We Asked 12 Drinks Pros: What Cocktail Should be Considered a Modern Classic?

As bars and restaurants continue to navigate the coronavirus pandemic and reopening phases, VinePair asked the bartenders and drinks professionals below to provide a virtual tip jar or fund of their choice. More resources for helping hospitality professionals are available here.

Cocktails such as the Old Fashioned, Martini, and Daiquiri — all indisputably classics — have been found on bar menus for over a century. Simplicity and balance lie at the heart of their enduring appeal. But considering the recent revolution in mixology, what are the new libations ready to challenge the dominance of old-guard cocktails like the Margarita and Manhattan?

To find out, VinePair reached out to beverage pros across the country to weigh in on what they consider to be the go-to recipes of the past several decades. From old-school cocktails updated with new flavors or techniques, to entirely new creations destined for greatness, keep reading to find out the modern classics that should be on every imbiber’s radar.

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“There are cocktails that are simply old, and then there are those that are classics. You’ve got to differentiate between those two. But staying power is contingent on a variety of factors, from a catchy name to an iconic serve to an easy-to-replicate ingredient list. … Here is a short list of modern classics that can be reliably ordered around the world: Cosmopolitan – Toby Cecchini’s pink Kamikazee riff brought back V-shaped Martini glasses and helped make cocktails cool again; Penicillin – Sam Ross made Scotch cocktails cool again with this spicy, smoky, honeyed Whiskey Sour; Oaxaca Old Fashioned – Phil Ward’s brown and stirred homage to agave put the pioneering Death & Co on the cocktail map.” — Jason Cott, Managing Partner, Bedford Post Dining, Bedford, N.Y.

“The Paper Plane cocktail should stand out as an exceptional modern classic. Equal parts lemon juice, bourbon, Amaro Nonino, and Aperol make this a boozy, citrusy, and downright delicious beverage.” — Kaitlyn Gibbs, Beverage Director, Louie, St. Louis

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“Though it may already be considered a ‘modern classic,’ I would cast my vote for the Ultima Palabra. A riff on the classic Last Word (though some variations of the Ultima call for an additional juice component), mezcal takes the place of gin in a cocktail that really showcases the excellent versatility of the agave distillate.” — Carlos Baz, General Manager and Beverage Director, Goosefeather, Tarrytown, N.Y.

“Currently, I am also seeing a resurgence of tiki cocktails, which for a long moment were just considered the drink of your vacation, meant to be enjoyed on the beach or by a pool, but now we are seeing bars open that are fully dedicated to tiki cocktails and it isn’t just bottom-of-the-barrel spirits used to make them. It seems that cocktails are much like clothes and style — they all come back as trends at some time.” — Julie Masciangelo, Sommelier and General Manager, Il Posto, Denver

Donate: Il Posto Emergency Relief Fund

“The one definite modern classic cocktail is the Paper Plane. It does everything a good cocktail should; it’s lively and refreshing and can be used as an aperitif. … The ‘Naked and Famous’ comes in close second. The lime [juice] and yellow Chartreuse play nicely off each other, while smoky mezcal fills the palate and Aperol provides a bittersweet finish. Considering the variety of mezcal on the market, both home and professional bartenders can have fun experimenting. Try one mezcal that is lighter and vegetal with one drink and a fuller smokier mezcal on the next. Both cocktails are equal parts, making them easy to remember. Also, there’s something beautiful in the simplicity of an equal-parts drink. — Eddie Riddell, Bar Manager, Montelupo, Portland, Ore.

“The Gold Rush was one of the first cocktails to come about during the first years of the cocktail revolution. It’s gained a lot of traction over the past few years, and who can blame it? It’s a wonderfully simple and balanced cocktail that’s perfect for both warm and cold weather. It combines sweet and sour flavors with the warmth and structure of a well-balanced bourbon. It should be considered a modern classic based solely on its simplicity and balance. In an age where everyone is trying to show their creativity and artistic skill with cocktails, it’s important to remember that not everything has to be esoteric and experiential. A simple creation can sometimes speak the loudest, [and] that’s fundamentally what a Gold Rush is.” — Warren Koguc, General Manager, Thompson’s Bookstore, Fort Worth, Texas

“For me, the Jungle Bird is a definite modern classic. It always comes in a fun glass, with some delightfully crazy fruit garnish and a mountain of crushed ice. It’s about as tiki as one can get without having to find the time to go on vacation!” — Kit Still, General Manager, Main Street Tavern, Amagansett, N.Y.

“The Revolver is my first choice for modern classics. Starward Australian Whisky ‘Nova’ expression pairs amazingly with black coffee and orange bitters to bring everything to life. It’s an early-2000s drink from San Francisco. That’s been one of my go-to cocktails behind the bar whenever someone is looking for a ‘whiskey drink’ but has no idea what they want. And it’s a great gateway cocktail into many other fun things. It’s also my favorite batched cocktail to keep in the freezer at home.” — PJ Wagner, Bar Lead, Guild Row, Chicago

“I love the classic Boulevardier, which is whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Campari, and [I] modernized it using one of my favorite bourbons, Orin Swift’s The Burning Chair. The bourbon is combined with [Carpano] Antica Formula vermouth, orange bitters and orange blossom Aperitivo. The drink is then aged in oak barrels for 60 days.” — Al Fiorenza, Bar Manager, Cafe Chameleon, Bloomingdale, N.J.

“You can never go wrong with a Negroni. Talk about a cocktail that has so much room for creative influence. After spending time in Florence, Italy, its city of origin, I realized this carefully balanced cocktail can be customized to anyone’s taste. The Negroni is a timeless classic being reimagined again and again in cocktail bars around the globe.” — Arielle Natale, Bar Manager, Elaia Estiatorio, Bridgehampton, N.Y

“A Whiskey Sour – a classic one, with [a] dry-shaken egg white before the rest of the ingredients are added. I will only have mine with fresh lemon juice, and a nice rye whiskey, preferably Old Hamer Rye from West Fork Whiskey Co. I love it as a ‘modern classic’ because it has remained simple in recipe, but allows the opportunity for the drinker to choose their favorite whiskey or take a recommendation from their trusted bartender to add a dash of a sweet liqueur or drop of red wine for fun. New York gets the credit for the egg white addition, adding a nice soft foam fluff to top off the tart beverage.” — Lindsay Jo Whirley, Certified Cicerone and Culinary Arts Operations Manager, Newfields, Indianapolis

“It’s a little difficult to select a drink I think should be deemed a ‘modern classic,’ mostly because I’ve been trained in the classics, modern and otherwise, and I’m not sure how many of them are universally considered ‘classics’ in the bar community. … If I was to nominate a drink that perhaps is one that I see ordered a bunch as of late, and is not one that was taught to me or published in a book by some well-known modern bartender, I guess it would have to be the Mezcal Negroni. Mezcal itself has only recently gained popularity outside of Mexico and South America, and for that reason there are no ‘classics’ per se that contain it, but it is a growing force among the spirits world. Granted, it’s simply a riff on a well-known classic and doesn’t necessarily have its own unique name, but the Mezcal Negroni is definitely becoming a ‘household name’ among bartenders and customers alike.” — Stephanie Reading, Bar Manager, Birdie G’s, Santa Monica, Calif.