Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Hooked on Classics Modernizing or signaturizing classic cocktails revitalizes old favorites

At Talde in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Lychee Martini improvises with a light touch.
PHOTO CREDIT: Nick Johnson

Mixologists continue to introduce innovative new cocktails, but the classics never go out of style. These drinks are standbys for a reason: well balanced, broadly appealing, reliably satisfying, nicely nostalgic. They’re enjoying a refresh as operators look to create new experiences with familiar favorites.

Classic cocktails run the gamut from bitter to sweet, mellow to boozy—a breadth of range that provides opportunities for the innovative mixologist to add complexity, leverage on-trend ingredients or experiment with new spirits. The key to playing with the classics is to not venture too far from the original profile. The idea is not to blow up the base, but rather add layers or tease out new flavors. Here are some of the most popular and well-known classics, and 10 ways to reinvent them.

1 Martini

Just as Bond can get a makeover, so too can his beverage of choice—whether shaken or stirred. Though martinis made with an array of spirits abound, we focus on the quintessential gin martini and its innovative iterations.

  • Burnt Martini: Scotch rinse, Tanqueray gin bitters
    —Anatolia Cafe, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
  • Lychee Martini: Fords gin, lychee liqueur, lychee sake, lemon-lime bitters
    —Talde, Brooklyn, N.Y.

While many cocktails are called martinis, most of these stray so far from the original that there’s little left to recognize. Innovating with something this classic should not mean throwing out the basic version. Switching out the rinse, adding spirits, or using a light hand with nonalcoholic flavors can elevate what is, at its heart, a simple and elegant cocktail.

2 Sazerac

Hailing from New Orleans, the official cocktail of the birthplace of jazz deserves respect. If it’s called a Sazerac, it should have rye or Cognac or, at the very least, a touch of absinthe or Peychaud’s bitters.

  • Fadó Irish Sazerac: Jameson Caskmates Irish Whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, a mist of absinthe, lemon peel garnish
    —Fadó Irish Pub, based in Atlanta
  • Cinnamon Toast Crunch Sazerac: Cinnamon Toast Crunch-infused Bulleit, maple syrup, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, absinthe spritz
    —25 Lusk, San Francisco

As the industry highlights the need for authenticity, the Sazerac can pose a challenge. It has a specific history and origin, so innovation that disregards this is in danger of seeming disrespectful. But even keeping close to the elements of the original still leaves room to play with flavors using infusions, substitutions for the rye or Cognac, or additional elements that complement the other ingredients.

3 Tom Collins

Unlike some of the boozier classics featured here, the Tom Collins cocktail is lighter and more sessionable. Additionally, without as strong a cultural presence or backstory, there is more leeway to experiment with both the spirits and mixers included.

  • Honey Bee Collins: House-infused vodka, honey, lemon, soda
    —Cart-Driver, Denver
  • Spiced Pear Collins: Tanqueray gin, Berentzen pear liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup, cloves, rosemary, club soda
    —Ventura’s Offshore Cafe, Northfield, N.J.

The original Tom Collins features gin, balances between sweet (simple syrup) and sour (lemon juice), and finishes with carbonation. Beyond these characteristics, opportunities abound for leveraging seasonal flavors, world cuisines and on-trend ingredients.

4 Gimlet

If you need a hit of vitamin C, the gimlet should be your drink of choice. Featuring gin, lime juice and soda, this cocktail may lead you to think there is little room for revision—but, of course, there is.

  • Cooper Gimlet: Vida Mezcal, clarified lime, orange-blossom water rinse
    —Butchertown Hall, Nashville, Tenn.
  • Blueberry Gin Gimlet: Spring 44 gin, blueberry juice, fresh lime juice, cane sugar
    —Ed’s Lobster Bar, New York

It’s fair to say the overwhelming flavor of a classic gimlet is the lime juice. Eliminate the lime, and the gimlet is but a pale shade of itself. Building off the lime, however, provides ample ways to use complementary herbs, infusions, preparations and spirits.

5 Whiskey Sour

A whiskey sour may be considered the gimlet’s negative: dark spirits, lemon juice and sugar. Add an egg white, and you’ve got a classic that may be somewhat polarizing (many consumers are not sure what to make of eggs in a cocktail) but captures the true essence of the original.

  • Grand Whiskey Sour: Lot 35 Grand Bazaar Spice Tea-infused Jack Daniel’s, Grand Marnier, lemon elixir, orange
    —Pyramid Restaurant & Bar, Dallas
  • Old Camp Whiskey Sour: Old Camp Peach Pecan Whiskey, lemon juice, maple syrup, egg white, Jack Rudy bitters
    —Stonewood Grill & Tavern, based in Ormond Beach, Fla.

Unlike the gimlet, a whiskey sour’s identity does not hinge on the lemon flavor; lime is often used instead of lemon juice. Rather, whiskey must be at the heart of this classic, then paired with a sour element—hence the name. Flavored and infused whiskeys, sweet elements and other sour ingredients can make a whiskey sour unique to an operation without losing the essence of the original.

