Opinion: Why are so few modern classics created?

Michael Butt

07 November 2015

How many truly world-class (not the Diageo competition – although the standard there is excellent) drinks have you invented? I remember asking Angus Winchester this question and the fact that he could answer ‘zero’, without a shade of embarrassment or regret, was telling.

I have had the fortune in the last 15 years to have created drinks for over 100 venues. With a bit of peering-between-the-fingers reminiscence, I am embarrassed to say that, although small, the number of terrible drinks that have slipped through the creative safety net – normally due to charismatic championing by the creator (yours truly) – is greater than the number of genuinely world-class ones, the modern classics.

I know, though, that in this period of plenty for the bar industry, there are amazing drinks being created every season; drinks that fulfill all the requirements, apart from one: the knowledge of the drink beyond the bar where it is served.

From Dick Bradsell’s creations of the Bramble and the Espresso Martini until Sam Ross’ Penicillin there is a huge hole, and the list is instantly ruined when someone brings up the shark-jumping Gin Basil Smash.

What is the problem? Where is the fault line in the production? Why are we not drawing up a lexicon of new classics every year, rather than a pamphlet’s worth every decade?

Seasonality is one good reason why. It is impossible to produce a seasonal cocktail menu in the UK. The use of blackberries can be limited to the time when they are ripened locally and at their best, but the menu would have to be changed after two weeks, as production returns to Peru.

Drinks spreading beyond the original creator to their whole bar team lead to the truly great recipes

A menu using only turnip and dried apple in winter would give the dry January folk another reason to be smug, but we feel that even in this world of year-round imported citrus we must try and keep up with the buzzword.

I hope we can get over this fad, but the rise of the themed menu is potentially a greater threat. By the time you are reading this, some of you may well have already completed your Callooh Callay sticker album. It’s genuinely one of the greatest ideas for a menu ever – what better way to encourage a customer to try new experiences than to reward their adventurousness?

The drinks I have had the opportunity to try from this talented group of bartenders have so far been delicious. One
of them might even aspire to modern classic status. But like many more it is unlikely it will ever get there.

The creative team, having got the sales and PR uplift required, will be on to the next (undoubtedly cool) idea; the bartenders, always enamoured of experimentation, will create new drinks and, apart from the habitués of the venue, the current drinks will not gain enough traction to take that next step.

The St Lawrence is a drink that I originally created in 2001, with infused maple syrup and bourbon. It was a pretty damn tasty drink on day one but it was only last year that I managed to perfect the recipe, particularly the time of infusion to make a drink as good as it can be, and potentially a classic.

This development of drinks, normally spread beyond the original creator to their whole bar team remaking the drink during normal service, leads to the truly great recipes; recipes with 22.3ml of vermouth or 47ml of spirit because it ‘tastes better this way’; recipes with true finesse.

The soufflé suissesse at Le Gavroche is ordered by customers who ate it 30 years ago, and they still enjoy it today. That is the kind of classic to aspire to. Keep creating the Lego mammoths, the treasure chests and daily specials, but your classic drinks need nurturing too. So keep them on the menu!

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