So, what’ll it be tonight? How about a Smoke Signal made with bacon-infused rye, chipotle syrup, cold-brewed coffee ice and porter? Or the Grillo Cancion, an exotic and possibly deranged member of the Collins family that fuses pisco, cumin syrup, citrus and celery bitters? Or maybe a Knot Twist would hit the spot: a 60-milliliter riot of malty genever, smoky Scotch, smokier mezcal, absinthe, maraschino and bitters, stirred into accord and set before you like a dare?
These are just three of the strange and wonderful concoctions at Scott & Co. at 47 Scott, a 24-seat bar in Tucson, Arizona, that serves some of the country’s most creative cocktails. Sprung from the imagination of Ciaran Wiese, these newfangled refreshments highlight an ascendant caste of bartenders, more akin to doctoral candidates than service-industry workers, whose command over the ever-expanding canon of mixed drinks spawns not only variations on the classics but also variations on the variations. Thanks to practitioners like Wiese, we live in an age of cocktails that isn’t gilded so much as trimmed in platinum, reinforced with titanium and tipped with mercury.
But there’s a flip side to this creative efflorescence, looming large as summer tightens its sweaty grip and demand for refreshment grows: The gap between zeitgeist cocktails and stuff you might actually whip up at home has become a chasm.
While obscure ingredients are partly to blame, the sheer number of items found in many drinks presents a psychic conundrum all its own. No matter how refreshing the payoff, there’s a point where assembling a drink overtakes your ability to enjoy it, such that you’re left contemplating a counter strewn with oddball spirits and sticky dribbles of heirloom citrus juice, inhaling wispy fumes of the lavender-snakeroot bitters you spent three weeks infusing, pondering a cocktail that’s fading rapidly, wondering, “Was all this worth it?”
“I’m happy that there are guys out there who are doing weird things and innovating and making new drinks,” said St. John Frizell, the owner of Fort Defiance in Brooklyn. “But that’s not for me.” Before opening his bar, he spent 18 months honing his skills at Pegu Club, the Manhattan cocktail lounge that has spawned some of the city’s most forward-thinking mixologists.
When it came to devising his own list, however, he chose simplicity. Today his signature drink is a Tom Collins. He also makes a cucumber rendition and a 710-millilitre jumbo version called Sumo Collins, but that’s about as far as he cares to push this timeless blend of gin and fizzy lemonade.
“You could add seven more ingredients, but that’s not going to make it better,” he said. “It’s just going to make it more complicated.”
He is not the only one partial to minimalist refreshments. At Momofuku Ssam Bar in Manhattan, the new cocktail list celebrates a trio of three-ingredient classics – the sour, the old-fashioned, the Manhattan – that function as formulas as much as they do drinks. Trade Campari for bourbon, add fizz, and your whiskey sour becomes a bracing, low-proof Collins.
You’ll also find formula-driven concoctions at Spoonbar in Healdsburg, Calif. Despite his fondness for elaborate garniture – eruptions of shiso and blue nigella inspired by “Little Shop of Horrors,” tangles of cornflowers and wild fennel fronds arranged like psychedelic Christmas trees – the bar’s manager, Scott Beattie, deploys a sour recipe as foolproof as it is flexible: 44 millilitres of liquor, half as much lime juice and 14 millilitres of sweetener. For a mojito, he swaps the gin and basil in his summer gimlet for rum, mint and a splash of seltzer. For an amplified margarita, he rotates in tequila, cilantro and agave nectar. “I love that ratio,” he said.
Sometimes a simple cocktail offers a breather on a list crowded with ambitious concoctions, its modesty acting as a merciful comma in a monologue brimming with 10-dollar words and knotty phrases. Italia Libera, a riff on the Cuba Libre that shares space with salted chipotle Demerara syrup and house-made orgeat on Chaim Dauermann’s summer menu at ‘inoteca e liquori bar in New York, removes Coke from the usual equation and forges an unlikely alliance between overproof rum and amaro. It nails the sweet spot between simplicity and innovation, fusing two stubborn ingredients with sugar, citrus and seltzer to create a drink that honours the original by improving it.
Other combinations succeed by recasting familiar ingredients in a fresh, seasonal light. Absinthe Frappe, from the bartender Lydia Reissmueller, of Central in Portland, Oregon, yanks its namesake ingredient from the clutches of Serious Mixology and jostles it with cream and fine ice for a triumphant cooler that’s equal parts whimsy and decadence: a push-up pop for the speak-easy set. Guadalajara Sour, a riff on the whiskey-based New York Sour by the mixologist Michael Bowers at Modern Hotel and Bar in Boise, Idaho, brokers a novel friendship between tequila and rose, two staples with more in common than you may realize. Surprising but not perplexing, it’s a smart drink that wears its erudition lightly.
Sometimes the best summer cocktail is the one you don’t have to think about.