There’s a now-famous — possibly apocryphal — story about how the Moscow Mule was created.
As the lore goes, A.1. Steak Sauce magnate John G. Martin, president of Heublein, had acquired Smirnoff Vodka for just $14,000 in 1939 (around $300,000 in modern-day value). In the post-Prohibition, post-World War II landscape, it was still difficult to get Americans to order something as exotic as Russian vodka (that was now being produced in Connecticut, for what it’s worth). He needed a good gimmick.
In 1941, it’s reported that Martin met up for drinks with Jack Morgan at his Cock ‘n’ Bull pub on Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip — or perhaps at some other undisclosed location in Manhattan; it doesn’t really matter. What does matter, though, is that Morgan also had a product Americans had little guzzling interest in: ginger beer.
Put these two unwanted libations together and, voila, you have a cocktail that everybody actually wanted to drink. Problem solved for both men.
“Appropriately, the story of the Moscow Mule’s origin is a tale of pure capitalism,” drinks writer and historian Robert Simonson noted in 2016, just as the cocktail was having a modern revival.
And pure capitalism has come to launch many cocktails that remain in the canon. Some of these were pushed by brands with new, esoteric products and no idea how to sell them; others by flagging brands with a desperate need to get their products back into people’s hands.
An Old American Custom
Now Martin and Morgan may have somewhat haphazardly stumbled upon a way to sell their products, but soon enough spirits brands realized that creating signature cocktails was one of the best ways to move liquid.
There was likewise the Dark ‘n’ Stormy, which combined Gosling Black Seal rum with ginger beer. Not only does the brand claim a member of the Gosling family created the drink some time after World War II, it was able to snag a rare trademark for the cocktail, one of only five drinks to currently have such protection in the U.S. (The others: the Sazerac, Hand Grenade, Painkiller, and Whiskeyrita.)
Brand-created cocktails have proven especially necessary for products that weren’t designed to be sipped on solo. A tasty drink with a catchy name often equated to bumper sales for the many liqueurs, cordials, and modifiers trying to gain a foothold at bars in the latter half of the 20th century.
By the disco 1970s, as sweet and juice-laden drinks like the Tequila Sunrise and Harvey Wallbanger arose, there was little interest in Chartreuse. The herbal liqueur’s stateside marketing team got to work trying to figure out a way to package it for the fern bar and youth set. Enter the Swampwater, which combined green Chartreuse with pineapple juice and a lime wedge, served over ice in a Mason jar branded with the company’s new mascot, a cool alligator sucking on two straws. The brand leaned into the high-proof of Chartreuse, offering the tagline:
“More bang than a Wallbanger.”
Though the cocktail was a minor hit in the era, it is hardly discussed today.
Much more success was garnered by Midori Melon Liqueur, originally known as Hermes Melon Liqueur before being launched in the U.S. in 1978 at a Studio 54 party hosted by the cast of “Saturday Night Fever.” At that party, parent company Suntory unveiled a drink called the Melancholy Baby. The brand’s ad agency at the time, Chait/Day Inc. in Los Angeles, had actually been tasked with inventing and launching the cocktail.
“Yes, she is a drink,” wrote The New York Times, “and, yes, the Japanese are following an old American custom of popularizing a spirit by inventing, then promoting a drink made with it.”
Despite being promoted heavily in regional and metro editions of eight national magazines as well as some Sunday newspaper supplements, it never hit. It would instead take the creation of both the Melonball and Midori Sour for the strange green liqueur to truly catch on.
“Those canonical cocktails [like the Dark ‘n’ Stormy or Sex on the Beach] were created at a time when mixology was in its infancy.”
Perhaps the most successful brand-created cocktail of the era was the Fuzzy Navel, engineered to launch Dekuyper’s new Peachtree Schnapps in 1984. Back then, Jack Doyle, an executive at National Distillers, would have his drinking buddy, Ray Foley, a longtime bar owner and co-publisher of “Bartender Magazine,” drop by his Park Avenue office to come up with uses for new products. Foley’s simple idea was to mix the peach schnapps with orange juice — a drink they dubbed the Fuzzy Navel.
