The Return of the 80s Cocktail
Some of America’s best bartenders are unapologetically bringing back long island iced teas, amaretto sours and neon-blue drinks.
The only thing I liked about growing up in the 1980s was the abundance of opportunity for rebellion. I hated the politics. I hated the clothes. When my classmates were clamoring to get the latest pair of acid-washed jeans or tickets for a Bon Jovi show, I was skipping school to protest apartheid and trading Grateful Dead bootleg cassettes.
But I’d be lying if I said I hated the classic cocktails associated with the era (though most of them were invented well before the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1980). I was a teenager back then—I’d drink anything. Who was I to turn down a Long Island iced tea? An amaretto sour? Who was I to decline some neon-blue beverage glowing at me at a party? I did, however, draw the line at the Slippery Nipple—even now, I cringe as I write the words—because the only thing that grossed me out more than its name was the mortifying glee my mother took in ordering it expressly to gross me out.
As I matured—as a person, as a drinker and as a bartender—I watched those cocktails fall out of favor, especially when bars with huge arsenals of bitters, syrups and garnishes began to proliferate. As for the faux speakeasies that also started appearing in big cities, a few made the experience entertaining, but to most I wanted to say, “Prohibition is over, so don’t make me feel like an idiot, standing in the cold and knocking on an unmarked door for 10 minutes.” The gravitas with which some bars and bartenders approached their craft started to feel dangerously close to joylessness. But there’s a backlash underway against the idea that there’s such a thing as a correct order at a cocktail bar, and I’m witnessing a turn toward unabashed pleasure.
“Cocktail bars became synonymous with judgmental bartenders, overly complicated drinks and long wait times,” says Michael Neff, bar director at Holiday Cocktail Lounge in New York City’s East Village. “The cocktail community responded to this perception by shying away from the word mixologist and reviving drinks that preceded the modern movement. We’re seeing the return of ‘regular’ drinks, mostly because we want people to remember that we’re also ‘regular’ bartenders.”
When Neff got the chance to create the drinks menu at the Holiday, which reopened in 2015 after shuttering in 2012, he wanted to have fun with it—and, at the same time, honor the history of what had been one of the city’s most beloved downtown dives. There was never room at the Holiday for sanctimony, or for copycatting trends like the current vogue for cocktails on tap. So, as part of reopening the bar, “I wanted to make a dig at a trend,” Neff says. He thought, What’s even worse than putting a cocktail on tap? Shooting it out of the soda gun. Neff turned to the first mixed drink he ever made, the cocktail world’s Public Enemy No. 1: the Long Island iced tea—a get-drunk-fast default usually composed of all the clear liquors on the speed rack and a splash of cola.
“We were making fun of ourselves,” Neff says, by brazenly serving such an infamous cocktail. But unlike most Long Island iced teas—engineered chiefly to get one buzzed, and possibly liable to get one carded—Neff “would not put anything on the list that we don’t like. We use good ingredients.” And where many bars upcharge for the drink—partly because of the multitude of liquors that comprise it, but sometimes bluntly to reflect disapprobation—the Holiday’s reimagining of the LIT goes for a modest $6 a pop.
Nearly as maligned as the Long Island iced tea is virtually any cocktail deploying blue curaçao as a primary ingredient. But the Gun Metal Blue, created by Nicholas Bennett, head bartender at New York City’s Porchlight, has become a customer favorite anyway. “Ten years ago, a blue cocktail may not have been the way to go, but now’s the right time,” Bennett says. “Cocktails are cyclical. You get this very serious, rigid style—and then you get playful again.” Bennett combines blue curaçao with mezcal (the spirit’s smokiness gives the drink additional depth), plus lime juice, a cinnamon-gentian-root syrup and peach brandy (another ingredient that evokes the 1980s). The garnish is a sunny disk of orange peel, quickly flamed to release its aromatic oils. The Gun Metal Blue is a strange thing to behold. But serving one—and ordering one—is indisputably fun, with or without irony.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager at Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and author of The Bar Book, was one of the first prominent bartenders to embrace ’80s cocktails. “I don’t have this built-in sense of what’s cool and what’s not,” Morgenthaler says. He does, however, have a strong sense of what tastes good. In 2012, he announced on his blog, “I make the best amaretto sour in the world.”
Morgenthaler, who mastered what he calls the “college-bar canon” decades ago as a bartender working dives and clubs in his university town of Eugene, Oregon, started thinking about the amaretto sour again circa 2010, during conversations with fellow bartenders in Portland. “After I’d learned a lot about making cocktails, I circled back to it,” he says. He didn’t care that his advocacy for the cocktail might raise some eyebrows. “I like the way it tastes,” he says. “I like the cherry.” He balances the sweetness of the amaretto with high-proof bourbon and fresh lemon juice, resulting in a sour that is nuanced and complex but also easy and pleasurable to drink.
Pleasure is clearly at the heart of this ’80s revival—a dedication to making the best-tasting versions of the drinks of the era while also loosening tacit rules about the right and wrong cocktails to order at a bar. Get what you love, without shame. Just leave the Reaganomics and acid-washed jeans—and the Slippery Nipple—back in the decade where they belong.
Rosie Schaap writes the Drink column for the New York Times Magazine and is the author of the memoir Drinking With Men. She tends bar in Brooklyn.