What makes a cocktail classic? New book serves up modern classic cocktails

Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen
Drinks writer Robert Simonson (seated) collected recent cocktails that will stand the test of time in "Modern Classic Cocktails."

Even casual cocktail drinkers know classics like the Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned and the Martini. The drinks were invented in the Golden Age of cocktails, when the art of bartending reached its peak before Prohibition in 1920 made liquor illegal.

Robert Simonson, in his new book "Modern Classic Cocktails," proposes more than 60 drinks created mainly in the 21st century that should be added to the cocktail canon.

Simonson, who covers drinks for The New York Times, has a test for what makes a modern classic: it must be adopted by other bars and be popular with drinkers, not just bartenders. Many modern classics taste so timeless that people often swear they date to the 19th century.

"Modern classics are largely riffs on existing classics," Simonson said. "Another similarity is that most of these drinks are simple. The drink is not going to get very far if you can't make it with ease."

"Modern Classic Cocktail" by Robert Simonson

Among the drinks Simonson anoints as modern classics are the Amaretto Sour, the notorious Benton's Old-Fashioned with bacon bourbon and the Cosmopolitan, dating all the way back to 1988.

Most of the drinks in "Modern Classic Cocktails" were created between 2007 and 2012. Bartenders were relearning how to make great cocktails and spreading their knowledge via internet. And once obscure or defunct ingredients were suddenly widely available. It was the second cocktail Golden Age.

That heady era of cocktail invention was centered in big cities, like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and London. Only two of the modern classics in Simonson's book are from the South: the Gunshop Fizz from Cure in New Orleans and the Cab Calloway, a "modern classic to be," from the celebrated airport restaurant One Flew South in Atlanta.

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Today, you can find top cocktail bars in every state. No upscale restaurant can open without a serious cocktail list. And the last three winners of the James Beard Award for best bar have been Julep in Houston and Cure and the French 75 Bar, both in New Orleans.

Simonson believes the second Golden Age of cocktails has passed. Now good cocktails are taken for granted, which is not a bad thing. Although he wonders era for creating new modern classic cocktails has passed. With so many bartenders inventing so many drinks, how can a single cocktail rise above the pack.

"But you never know when a genius is going to come along," he said.

Gunshop Fizz cocktail

The Gunshop Fizz is the only well-known cocktail to use large amounts of Peychaud’s bitters, the bright-red bitters used primarily to complete a Sazerac and, until recently, sold mainly in New Orleans. The drink was created by Kirk Estopinal and Maksym Pazuniak, two New Orleans bartenders who worked at Cure, the first major craft cocktail bar to open in the city.

Estopinal had worked at The Violet Hour in Chicago, where he retreated after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There he served The Violet Hour version of the Pimm’s Cup (a favorite drink at the legendary New Orleans bar Napoleon House), which called for muddled strawberries and cucumbers. Estopinal and Pazuniak took that formula and, quite quixotically, substituted Peychaud’s for the Pimm’s — two liquids that have very little in common except that their ingredient lists are secret and they are bright red. A few more tweaks — including the addition of yet another ruby beverage, the nonalcoholic Italian aperitivo Sanbitter — and they arrived at the Gunshop Fizz. The creation of the drink helped lead to the publication of "Rogue Cocktails," a 2009 collection of similarly unorthodox cocktails. Because of the drink’s costliness, it is not widely served, but within cocktail circles, it is known.


2 ounces Peychaud’s bitters1 ounce lemon juice1 ounce simple syrup2 strawberries3 cucumber slices3 swaths of grapefruit peel3 swaths of orange peel1 ounce SanbitterCucumber slice for garnish

In "Modern Classic Cocktails," Robert Simonson collects recent drinks that will stand the test of time.


Muddle all ingredients except the Sanbitter and cucumber garnish at the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Let sit for 2 minutes to allow the flavors to mingle.

Add ice. Shake until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a collins glass filled with ice. Top with Sanbitter. Garnish with the cucumber slice.

Reprinted with permission from "Modern Classic Cocktails: 60+ Stories and Recipes from the New Golden Age in Drinks" by Robert Simonson, copyright © 2022. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com.