BY now, most of the reviews of the decade-that-just-was have been filed, and a consensus has emerged: If not “the worst decade ever,” as Time magazine put it, the ’00s were awful.
Unless, that is, you spent the decade drinking. That sounds like a joke but isn’t, because among all the things that didn’t improve in the last 10 years — macro stuff like the global economy, geopolitical stability, the environment, etc. — one thing, admittedly micro, did improve: the drinks we drank, for pleasure or, considering the above, analgesia.
If you observed the ’00s from a barstool, and limited your reading to cocktail menus (as I did, as author of this column for almost four years), you’d be forgiven for deeming the decade a bona fide golden age. For my final column, then, a toast: to 10 years of fizzes, slings, juleps, sours, cobblers and rickeys, to a time when the avant-garde seemed to shift almost nightly, to the best decade in generations.
We greeted the decade with sugary, vodka-based “-tinis” — which, despite their suffixed claim to noble descent, were in some ways extensions of the neon drinks of the ’80s: alcoholic candy.
Yet a quiet revolution was already under way. Building upon the work of Dale DeGroff, the former Rainbow Room bartender, young bartenders, casting aside process mixers, were gleaning inspiration from their counterparts in restaurant kitchens and perusing antique cocktail books like scholars combing the Dead Sea scrolls. The first half of the decade saw a wave of creativity and experimentation come crashing through barrooms in cities like New York and San Francisco and Portland, Ore., followed, in the decade’s second half, by a counterblast of earnest classicism.
The cocktail was no longer a fashion accessory, as it was in the ’90s. It was fashion itself. What had once merely lubricated conversations became the subject of conversations, in much the same way that dinner parties, with the rise of foodie-ism in the ’90s, became more about the dinner and less about the party.
Bar patrons broadcast their selections over Twitter. Home bartenders blogged about their latest experiments. Surrendering your drink choice to the bartender, the way diners at sushi restaurants request whatever is freshest, became the ’00s hippest drink order.
By the end of the decade, bottle service, once a mark of downtown sophistication, had come to be viewed as the province of rubes. The cocktail — especially the classic, painstakingly made variety, served with hand-cracked ice or in recherché glassware — had triumphed.
And not just here. You can get an expertly made bourbon daisy in Cleveland, an impeccable sazerac in rural Mississippi. Not long ago, in an excruciatingly remote village in the Australian Outback, I was startled to see a bartender in a cowboy hat measuring out a classically proportioned French 75 — something he’d picked up on the Internet, he told me.
Call this a fad at your own peril. Some peripheral aspects of the cocktail renaissance are doomed to pass, and in some places already have: speak-easy chic, bartenders in affected period costumes, an overwrought reverence that smacks of wine snobbery. But we do not go backward from here. Pardon the pun, but the bar has been raised.
Of course, not everyone drank well this past decade. Twenty years from now, when bars are promoting nostalgic ’00s theme nights, the dominant drink special will almost certainly be vodka and Red Bull. Or maybe the mojito, which introduced many Americans to fresh produce in their drink, as well as to longer wait times — owing to the bartender’s need to muddle the fresh mint leaves —associated with the craft cocktail movement.
But Red Bull and vodka was a club land novelty, caffeine disguised as a highball, and the mojito was that weird exception in a decade of booming cocktail progress: a good drink that suffered from its popularity, with a flood of processed mixers corrupting the bracing integrity of the original.
No, the real story was in rediscovered in drinks like the aviation cocktail, a sublimely floral combination of gin and maraschino liqueur (and later, as cocktail historians dug deeper into its origins, the violet-flavored crème de violette) that was a Web sensation before bars like Milk & Honey started featuring it on cocktail lists.
Or the old-fashioned, once dowdy but reinvigorated by bartenders like Don Lee, who recast it as the celery and nori old-fashioned at Momofuku Ssam Bar, and Phil Ward of Death & Company, whose Oaxaca old-fashioned — with tequila standing in for whiskey — proved how versatile a spare, 200-year-old formula could be.
These were artisanal drinks with history and gravitas and a contrapuntal range of flavors — sweet, sour, savory, bitter — that hadn’t been balanced in generations. They’re representative of a lost American art — the art of the cocktail, as practiced by pre-Prohibition bartenders — that, after the ’00s, can no longer be called lost.