What makes a classic cocktail?

The Hi-Spirits Classic Cocktail Competition, as the name suggests, is all about the classics. inspired by Jake Burger’s book, An Anthology of 12 Classic Cocktails, the comp calls on bartenders to create twists and classics – a subject which judge Clinton Cawood wanted to explore further by sitting down with Burger.

Last year’s heats, and the judging process that followed, led to no small amount of philosophical debate about the classics – their place in the modern era of bartending, the cyclical nature of cocktail trends, and indeed what makes a cocktail a classic in the ­first place.

“It’s a can of worms, or nest of vipers, the question of what de­fines a classic cocktail,” says Burger at London’s The Distillery Bar. “Some have proven popular since they were conceived, although probably with peaks and troughs, like the Martini. But others, like the Negroni, which I think everyone would agree is a classic, haven’t been popular until the modern era.”

Being around for a long time isn’t enough. What’s required, it seems, is a combination of longevity and sustained popularity, although even that’s not a guarantee that what we consider to be modern-day classics will be around in a few decades.

“The book includes a few modern creations, like the Espresso Martini, which I think is a classic, but in 50 years from now, will people still be drinking it? Whether it stands the test of time to become a century-spanning drink… I don’t know,” says Burger.

There are even more recent creations that seem to have what it takes. Burger highlights Sam Ross’s Penicillin, or Joaquín Simó’s Naked & Famous – but time will tell.

“I guess most bartenders dream of creating a modern classic,” says Burger. The question, of course, is how to achieve this, when so few modern inventions reach that status.

The ­ first challenge is coming up with something suitably original, when it can seem that everything has already been done. “The low-hanging fruits have already been plucked. Because the cocktail has been around for the best part of two centuries now, you come up with something that you think is new, and someone geekier than you says, well actually I think you’ll find…”

Classic knowledge

Burger recalls creating a drink, one of his first, as an 18-year-old bartender. “I came up with a combination of cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice, and thought, this is great. I’d reinvented the Sidecar.”

Knowledge of the classics isn’t only important to avoid inadvertently recreating them. For Burger, they teach balance, as well as an understanding of how ingredients work together, and about ratios in cocktails too.

“You can look at a list of ingredients and have a pretty good idea of what the proportions are going to be, without looking at the actual recipe,” he says. “That certainly comes from experimenting with the classics.”

And that all provides a solid foundation for creating new drinks too, much like the classic twists presented by the bartenders in the Hi-Spirits comp.

“When I’m making new cocktails for the menu here at The Distillery, I generally use the classics as a jumping-off point – they’re classics for a reason,” says Burger. “It’s infrequent these days that I’ll start with a completely clean slate and try to create something from nothing.”

Some classics are better suited to reinterpretation than others. “I wonder which of the classics provides the best scaffolding for reinvention,” says Burger. “The Espresso Martini lends itself quite well, but with the Margarita, what are you going to change? If you take the tequila out, I would say that it’s not a Margarita anymore.”

Which raises a bigger question, of how much twisting is too much, when a drink no longer resembles the original. Burger is in two minds about the practice of naming twists after the classic – the Insert-Spirit-Here Negroni, for example.

“In some ways it’s lazy, and I’ve been conscious over the years of not wanting other classic cocktails to have the same fate that the Martini had – the misfortune that befell it in the late nineties, early noughties, when cocktails were only Martinis because they were in a Martini glass,” he says. “But on the other hand, it’s shorthand for the consumer. If you say it’s a Mezcal Negroni, they’re going to have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to be like. So it’s a tricky one. If you change all three ingredients you should probably come up with a new name.”

Naming aside, is it possible to create the next big thing, or at least predict which classic will take over our Instagram feeds next? Take the Negroni Sbagliato, for example. On paper, an excellent candidate for its moment in the spotlight – that light, low-abv aperitivo-style so popular at the moment. As Burger points out: “It’s not a million miles from the Aperol Spritz, the de­fining drink of the past few years.”

And yet the Sbagliato languished in relative obscurity until a TikTok mention last year caused it to blow up.

“That’s how forgotten drinks can return from the grave, faster than has ever happened in history,” he says. “Perhaps now is a good time for forgotten classics.”

Maybe the cycles that previously dictated the ebb and  ow of cocktail trends have been disrupted, or have become shorter, catapulting certain drinks into the limelight for a brief moment before another takes its place, with only a rare few becoming truly timeless.

And in the meantime, the right twist can breathe new life into forgotten classics, or o er new perspective on those that have endured. Last year’s Hi-Spirits comp demonstrated this, with bartenders not only switching ingredients, but rethinking the presentation and preparation of these classics too.

Burger has an example of his own. “The Kir Royale is a lovely drink, but sounds like something your grandmother would drink, so people wouldn’t order it,” he says. “We use cassis, but prosecco instead of champagne, add some soda water, and put it in a big wine glass over ice instead of straight up – a subtle twist that makes it more relevant to a contemporary audience. And it’s flying out the door.”