The 25 Most Influential Cocktails of the Past Century

Drinks aren’t something you should get too sentimental about. Tastes change, products come and go, and that bright-pink thing you couldn’t get enough of last summer is now considered a punch line in every bar in town. Change happens, and over the past century change has happened in the drinks world more rapidly than ever. But as our cocktail books and iPhone apps have grown bloated with thousands of recipes, patterns have emerged, families have been formed, and it’s become clear that on some level we’re still drinking the same things as before.

I posted about this earlier this week over at Serious Eats, but to follow up here (since I’m rediscovering this blogging thing again): my cover story in the May/June issue of Imbibe is, “The 25 Most Influential Cocktails of the Past Century,” covering drinks created (mostly) since 1910 that, in some way, have left a notable mark on the way we drink, whether that’s in the form of descendents and variations, or in the way bartenders and drinkers think about drink composition and ingredients, or in the lingering (or now defunct) trends a particular drink may have influenced. The list was initially chosen by myself, was vetted through the good folks at Imbibe to argue out the details, and was given further review by Greg Boehm, one of the most knowledgeable and history-oriented cocktail geeks on the planet.

The 100-year cutoff was admittedly arbitrary, but it posed its own set of challenges: by requiring the drinks on the list to have been created (or, in the many cases when it’s nigh impossible to settle on a particular cocktail’s date of genesis, to have entered broad circulation) after 1910, this eliminated some of the biggest and most obvious influences in the mixological canon: the Manhattan, the Daiquiri, the Martinez, the Old Fashioned and the Sazerac, and that whole world of punch. The Martini got a pass because it was still developing in the first decade of the 20th century and the mix of gin and dry vermouth didn’t obtain the “Martini” sobriquet until sometime around that first decade, but also because the Martini evolved so significantly over the course of the century that the drink ordered by the Don Drapers of the 1960s was markedly different from the Hoffman House variations that were in early circulation. Likewise, who the hell knows when the first Cuba Libre or Caipirinha was mixed? Without a precise birthdate, I tried to track down some of the earliest mentions of such drinks to see when they started appearing in (primarily American and/or European) bars, and each of these fell after the 1910 mark; there may be further proof about the earlier origins of these drinks, but if it’s out there, I didn’t find it.

The folks over at Serious Eats have gone to town in commenting on this list, suggesting their own most influential drinks of the past century, with some straying widely from the mark (an 1860 Martini? I don’t think so) and others making a good case for why one drink and not another should be on the list. Surprisingly, however, I’ve only received one e-mail regarding my selection of drinks, from which I’ll quote directly:

The 25 cocktails article is BAD, no worst than bad, it sucks and a kiss up to the small based fans of Paul Clarke (who ever the hell he is, another wanabee who has done nothing but have a lousy web site) How long has he been in this business? Has he heard of the Rusty Nail […] The Manhattan? Fuzzy Navel? and many more. Never heard of the Red Hook, Last Word or Saunders’ Gin-Gin Mule. I checked with other Bars and Bartenders who have been in the business for over 15 years, neither have they ! PLEASE I know everyone has his opinion. His sucks.

What do you think? (Really, even if you hated the story your comment can’t be more harsh than that, so don’t even try.) What drinks do you think deserve a place on this list, and which ones do you disagree with altogether? There’s an argument for the inclusion of each drink on the list, which I’m happy to share if asked (nicely — seriously, I’m done with the ill behavior the Internet seems to invite, and if you’re an asshole about something, your comment will be politely jettisoned and your existence on this earth denied).

And since the whole article isn’t posted online, and linking back to the magazine’s site earned me accusations of “whoring the magazine” over at Serious Eats, I’ll post the list here, arranged, as it is in the magazine, roughly by decade — but if you want a freebie on all the text and recipes, you’re just gonna have to wait for the PDF, cheapskate.

