to warrant being a stand-alone cocktail.”

Also, twists need not be about embellishment, they could be about taking away. Just look at the Tommy’s Margarita; by swapping agave syrup for orange liqueur and insisting on 100% agave tequila it refocuses the Margarita, somehow making it seem more authentic and a better vehicle for the spirit. “The goal was to make a Margarita that tastes of the tequila you, the bartender, chooses to use,” Julio Bermejo tells us.

Capturing the zeitgeist

You have your inspiration, your ever-so-simple, tasty recipe, but is it the right time? “You need zeitgeist,” says Joerg Meyer, inventor of the Gin Basil Smash. “Gin was a good choice in 2008,” he says. Calabrese agrees – pointing to the Martini craze in the ’90s. “Martinis were maybe the ­first classics to be twisted – we picked up on the iconic name and changed its face.” And, of course, the Tommy’s caught on against the context of the 100% agave tequila movement – something its creator was also the pioneer of. Bea Bradsell, too, points to broader trends for the lift-off of her father’s Espresso Martini. “The initial popularity of the drink I credit to Australian third wave coffee culture,” she says. “This passion for coffee added new dimensions to the cocktail, putting as much focus on the chosen coffee as the spirit.”

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And so, if it’s wise to head downwind of trends, there are opportunities around product innovations. “New ingredients entering the market also provide a great opportunity for creating classics,” says Armstrong. “They offer an instant chance to sub an established ingredient with a new one – out goes the Chartreuse and in comes new herbal liqueur X.” Harnessing the marketing power of brands can also supercharge your cocktail’s proliferation.


Cocktail competitions such as Bacardi Legacy are also a breeding ground for neo classics: Tom Walker’s Maid in Cuba, Ago Perrone’s Mulata Daisy and Ronnaporn Kanivichaporn’s Pink Me Up are probably among the best known of them. And while these competitions offer an incredible platform, a year in the spotlight is not necessarily enough to gain lasting traction. An aspiring classic needs a place to call home.

So, first things ­first – your cocktail needs to be on your bar’s menu. As Meyer says, “see how your guests react” to your list and “notice when a drink is going down well” – you don’t get to decide which drink is popular. Once it’s established what cocktail has traction, it has to stay on the menu. Ago Perrone keeps the Mulata Daisy in Connaught Bar’s Masterpieces section – a best of the best over the bar’s lifespan. This in-house classic section is a no-brainer, but even if your menu is a daily or weekly list, there’s no harm in making a drink a more permanent resident.

This idea of going to a bar for a certain drink is as old as the bartending profession. Just to name a few former world’s best bars: PDT and the Benton’s Old Fashioned; Dead Rabbit and the Irish Coffee; Dandelyan and the Koji Hardshake. But what if you’re a bartender who moves bars? Sometimes a signature with traction stays with the bar – think Champagne Piña Colada at Coupette – but you need to consider taking your drinks with you. The Penicillin and Paper Plane’s spiritual home is now Attaboy, following its creator Sam Ross. The East 8 Hold-Up was invented at Milk & Honey London, but its current residence is Satan’s Whiskers. Notice too that when Calabrese opens a bar, he always has his Breakfast Martini and Spicy Fifty in tow.


Perseverance is everything. Likely, just as you’re bored of making your cocktail, the opportunity is starting to emerge for it to catch on. “Do you have the belief to keep promoting and mixing it year on year?” asks Meyer. “Do you have the courage to leave it on the menu? Are you able to be ’classic’ yourself and not chase every trend – can your ego tolerate not always creating new drinks? Do you take advantage of every opportunity to spread the word, do you answer journalists’ emails, and do you have photos ready? Are you willing to communicate on all your channels about one drink, not about your creativity? And most importantly: will you do all this when no one is asking you to? The recipe should be simple, but the rest won’t be.”

No bartender did repetition more than Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club, the home of its Old Cuban, Gin-Gin Mule and Earl Grey Mar-tea-ni. Yet for someone who has created three modern classics, there are no fast-track tips. “Of primary importance is to try to keep one’s head down and quietly do the work, striving each day to not get distracted by all the industry noise,” she tells Drinks International. “It’s always been my belief that once you shift the focus to the bigger picture – mastering the craft and continually striving for excellence – the legacy drinks will come in a more organic and enduring way.”


In the past, operating a famous bar in a well-connected city was key – New York has great bars and bartenders but also the media infrastructure and the audience to amplify its creations. But be it through traditional media, social channels, or community relationships, you need a network. “Before I mixed the first Gin Basil Smash in 2008, I had already invested my 10,000 hours,” says Meyer, “or certainly €25,000, visiting bars and bar shows. I also created the most-read German cocktail blog with Stephan Berg. I built up a network and made myself – and my Le Lion Bar de Paris – better known. And none of this because I wanted to create a classic, but because I was and am obsessed with bars and cocktails. What do you think makes a cocktail world famous? The taste? No, you need to build a network. The fascinating thing about it is, for the first year you don’t even notice that the journey of your classic has already started.”

We’ll leave Satan’s Whiskers’ Armstrong to summarise: “If you want to make a classic cocktail, take something that’s already brilliant, change it a little bit or add something new, keep it simple and shareable, give it a great name, and move to New York.”

The odds are starting to look shorter already.