Washington bartender Derek Brown can mix the kind of drink your grandma used to order. Maybe grandma was onto something: In bars from Los Angeles to the District, what was old is new again. There is a renaissance of what mixologists call “crafted cocktails,” or what grandma called a “highball” — the old-fashioned, Tom Collins and martini that feature a few classic ingredients — but no pomegranate juice; that is so 2000s.
“There is absolutely a renewed interest in cocktail culture,” says Mr. Brown, who works at the Gibson in Northwest and teaches mixology classes to groups around town. One popular recent class: How to Drink Like “Mad Men,” in which Washingtonians learned to make a vodka gimlet or a Manhattan just like the show’s flawed hero, Don Draper, would drink.
In fact, the glamour drinking on “Mad Men” has played a part in the return of the cocktail culture, Mr. Brown says. The clink of the ice cubes, the 1960s social norms that approved of drinking at the office — all of it can look like fun.
However, the resurgence of good, no-nonsense drinks is more complicated than a TV show, says Philip Greene, a Washington lawyer and a founding member of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans.
The demise of the cocktail probably was caused in part by the rejection of the establishment in the late 1960s as young people discovered other substances that one couldn’t put in a tumbler.
“Did you ever see someone in a tie-dye drinking an old fashioned?” Mr. Brown asks.
The 1970s saw more choices in beer and wine, which just simplified drinking. By the 1980s, heightened awareness and tighter laws to prevent drinking and driving saved lives but also dampened the glamour of the cocktail hour. Also, taking a look at popular drinks from the 1980s, one sees that drinks such as the fuzzy navel contributed to the decline of a good, strong drink, Mr. Brown says.
Cocktail culture is back, though, for a variety of reasons, Mr. Greene says.
“People love the sophistication of cocktails,” he says. “It brings up images of James Bond, or Nick and Nora Charles.”
Cocktail culture also mirrors what’s going on in other culinary areas, Mr. Greene says. In the past 25 years or so, Americans have moved away from watery beer and toward crafted beers and microbrews as well as a wider variety of international wines. Those who appreciate good drinking usually care about food, too, so as people care more about fresh ingredients and items such as artisan breads and heirloom tomatoes, it seems natural they would care what is going into their drinks.
Frank Coleman, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, says sales figures reflect a desire for the good stuff. The market for superpremium spirits has grown 92 percent over the past five years. Sales of superpremium vodka were up 16 percent in 2008. Sales of rye — an ingredient in many old-school drinks — are up 30 percent.
Eric Felten, drinks columnist for the Wall Street Journal and author of the book “How’s Your Drink? Cocktails, Culture and the Art of Drinking Well,” says the trend also points to better bartenders using better ingredients. The demise of the Tom Collins is a perfect example of why some drinks were, for a while, relegated to history, he says.
“A lot of popular drinks succumbed to their own popularity,” he says. “A Tom Collins is made with lemon, sugar, soda and gin. But it became so popular that bars tried to sell it the cheap and easy way, with powdered Tom Collins mix or prefab sour mix. If you drank that, you probably would think it was terrible and would never understand why this drink was a big deal. Try it the real way, though, and it is fantastic.
“What we have now is a new school of bartenders rediscovering cocktails by way of fresh ingredients, flavorful liquor and venerable recipes,” Mr. Felten says.
He says good mixology — whether in a bar or at home — takes time and a recipe.
“Cocktails are really more like baking than cooking,” he says. “The proportions have to be exact, especially when you are dealing with things like citrus and sugar. Avoid anyone who just grabs bottles and pours or who uses prefab mixes.”
Some of the best places in the Washington area to get an old-school drink, according to Mr. Felten, are the Gibson, the new W Hotel and the Tabard Inn in Northwest, and Restaurant Eve in Alexandria. Mr. Greene also recommends PS 7 and the Hotel Monaco in Penn Quarter.
The Gibson’s Mr. Brown shares some recipes:
2 ounces bourbon
1/2 ounce simple syrup
dash Angostura bitters
2 orange slices
2 brandied cherries
Combine 1 orange slice, 1 cherry, sugar and bitters in a double rocks glass. Muddle gently. Discard fruit. Add bourbon and ice, stir until chilled. Garnish with second orange slice and brandied cherry.
1 1/2 ounces London Dry Gin
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce simple syrup
Combine ingredients in highball; add ice. Roll drink around glass. Top with soda water. Add orange and cherry as garnish.
2 ounces London dry gin
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
Combine ingredients in chilled mixing glass. Add ice and stir. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Add olive and lemon twist.