In the lead up to the 95th Academy Awards, this week on VinePair we’re celebrating the starring role drinks have played in the most iconic movies in history. Read more about Drinking On Screen here.
“Cocktail” is not a good movie. Critics savaged the Tom Cruise vehicle when it hit theaters in 1988. It “won” Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Movie and Worst Screenplay. Its current Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 58 percent suggests the public perceives the film as a mediocre slice of ‘80s cheese. Most people don’t really need to spend the $3.99 it currently costs to stream the movie. That is, most people.
If you’re in the drinks industry, or if you’re a fan of modern cocktail culture and the bartending industry that makes it possible, “Cocktail” is worth 1 hour and 43 minutes of your time. The movie hasn’t aged too well 35 years after its release, but that’s what makes it interesting. Time has caused “Cocktail” to evolve into a movie that you don’t watch as much as observe if you’re in the know about contemporary mixed drinks. If you simply watch it, it’s terrible. If you observe it, it’s oddly fascinating.
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The Duality of ‘Cocktail’
When you stream “Cocktail” and become awash in the glow of its neon opening credits, you’ll naturally observe it through the knowing eyes of the modern bar scene. You already know that the drinks are going to suck and the techniques will be horrific, and they’ll be fun to mock as you sit there with your proper mixed drink made with real ingredients in hand. The movie indeed gives drinks aficionados ample fodder. Cruise’s Brian Flanagan and Bryan Brown’s Doug Coughlin may know how to toss a bottle over their shoulder or slam a Boston shaker onto a bar top in unison, but they don’t know drink specs or use jiggers, fruit juices, or pretty much anything that creates a balanced drink. They free pour every spirit, sometimes three bottles at once. When the movie shifts from New York to Jamaica and Doug asks Brian to make him a Daiquiri after bragging that he taught Brian everything he knows, Brian immediately reaches for a blender instead of a shaker. Granted, they’re in a tropical setting and you can easily predict that he’s going for the blender. But for those who know modern bartenders use the classic Daiquiri recipe as a litmus test of professional skill, this sequence is still cringeworthy, especially since the final result ends up looking like a Mudslide. These things turn the movie into something mildly horrific and slightly comedic, bloated with a bevy of bad beverages.
At some point, though, you’ll remember that “Cocktail” came out in 1988. It may be during the film, or it could be a few hours later when you’re reaching for a snack in the fridge. In some weird way, “Cocktail” provides a window into what the bar scene was like before the work of pioneers like Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders, Sasha Petraske, and Julie Reiner helped transform the industry for the better. Cocktail mixers and canned, frozen juices were the weapons of choice behind the stick back then. Craft spirits weren’t a thing, so options were limited at best. In the era’s context, Brian’s goal of franchising a bar chain for suburban shopping malls called Flanagan’s Cocktails and Dreams seems like a legitimate strategy, even if it petrifies our contemporary sensibilities. All of this is enough to make you drop to your knees and thank God and Jerry Thomas that you can enjoy cocktail culture in its present state.
We Need to Talk About Doug
Brian Flanagan is “Cocktail’s” protagonist. Yet Doug Coughlin is the more fascinating character. His jaded cynicism makes him a natural mentor for “young Flanagan,” as he calls Brian throughout the film. He appreciates the good stuff despite his penchant for flair. The last time he and Brian are seen together in the film, they’re working through his bottle of Louis XIII Cognac — a bottle that will set you back at least $3,000 today.
Doug is also problematic. His words of advice — occasionally self-referred throughout the film as “Coughlin’s Laws” — are awful nuggets of anti-wisdom that revolve around misogyny and treating customers like garbage. They sure as hell have nothing to do with making a good drink. Even though “Cocktail” is a work of fiction, it still seems like Petraske’s Rules were needed to cancel out Coughlin’s Laws.
In between his misbegotten mandates, Doug drops some knowledge that initially jumps out as falsehoods if you forget about the film’s context — particularly if you have even passing knowledge of New York City’s bar scene. When Doug says, “This is the Upper East Side, saloon capital of the world,” your brain may start screaming out the names of the critically acclaimed bars in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn.
