Popular Cocktail Recipes
by Darcy O'Neil on July 2011
As the revitalization of the cocktail continues, it is often helpful to ascertain why certain cocktail recipes are popular. What makes the Margarita, Cosmopolitan and Strawberry Daiquiri the Queens of the cocktail world. This information can then be translated, by new order bartenders, into a method that will help the neophytes and phobic's, indulge in something new and take them out of their "safe zone". Once they've escaped the default cocktails, they may never go back.
Looking at the most popular cocktail recipes on a local bar menu, or the Internet, may lead a person to believe that there only 50 or so cocktails recipes in existence. It also seems that these cocktails were always popular. Is it because they taste good? Is there some magical formulation? Or is it all smoke and mirrors?
The reality is that these popular cocktail constants are the ones taught in low-end bartender factories, they're the ones that almost every spirit company uses in their printed marketing material and the cocktails that writers write about when they know nothing about cocktails. It's pretty simple, these cocktails are popular because most of the post-prohibition world, up to this point, lacked imagination.
Familiarity isn't a bad thing, but it can get out of hand. It's nice to know that you can walk into any bar, order a Cosmopolitan, and you'll probably get something close. You can't say that about a Tchoupitoulas Street Guzzle or an Aviation. The problem is that this familiarity has created a vicious cycle, where the bartenders are taught to make the basic drinks, so people only order the basic drinks. Over time it's become so reinforced that people are scared to order anything other than the most popular cocktail recipes.
If a chef school taught its students this way, every restaurant would be a fast food burger joint. But most schools that teach cooking try to instil creativity into their pupils. Experimentation is what makes dining out a pleasure, the same cannot be said about most bars. This is partially because many bartenders don't care, they just follow the house recipe blindly. Most owners want it that way too, speed is more important than quality.
Many writers lack originality, so writing about something that's already been put to paper, ad nauseum, is easy. Plus, it's so mainstream they'll get less heat from their editor and all the sheeple will nod in agreement.
Sheeple: Used to denote persons who voluntarily acquiesce to a perceived authority, or suggestion without sufficient research to fully understand the scope of the decision, thus undermine their own individuality. The implication of sheeple is that as a collective, people believe whatever they are told, especially if told so by a perceived authority figure, without processing it or doing adequate research to be sure that it is an accurate representation of the real world around them.
Then there are the spirit companies who put together those little inserts and bottle neck recipe guides. They go to great lengths to create a brand and product, but it seems they just pick the top ten most popular cocktails and replace the generic ingredients with their brand. Wow, how original. It's become so bad in some cases the tequila in the margarita, and the rum in the daiquiri, are being replaced with sweet liqueurs and of course vodka. These brands are just hitching their trailer to the popularity of the cocktail name. I often wonder if they actually taste these modified concoctions? Some of them don't look so tasty.
Now, what does this tell us? Basically, people will drink anything that is perceived as popular. The Cosmopolitan became extremely popular just because it was on popular TV series. There is nothing wrong with the Cosmo, but it definitely demonstrates the herding effect. It's also not hard to make, and even is you screw it up, it always comes out close enough.
What can you do to make a cocktail popular? Well, start by keeping it simple. You don't need 12 ingredients to make it great. If it takes three minutes to make, you're probably going to irritate the "instant gratification" culture we now live in. Plus, it doesn't need to be original, there are hundreds of great cocktails that just never had someone to be their advocate.
Next, become the authority figure. Promote the cocktail like a politician looking for votes. Taste is highly subjective, so it doesn't matter if you say it's the greatest drink ever, it very well could be to someone. The positive statements alone are enough to influence people, believe it or not.
Hitch your wagon to a well known cocktail. Don't call it a British Manhattan or an Ozark Margarita, but when you describe it to people, make a drink connection to something familiar. If you just rattle through a list or rare ingredients, it can make people reject it because it's unfamiliar.
Bad: "This cocktail incorporates Mexican mescal aged with real live scorpions, well they died after they were mixed in the bottle, but isn't it so cool. Hi there little guy" (while tapping on the bottle with your finger nail). "I then take these red berries I found in my backyard and make an infusion, which when mixed with fresh lime juice glows fluorescent purple!"
Good: "This cocktail uses a rare Mexican mescal, that's similar to tequila and I mix it with local fruits, triple sec and lime juice. It's a creative twist on a Margarita."
Don't expect to get worldwide fame, unless you can work the cocktail into a movie script or TV show. Once you get it working in your bar, it might spread locally, that is if you share your recipe, and you should. Keeping secrets may benefit you temporarily, but there are many creative bartenders who will just out do you with a different recipe. Most bartenders are happy to give credit where it is due.
There are many great drinks out there, but they lack the publicity other cocktails have been given. Making a cocktail popular starts with a decent recipe, but builds with positive promotion. When someone is standing at your bar "deciding" on a cocktail (ie. thinking which one of the basic ten cocktails they'll choose today) just jump in and offer them something new. It really is that simple to make a cocktail recipe popular.