  1. Dry Martini
  2. Cuba Libre
  3. Mojito
  4. Alexander
  5. Singapore Sling
  6. Aviation
  7. Sidecar
  8. Margarita
  9. Bloody Mary
  10. Negroni
  11. Last Word
  12. Zombie
  13. Bellini
  14. Mai Tai
  15. Moscow Mule
  16. Irish Coffee
  17. Kangaroo
  18. Caipirinha
  19. Harvey Wallbanger
  20. Pina Colada
  21. Long Island Iced Tea
  22. B-52
  23. Cosmopolitan
  24. Gin-Gin Mule
  25. Red Hook

20 Responses to The 25 Most Influential Cocktails of the Past Century

  1. I have to say I enjoyed seeing the list, and I am going to try to get a copy of the magazine as soon as possible. Making lists such as these is always a thankless and arduous task, as one is always subject to the ire of simpletons like the one quoted above.

    One thing that seems to escape people when it comes to Most Influential lists of any sort is the lack of reading comprehension some people have; these people do not seem to understand that influential and popular/well known are not always the same thing.

    In any case, keep up the great work and thanks for five years of representing the Seattle cocktail community with such passion and style.

  2. I would have added the Bramble by Dick Bradsell, but a case can be made for any cocktail.

    Now, you really need to let loose and do a good therapeutic “hate mail” post. They do me wonders for dealing with the “Internet” and keep me smiling. Here’s a title for the post:

    “Paul Clarke Unhinged”

    Get it out of your system man, or I’m not sitting anywhere near you at Tales, you never know when you could go off.

  3. Paul,
    Steve and I have, over the years, enjoyed in one form or another all of these drinks on your comprehensive and balanced 25 Most Influential list. Including the Gin-Gin Mule and the Red Hook are sure to piss off some people; however, I find it gutsy that you cited these infant cocktails — they are both examples of and have contributed to the innovation happening today among bartenders, both professional and non-, across the world. They 25 are sure to keep all of us cocktail geeks and newbies inspired in the decades to come. Cheers!
    - Paul

  4. Alex – thanks for the comments; you’re exactly right, this isn’t a list of “the best” or “most popular” or anything like that — it’s “influential”, and many drinks on that list have had a lasting influence on the way people drink, for good or ill.

    Darcy – I considered the Bramble at one point, but as I mentioned about a year ago, it’s still hard to come by that drink in the U.S., due mostly (I’m guessing) to the relative scarcity of creme de mure in American bars and liquor stores. Why this is, I don’t know — it’s a delicious drink.

    Paul – absolutely; I thought a list of the most influential would be pointless if it didn’t include at least a few of drinks that have guided the current cocktail renaissance; the Last Word is an older example of a drink that is in a way symbolic of the return of the classics, and the GG Mule and Red Hook are relatively new drinks that nevertheless are having an impact in countless bars around the globe, whether in their current forms or in terms of the kinds of creativity and innovation they’ve inspired.

  5. People are awesome. I’m a little surprised to see the Last Word on the list. I know it’s the Belle of the Ball here in Seattle, but i didn’t think it was that far reaching. My exact histories might be hazy, but I’d think the French 75 and The Hurricane would have places on this list. And I have no idea when the Sloe Gin Fizz was created, but i thought it was around that era.

  6. That hatemail reminds me of the comments made after Lauren/DrinkBoston won the Boston Phoenix’s “Best Boston Blog” award. The patrons at the Universal Hub “blog” tore into her in a similar way as that person listing the Fuzzy Navel as one of the top 25 most influential drinks (although I do have to add that I did get my start on the beverage, but that was the only option that night…).

  7. On my foray into cocktail making your blog has been an invaluable resource to me. (Along with the other cocktail blogs of course.) Keep up the good work, and don’t let the internet douchebags get to you, they feel safe in saying whatever they want because they are anonymous. In person, they wouldn’t have the gall to even talk to you.

  8. I haven’t read the imbibe article but I think the list is pretty spot on when talking about most influential (as opposed to most well known). I’m interested in why you included the gin gin mule and redhook on your list though. I can see an argument for the redhook but not the gin mule. They’re both great drinks but how influential have they been?

  9. I thought your article was excellent and your choices seemed quite reasonable, but I have studied the history of cocktails a bit.

    It’s unfortunate that the internet makes it so easy to be so badly behaved, but anonymity sometimes brings out the worst in people. This one probably has a lot of experience with 70′s/80′s era cocktails, and simply was not aware of the thriving modern cocktail culture that is both resurrecting old drinks and creating successful new ones. Just count yourself lucky that though the grammar and punctuation was horrible, at least his/her spelling was decent!

