Disco never dies: How do we define disco drinks – if at all?

Julian de Feral

Julian de Feral

27 November 2020

As cocktail categories go, disco drinks are hard to define. Julian de Féral wonders whether even trying to do so it’s a contradiction in terms

‘A bunch of shitty cocktails’ is the abrupt answer I got from one American bartender whilst I spent a month asking everyone I could think of to ‘define disco drinks’. Nice one, Josh.

Over the past few years I have noticed that – especially Stateside – conversations and press around defining, realigning and questioning the origins of tiki drinks have become increasingly popular and significant. It stands to reason that as communities around the globe are spending more time on self-reflection and challenging acts of appropriation, murky histories and jilting heroes that the drinks world is also taking a closer look at itself.

Asking a group of bartenders what disco drinks meant to them, it very quickly became evident that nobody seems to know

But what of disco? On the surface, perhaps a considerably less inflammatory topic. However, mere minutes into asking a group of bartenders what disco drinks meant to them, it very quickly became evident that nobody seems to know.

Whilst Abrupt Josh from Anaheim might be immediately dismissive of the whole category, it is evident that on this side of the Atlantic there has been slow burning love for the idea for rainbow-hued libations from yesteryear’s bright and steamy dancefloors.

Timeless flare

‘Make it blue, make me happy,’ says Jenny Griffiths, currently working freelance and a longtime advocate for cocktails that walk on the camp side of life. In celebration of this, October saw her team up with a fellow disco lover Chelsie ‘Fucking’ Bailey (GM at Happiness Forgets) for a (socially distanced) tongue-in-cheek retro-inspired ‘Homegirl’ takeover at Homeboy bar in London, which she sees as being ‘on the verge of a disco drink revival’. However, the pair notably championed the use of ironic ingredients such as WKD Blue, which I would associate more with house and garage sound-tracked nights in late ‘90s student unions.

Jenny Griffiths' CFB cocktail
Jenny Griffiths' CFB cocktail

CFB, Jenny Griffiths, Homegirl (2020)

‘Inspiration-wise, Chelsie and I bonded over our love of disco drinks, mainly while drinking WKD out of Champagne glasses. We both love what disco stands for and how a fun drink can bring people together and bring a smile to their faces.’ 

Glass: Rocks
Garnish: None
Method: Fill a rocks glass with cubed ice and fill about halfway with WKD. Stir the other ingredients over ice for five seconds, and using a hawthorne strainer slowly pour over the WKD as a float.

1 bottle WKD
35ml Hennessy VSOP
15ml Chambord
5 dashes citric/malic blend*

*Acid blend made using citric and malic, 8:1.

‘The 1970s were just the bare bones of it,’ Griffiths explains. ‘For modern bartenders nine times out of 10 the first drinks they would have learnt how to make was what they would call a “disco drink” although these would be more Cheeky Vimtos or jugs of Purple Rain served in pubs rather than in an actual disco. Now we are seeing bartenders stripping back those nostalgic drinks, rebalancing and smartening them up.’

Willy Borrell who has just released a range of batched ‘Disco Cocktails’ in pouches to be delivered from his Ladies & Gentlemen bar (also in north London) doesn’t believe this is something new. ‘Regionally, people have been drinking like this anyway, it just hasn’t been previously championed by “startenders” and is only now becoming more metropolitan. Disco didn’t die, it just evolved.’

Regionally, people have been drinking like this anyway, it just hasn’t been previously championed by “startenders

Willy Borrel

There is little doubt that – during what is being touted as the Worst Year Ever – nostalgic and unabashedly fun quaffs are perhaps the drinks we all need right now. Borrell refers to these as ‘Disco 2.0’. He doesn’t think it is simply escapism, but in terms of the trending cocktail styles he also sees it as a ‘lovely antidote to expensive and pretentious libations that have dominated drinks media for the past decade… These new drinks are delightfully self-depreciating.’

On the subject of high-end/high-concept cocktails and modernizing disco drinks, very notably the award-winning Artesian bar at the Langham Hotel in London released a disco menu after the first lockdown. For bar manager Anna Sebastian: ‘Of all the menus we have done this has been the best received.’

Grasshopper, Krystian Kropaczeweski, Artesian (2020)

‘We wanted to create something visually stimulating and attractive as well as a more refined and evolved version of the grasshopper.  We twisted it with whisky to give it a bit more of a punch but still keeping the mint and cream element a nod to the original recipe.  It’s been one of the most popular drinks over the last couple of months.’ 

Glass: Coupe
Garnish: None
Method: Stir all ingredients down and the pour cream over as a float.

50ml Craigelleaiche 13
20ml Briottet crème de menthe
5ml Briottet crème de cacao blanc
2 dash saline solution
Float double cream

Although the fêted past menus of the Artesian have been renowned for breaking the mould of what is to be expected in a luxurious hotel bar, Sebastian (who has also previously worked at The Savoy) still says, ‘Traditionally, hotel bar menus are quite serious or reflect the history of the hotel (I’ve done many of these). Coming back after lockdown everything had changed and we wanted to do something that was fun that we could change each week and that [the drinks] were uncomplicated using mainly off the shelf products.’

Smoke & mirrors

Dave Miller, who used to run what is possibly the ‘disco-est’ cocktail bar I have ever set foot in – Ray’s Bar in east London, replete with a mirrorball backbar – has some interesting ideas about what defines a disco drink.

Miller did not research the disco era itself for his menus and wasn’t too concerned about what historically guests were drinking in discos during the 70s. He might’ve reached for the bottle of blue curacao and kept Galliano in stock, but he didn’t feel the need to be lumbered with Midori.

Although Miller knew what disco drinks were not (‘stirred down or overly boozy’) and he had a strong idea of what sort of base spirits he wanted to use (‘a focus on gin and rum, simply because these are democratic spirits’), he weighs the importance on the atmosphere of the bar itself – ‘that disco feeling’.