6 Negroni

The Negroni has enjoyed increased popularity over the past few years—it even has its own week in June. Driven in part by the rise in bitter-flavored beverages, the Negroni dazzles with beautiful color and a satisfyingly boozy complexity.

  • PK Negroni: Beefeater gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, pineapple, coconut
    —Hojoko, Boston
  • Nitro Negroni: Sparkling Negroni poured from a nitro faucet
    —Quality Meats, New York

Much like a martini, the Negroni is simple in its ingredients but with a powerful flavor profile. Though the gin and vermouth may be substituted out for other ingredients, Campari is arguably the key element that must remain to legitimize any variation.

Ryan Gorey

Beets lend eye-catching color to this playful twist on a traditional Old Fashioned at Daisies in Chicago.

7 Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned is really anything but old fashioned. Sugar and bitters are at the heart of this cocktail, but the spirit may vary from whiskey to brandy. Many iterations of Old Fashioned cocktails play with infusions, smoke, spirits and flavored bitters.

  • Hand Cherrywood Smoked Old Fashioned: In-house cherrywood-smoked Jim Beam bourbon, muddled orange, Angostura bitters
    —Famous Dave’s, based in Minnetonka, Minn.
  • Beet Old Fashioned: Rye, beet and bitters
    —Daisies, Chicago

Many iterations of the Old Fashioned play with infusions, smoke, spirits and flavored bitters. This classic benefits from dark, bold-flavored spirits balanced with sweet/ bitter flavor components. How these components are manipulated and the additional ingredients used is where the twists on the classic shine.

8 Manhattan

As bold and forward as its namesake, the classic Manhattan features whiskey, vermouth and bitters. To stay classic, the profile shouldn’t be lightened up, but innovation within the framework is possible, with flavors like maple, honey, fig and brown sugar working well as the sweetener.

  • Manhattan Fig: Fig-infused Catoctin Creek rye, Antica Formula red vermouth, Foro extra dry vermouth, maple bitters, orange twist, served up
    —Candle 79, New York
  • Tableside Torched Apple Manhattan: Baker’s bourbon, Berentzen apple liqueur, Carpano Antica
    —Chart House, Savannah, Ga.

Something so simple—three ingredients—would seem to leave little room for innovation. As with other classics, the Manhattan can be signaturized with infusions, new spirits, flavored bitters and additional ingredients. The result should be deep and complex, as lightening it up would change the Manhattan’s core personality.

9 Aviator

One of the best parts of the Aviator is its lavender hue. While many classic cocktails err on the side of clear or deep red, this stands out with a gorgeous purple color thanks to the crème de violette liqueur.

  • Aviatore: Blanco tequila, crème de violette, agave, lime, sage
    —Monello, San Diego
  • Aviation Martini: Broker’s London Dry Gin, crème de violette, Luxardo Maraschino cherry liqueur, sour mix and simple syrup
    —121 Restaurant, Oxford, Conn.

Of all the classic cocktails covered here, the Aviator has the lowest penetration and the greatest opportunity for growth. The classic version is already a bit unexpected due to both its color and flavor, but twisting it to create variations is a worthwhile effort to increase interest in this great drink.

10 Moscow Mule

The history of the Moscow mule marries immigrant craft—including handmade copper mugs—with operator creativity. Thanks to the growth in ginger beers, the Moscow mule is getting more popular. It offers bold presentation as well as huge room for interpretation.

  • Velvet Mule: Bootlegger vodka, Velvet Falernum liqueur, ginger beer, lime
    —5 Napkin Burger, based in Astoria, N.Y.
  • Strawberry Spice Mule: Hangar 1 vodka, clove-spiced Gran Gala, lime, smashed strawberry
    —North Italia, based in Phoenix

In the classic Moscow mule, ginger beer and lime are defining flavors. Many iterations use those two ingredients as the springboard for additional innovation, but preserving these flavors may not be necessary to play with the original. In some cases, such as the Strawberry Spice Mule, the profile of ginger beer is mimicked in the clove-spiced Gran Gala.

From the November-December issue of Flavor & the Menu magazine. Read this issue online or check if you qualify for a free print subscription.


About The Author


MAEVE WEBSTER is a leading consultant and thought leader for foodservice manufacturers, operators and other professionals. She has spearheaded hundreds of major industry studies during her 20-plus years as a foodservice specialist. Today, Maeve focuses her consultancy on helping manufacturers, operators, commodity boards and marketing firms understand, prioritize and leverage food and consumer trends. Key areas of focus include consumer behavior, trend analysis, product design/testing and menu optimization. Maeve specializes in helping her clients not just to understand data but to also pull out the most critical threads and stories within the data that can inform both tactical and strategic decision-making. In addition to running her Menu Matters consultancy, Maeve owned and operated a café in Bennington, Vt., for four years. It was awarded “best coffeehouse” in Bennington each of the years it was in operation. She has an MBA from the University of Illinois Chicago and a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago. She is a regular speaker at industry events and a contributor to major media outlets and industry publications, including Flavor & The Menu.