The cocktail was a massive, massive hit, becoming the No. 1 cocktail in America (just ahead of the Long Island Iced Tea) according to Beverage Network, launching Peachtree into the ninth best-selling alcohol in the country, and moving over 1 million cases in its first full year on shelves. It, in turn, spawned a series of other canonical cocktails like the Sex on the Beach (created during a National Distillers-sponsored spring break contest), the Slippery Nipple, and the Slow Comfortable Screw.
By 1987 National Distillers was such an asset that Jim Beam bought the company for $545 million — incidentally snagging the then woefully uncool and now-beloved Old Grand-Dad, Old Overholt, and Old Taylor whiskeys when all the company really cared about was Peachtree Schnapps. In many ways, success in the booze business always entails a bit of luck.
What the Makers Hope For
Can this feat still be accomplished these days, however?
Can companies create cocktails that not only taste great but help their products go viral?
Or, have drinkers and bartenders become too cynical to be manipulated by booze brands so often owned by multinational conglomerates overseen by MBAs who might have little passion for their own products?
“The cocktail world has gone through explosive transformations in the past 10 years. Those canonical cocktails [like the Dark ‘n’ Stormy or Sex on the Beach] were created at a time when mixology was in its infancy,” says Ektoras Binikos, the co-founder/partner of Sugar Monk, a top cocktail bar in Harlem.
Binikos jokes about how brands will distribute “little booklets” of simple cocktail recipes using their products. “I don’t think any bar or a restaurant for that matter with a focused mixology program pays any attention to those recipes,” he says.
And yet there’s the story of the Aperol Spritz, probably the most recent branded cocktail to become ubiquitous. “[I]f you’ve been drinking more of those sparkling red-orange drinks in pretty stemmed glasses, you’re doing exactly what the makers of Aperol at Campari hoped for,” wrote the New York Times while reporting on the trend in 2018.
“Given the massive influx of brands in all categories over the past few decades, there is a much greater volume of competition.”
Writer Tariro Mzezewa detailed how Campari America, which may not have exactly invented the spritz (can any one invent such a simple drink?), nevertheless began heavily investing in the cocktail around the time. The brand began installing booths and bars at key, and highly Instagramable, events across the country, and giving away plenty of free spritzes and merch. Sales rose 48 percent in one year as it became the cocktail of the summer — even the most brand-averse bartender couldn’t avoid it.
“Most bartenders these days select a product because it provides a tool, a flavor they have been seeking or pleasantly surprised by,” Binikos says.
Indeed, that’s why, if another brand is to ever create a cocktail that becomes canonical, it will almost certainly be an upstart liqueur or spirits brand with a wholly distinct flavor profile, à la Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur (debuted in 2013), Singani (2014), or perhaps even an NA spirit like the Pathfinder (2022). There are just too many bourbons, gins, and tequilas out there — mostly indistinguishable from each other — for any to launch a cocktail that becomes beloved, but is also brand-dependent.
“I certainly believe that there is still room for brands to create iconic signature cocktails,” says Tad Carducci, Gruppo Montenegro’s director of outreach and engagement. A former bartender, he is also tasked with creating original cocktails for liqueurs in the brands portfolio, including Amaro Montenegro and Select Aperitivo. “However, I do think that it’s much more of a difficult undertaking than it has been in years past, for a number of reasons. Given the massive influx of brands in all categories over the past few decades, there is a much greater volume of competition.”
That’s one reason why Carducci doesn’t just think we need to look toward more esoteric spirits and modifiers, but the most beloved ones out there as well, even if they’ve been out there for a while. He cites his own company’s brand, Amaro Montenegro. Hardly new to the scene, in recent years it has had success with building a cult following for the M & M — an unusual equal-parts serve of Montenegro and mezcal.
“While it is not yet canonical, it is growing at a fever pitch among bartenders and waitstaff around the world,” Carducci says.