For me when thinking about disco drinks the drink is not what comes first

Dave Miller

‘For me when thinking about disco drinks the drink is not what comes first. I feel they need to be very accessible and non-threatening; they shouldn’t have to be explained. The drinks should work more towards elevating the atmosphere of the bar and syncing with the surroundings. It is about the relationship of the drink to the guest and the space.’

It stands to reason that over-theorising what the rules around constructing disco drinks might go against the very of the carefree attitude of the disco genre itself, and perhaps that the focus should fall more on what it evokes for the guest.

The general manager of east London’s beloved gastropub the Empress doubles up as a disco DJ with the Strangers Of Paradise outfit. Damian Williams has served disco drinks aplenty and although he has a standard idea of what constitutes such a style (‘bright, fruity, long, can be served quickly at nightclub volumes’) he concurs with Miller that the importance lies less with the ingredients themselves than the celebration of the culture.

Tropic Thunder, Dave Miller, Ray’s Bar (2017) 

‘By no means groundbreaking, but we thought it was a cool idea and after some research of the (many) Pina Colada Milk Punch recipes out there we settled on this. Looks like a Martini but tastes like a Pina Colada.’

Glass: Nick & Nora
Garnish: Washed cherry
Method: Mix all ingredients except milk. Separately, heat milk until just below boiling, remove from heat and pour into mixture. Stir briefly to allow milk to split and let rest for 15 minutes. Strain through muslin repeatedly (using nest of curds as filter), until liquid is clear and refrigerate. Quickly stir over ice to chill right down, and serve.

175ml Havana 3
100ml Pineapple-infused Havana 3
100ml Koku Kanu
150ml coconut water
150ml pineapple juice
150ml milk
75ml lime juice
30ml green tea and clove syrup

‘I don’t think disco drinks are necessarily concurrent to the music scene. The earliest and most iconic disco clubs such as The Loft of Paradise Garage were in fact dry bars. I’m guessing that it wasn’t until the early 80s when disco spread to the suburban nightclubs such in places like New Jersey or the home counties that the clubbers would have started asking for drinks such as Harvey Wallbangers or Woo Woos.’

Style & substance

If drinks weren’t being drunk in early discos, where and from what were early disco drinks derived? Enter the charming Cheryl Charming, an established bartender, author, drinks historian and creator of Cocktails In Media, a private social media group that shares minutia of all appearances of cocktails in all forms of media.

‘Back then, we didn’t call them “disco drinks”. They were just drinks that we drank in discos,’ she explains, echoing earlier sentiments that it was the party that made the drinks rather than the other way around. ‘The type of people that went to discos were more interested in other things… roller-skating or what they were wearing was probably more important to them than cocktails,’ Charming adds.

The concoctions popular at the time were largely not created during the golden age of disco. For every Long Island Iced Tea, Sloe Comfortable Screw Against The Wall, Midori Sour or Kamikaze that fit the timeframe, there were drinks such as Stingers, fruit Daiquiris, Alexanders, Collins and Harvey Wallbangers that were already enjoying the limelight anything between a decade to a century before DJ Richie Kaczor dropped Devil’s Gun at the opening of Studio 54.

L-R: Artesian's Cosmopolitan and Grasshopper cocktails
L-R: Artesian's Cosmopolitan and Grasshopper cocktails

And what of Studio 54, that most iconic physical representation of disco’s halcyon days? What were Grace Jones, Andy Warhol and the cast of Saturday Night Fever sipping on before mingling on the dancefloor with bare-chested busboys in short shorts and roller-skates? Some would suggest not a lot, pointing to the relentlessly regaled stories about the epic amounts of cocaine and quaaludes consumed at the venue.

It needs to be pointed out at this stage that what some may consider as something of a ‘dark ages’ for cocktails is also something of a dark age of information. Even after grilling some of the remaining bartenders from the zeitgeist nightclub and trawling through old black and white photos of what was happening behind the bar, there are some contradictions.

Disco is not a place for arguments over who drank what and how. It is a place for escapism during a convoluted and anxious time

If everyone was on drugs and not drinking, it seems unlikely that even taking into account Warhol’s penchant for Dom Perignon the club wouldn’t have been able to reach the $7m (equivalent to $30m today) in sales during the first year as some reports suggest. Was the only reason that there appear to be a range of liqueurs on the backbar ‘to look good’, as one former bartender suggests? If so, then how do so many remember drinking Japanese G&Ts (gin and tonics spiked with Midori which were relaunched and renamed by Suntory in the club in 1978)? 

Beyond definition

Something which would explain a fruitless search for old Studio 54 drinks menus that seems to be unilaterally agreed on is the fact that there weren’t any. ‘We already knew how to make drinks. We don’t need their fucked up little drinks menu,’ as another former bartender puts it. Or, put more gently by an imbiber of the era: ‘People just knew what they wanted. We had no idea what a drink menu even looked like.’

Perhaps the rabbit hole of contradictions and half-remembered memories puts things into perspective. Uniquely for a category of drinks, disco is not a place for arguments over who drank what and how. It is a place for escapism during a convoluted and anxious time. Very significantly it started as a haven for people of colour, freedom of expression, whether musically, aesthetically or for sexual orientation. The burgeoning gay scene finally had an ownable soundtrack and venues to be out and proud.

Disco never died, it just evolved. Whether a Tequila Sunrise or a Donna Summer bootleg, this very real and important fantasy is not hindered by obsessives such as me sweating over the incapability of boxing it off into a section of cocktail family trees or a historical timeline. Glistening sweat is reserved for celebration rather than study and, like the best mixed drinks, disco culture is greater than the sum of its parts.

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