At the time, however, Doug was spot on. In the ‘80s, the Upper East Side was absolutely the industry’s epicenter, a mélange of establishments that offered the beautiful and the monied ample choices to get their drink and dance on. The scene kept rolling strong through the ‘90s even as the clientele shifted from Wall Street types to the college crowd, thanks in part to gimmicks like cheesy, themed establishments and “Ladies’ Nights.” Meanwhile, south-of-14th neighborhoods like the East Village and the Lower East Side wouldn’t start gaining acclaim for their bars until places like Angel’s Share and Milk & Honey opened, long after copies of “Cocktail” filled up video rental store shelves. Doug’s lines about the scene may have aged like a long-forgotten bottle of open cream liqueur, but it’s not his fault.
The Business of ‘Cocktail’
There are a few things in “Cocktail” that still hold up today. The beginning of the film showcases the type of money-waving, bar-top-slapping customers who still drive bartenders nuts. Brian’s character arc of a person who fell into the bar scene when other career ambitions fizzled still resonates. Toward the end of the movie, Jordan’s (Elisabeth Shue’s) dad essentially accuses Brian of being a loser because he’s a bartender (i.e., he doesn’t have a “real job”). Such classist viewpoints continue to exist.
The drinks, on the other hand, do not hold up. Most are relics of a time when creamy sweet concoctions with no base spirit and vodka drinks with dirty names dominated the scene. Taste is relative, of course, but if you tend to imbibe in spirit-forward drinks like the Boulevardier or Manhattan, it feels safe to assume that cocktails like the Orgasm, Velvet Hammer, and Friar Tuck will probably be of no interest to you.
There are a few oddities among the cocktails called out in the film. In an odd poem he recites in front of a crowd, Brian references a drink called the “Death Spasm.” One problem: No such drink seems to exist. Googling the drink brings up the Death in the Afternoon cocktail, a potent potable consisting of Champagne and absinthe (or pastis if absinthe isn’t available). It’s possible that Death Spasm was a stand-in for Death in the Afternoon so Brian could use a word that rhymed with orgasm.
Another quirk involves the Angel’s Tit cocktail. Ordering the drink when “Cocktail” came out in 1988 got you a creamy drink consisting of a two-to-one ratio of maraschino liqueur and cream. Ordering it today may get you something better, thanks to an ingenious tweak. Sometime in the 2010s, The Dry Cocktail founder Mikka Kristola updated the recipe when she was bartender at The Varnish in Los Angeles, adjusting the ratios to three-quarters of an ounce each and adding a bar spoon of both Heering Cherry liqueur and Fernet Branca.
Then there’s the Ding-a-Ling, a concoction featuring vodka, peach schnapps, and lemon-lime soda that’s mentioned twice in the film. Searching the drink today will produce images of a radically different beverage. That’s because author Simon Difford created his own cocktail called the Ding-a-Ling in 2022. It features Del Maguey Vida mezcal, dark rum, Disaronno amaretto, and lemon juice. Judging by the specs, it seems much more interesting than the original.
A Unique Kind of Lasting Legacy
There’s one final observation to be made about “Cocktail” 35 years after its release. It has nothing to do with a crucial scene or a bit of dialogue. It’s an observation that can only be made after the fact. By the time the movie came out, the days of the cocktail bar landscape the movie depicted were already numbered.
In 1987, the year before “Cocktail” came out, DeGroff got behind the stick at the Rainbow Room and kicked off cocktail culture’s ongoing renaissance. It was a slow-growing seed that germinated at a deliberate pace, allowing the Doug Coughlins and Brian Flanagans of the industry a few more years of glory before the 2000s hit. There are still some Dougs and Brians behind the stick today, but they’ve been pushed into a space of far less prominence over the last two decades, thanks to a still-blossoming nationwide network of talented bartenders that give a damn about making a great drink and providing great service to their guests. This, then, may be the main reason why “Cocktail” is an oddly fascinating movie to observe 35 years after its release, even if it is a bad film to watch. It doesn’t necessarily show how bad the bar scene was back in the day as much as it shows how far it’s come.