  10. Paul,
    I wholeheartedly agree with the whole ‘being done with the internet assholes’ thing. People have found a way to release their infantile pent up aggression created by lack of a real personality. It’s called get an internet connection and troll blogs.

    I, for one, respect the ability to even TRY to narrow it down to 25. With so many great cocktails to choose from, any list of 25 is invariably going to piss someone off.

    So with that, I’ve got nothing to criticize you for. This type of thing is like the old addage about economists. If you ask 10 economists the same question, you’ll get 11 different answers.

    Cheers, and well done.

    -Brian

  11. Paul, we down here in my house in Austin owe almost all of our new cocktail knowledge to your blog, and you helped us to find the ZigZag Cafe when we went to visit my mother in Seattle (where I grew up)– which was, believe me, a Godsend. Ignore the rude jerks– you have a great blog. I would be interested in seeing posts on the evolution of drinks like the martini– you’ve probably done them, and I just need to search. But it would be a very interesting evening to try some important variations in chronological order (maybe half-sized…).

    Thanks for the great work.

  12. As you clearly shared the logic for excluding the Manhattan, it’s a safe bet that the vitriol spewed by the aforementioned douchebag was a result of his or her having to interpret the article from the pictures. Let’s all raise our Last Words and toast adult literacy programs, all of which would benefit from including your writing in the curriculum.

  13. Dear Paul:

    Do you have an easy to send list about why each drink is on this list? I would greatly enjoy to have it so that I could dispute your list. All in good fun, though. I would merely put my thoughts and maybe why I think you are missing some, or listing some that should not be there. But I would need to see your reasoning. If that is possible, thank you. You can email me or post it or whatever. Thanks.

    Erik

  14. I read the article when it came out and found it somewhat disappointing. I’ll agree that writing these kinds of lists is a thankless job and inevitably brings heaps of criticism. My question or complaint is why make a list about the most influential cocktails and then spend so little time discussing what influential means? As it stands your list contains several entries that are undoubtedly influential and popular, but in a way that most cocktail oriented bartenders would probably not celebrate. Is anyone reading this really excited that Long Island Ice Teas are as popular as they are? The article included beautiful pictures and some nice publicity for newer classics like the Red Hook, but what is really accomplished by reminding people how popular some really bad cocktails have been?

  15. Paul, we loved this list and thought you did a great job within those tough constraints. Don’t let the ignorant turkeys get you down; people who count know that you’re one of a handful of the best cocktail writers in the world.

    Paul Z., well said. And agreed re: inspiration, not only for great drinks but for great conversation. Joe and I had a wonderful time reading this article aloud to each other in Alamo Square park and then refreshing ourselves with cocktails at Nopa. Seems like a good “the new issue of Imbibe is here!” habit to start. :)

    Erik N., though this was a fantastic reason to pick up Imbibe and the article does have a bit more ‘why this drink matters’ info, the whole issue was good, so go find one. This is a subscription we never regret renewing – incredible value for the price!

  16. Really enjoyed the article, and your choices by and large hit the mark. I know you had reason for eliminating the Daiquiri but think you should have included the Hemingway variation, and I don’t know why you included the gin Alexander and not the brandy version. It was a little redundant to have the Gin-Gin Mule in addition to the Moscow Mule, but I understand the reasoning.

    In terms of recent drinks, I think you should have included the Benton’s Old Fashioned from PDT as part of the new infusions craze, but otherwise I agree with most of the things on the list, especially the Last Word and Red Hook.

  17. Just a few thoughts:
    1) Brilliant list that just might have to be my “25 in 25″
    2) The Last Word is cropping up everywhere now, coast to coast, and has been a great introductory drink to “real” cocktails for many of my friends.
    3) I still would have gone French 75 somewhere on the list.

  18. I found the list intriguing enough to try and make all 25. It’s been educational, as well as expensive, so I’m simultaneously
    looking forward to and dreading the Zombie and Mai Tai, with their combined five different kinds of rum, including a $60
    bottle of Martinique rhum agricole. Thanks for putting it together.

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