The Mint Julep and the Sherry Cobbler ushered in the age of ice in cocktails, and none other than Charles Dickens, with an assist from his charmingly named Martin Chuzzlewit — and perhaps the telegraph — helped the Sherry Cobbler become the first legit, trending summer cocktail in world history. The Cobbler craze lasted for half a century.
But in our rapidfire, social media-driven world, summer wouldn’t be summer if each year didn’t have its own vibe, smash hit song, and, of course, Big Drink.
Read Part I to catch up on the history of the Big Drink of Summer, while below, we pick up where we left off, following in the footsteps of rosé, Frosé, the Aperol Spritz, and White Claw, to sift through the chaotic adventures of attempting to declare a single Drink of Summer for 2023…
Enter the Espresso Martini
In our Covid summer of 2020, everyone’s efforts were funneled into to-go cocktails. We weren’t just reentering the social scene, we were supporting our neighborhood bars, we were doing our damn part. It was a noble act. And whatever the liquid was in those to-go cups and takeout containers wasn’t really the point.
But by 2021 we were thirsty for more. We wanted to celebrate, but we were tired from the trauma of the prior year. If only there were a drink tailor-made to serve such dual purposes, a jolt of energy with a potent alcoholic punch that managed to be approachable to one and all: the Espresso Martini, first crafted by Dick Bradsell in 1983.
“The Espresso Martini has dominated our product mix starting in late 2021 and has only grown,” says Aaron Thompson, co-owner of Brother Wolf in Knoxville, Tenn. It’s Brother Wolf’s top seller, outpacing everything from the Aperol Spritz to the Vodka Soda at an almost two-to-one clip.
“People tend to follow what bartenders are into at the moment and bartenders like to share their new discoveries with their guests — but they really love to share them with other bartenders,” says Beau du Bois, vice president of bar and spirits at Marisi in La Jolla, Calif. And the Espresso Martini was a near perfect boozy canvas for a bartender’s kinkiest drink fantasies. Put it on draft. Low ABV. High ABV. Grate cheese on top, I guess?
A pre- or post-shift session is like a bartender-only Discord with tips, tricks, and insider knowledge getting passed around. Bartenders are the original industry influencers, of course, and an obsession with a particular drink can spread quicker than you can say “Negroni Sbagliato.”
Sorting Through the Recent Madness
What of the Negroni Sbagliato, a drink that certainly wasn’t created by accident? It might feel like it was last summer, but it was an autumnal darling, a sparkling solar eclipse blacking out the entirety of the imbibing planet in October.
People — some would say drinks writers, but let’s not start pointing fingers — have become desperate in their fervor to anoint the next Drink of Summer in recent years. Their zeal has only been to their own detriment when self-proclaimed prophecies fail to launch. Friesling never became the next Frosé. Some declared 2021 to be the year of the Cosmopolitan. Sure, it came back, but no, it wasn’t. In 2022, the Dirty Shirley was declared the Drink of Summer, in May. Narrator: It was not. When that same pesky paper of record dedicates a story to a drinks trend, you can be certain it’s either three to five years too late, as with the Aperol Spritz, or it’s so far ahead of the curve it’s lost sight of the track.
The Dirty Shirley should be a dark stain on drinks writers far and wide. Yet, the insatiable hunger to come up with the next big thing would soon pang again, leading to this year’s only-in-the-discourse obsession with the Hugo.
No, the Hugo is not the Drink of Summer, even if it is — without a doubt — the drink discourse of summer. Much of the endless discussion is self-fulfilling and self-aggrandizing, and eventually enough people are shouting into the same echo chamber that an imagined trend that never trended lives among us.
If I had a nickel for every time I saw someone order a Hugo, I would have a nickel. And the person who ordered it was me. In Zurich, in 2017. So yes, I’ve dabbled in its elderflower ways while traveling in Switzerland, and it’s a perfectly cromulent beverage. But the drink is as un-it as it gets. There is no innate appeal. Nothing about its name, aesthetics, taste or ingredients incites anyone to action.
The Hugo is neither as pleasing nor as prevalent as the Espresso Martini, which is neither as obvious nor as orange as the Aperol Spritz. It has no elan, no flair, no what the French call “I don’t know what.” And if it weren’t for the preemptive stories of fake trendsetters and outside insiders, 97 percent of people wouldn’t know what it is; 90 percent of you still don’t, admit it. While TikTok can absolutely launch an IRL trend, it is not ordained or guaranteed to be so. And the Hugo ain’t it.
Behold: The Drink of Summer 2023
What is the Drink of Summer 2023, then? McCarley-O’Neill says it’s the Negroni, and du Bois says it’s Ranch Water. Julia Petiprin, owner of Homemakers Bar and Fifty Fifty Gin Club in Cincinnati, says it’s the return of the all-things Martini. Frederic Yarm of Josephine in Somerville, Mass., says it’s the spritz as a whole, which I will acknowledge is a category that includes the Hugo.
First loves are always remembered, though, and the Aperol Spritz itself is more popular and widespread than ever. We’re too busy searching for the next big thing, but the drink has reached the deeply entrenched, rarefied air of suburban restaurant cocktailing. Your grandmother will make you one when you come over for brunch. It’s not going anywhere.
Thompson, though, doesn’t think the world has moved on from last summer’s crush, either. We may be living in not the year, but the age, of the Espresso Martini. “It’s not a hot take — it’s the Espresso Martini and it’s not even close,” he says. “It’s our drink of the decade so far.”
A drink of the decade. That’s staying power reminiscent of the longest reigning Drink of Summer, the Sherry Cobbler.
Hmm. The Sherry Cobbler. That sounds pretty good right now. “The Sherry Cobbler ought to make a return as a summertime refresher,” Yarm says.
Maybe that drink immortalized by Dickens, that ruled summertime sessions for half a century, that helped usher in the age of the iced beverage, is the perfect solution. And what do you know? The Sherry Cobbler has been declared the Drink of Summer, in San Francisco at least, by a man who knows a thing or two about the influence of ice in cocktails.
“The cobbler is a drink of abundance: abundant ice, abundant garnish; sometimes enough of it for a fruit snack,” says Camper English, author of “The Ice Book.” It’s low-ABV. It uses cobbler ice. It has a strong garnish game. Perfectly on trend for 2023, in other words.
Perhaps the Big Drink of Summer has come full circle, 184 years after its introduction. And in this world of flash in the pan Insta-trends and AI-generated cocktail ideas, maybe we shouldn’t be looking for a Drink of Summer. Like Dickens before us, we should be looking for something with more substance. Something with timeless style, as opposed to something in fashion for a brief moment.
Then there are only two possible candidates: the Aperol Spritz and the Espresso Martini. The former has the inside track due to its longevity, but the latter is making a strong push with dominance for several years running. And the Espresso Martini trends to an even higher degree in winter than in summer, according to Google, anyway, flowing into our glasses as the Aperol Spritz ebbs away. It’s good to know our universe rests in harmony. The Aperol Spritz wanes, the Espresso Martini waxes. Yin and Yang. Two sides of the same trending drink coin.
They’re both the Big Drinks of Summer, again, en route to being the Drinks of the Decade, and perhaps of our lifetimes. Until one of you comes up with the Martin Chuzzlewit.