Why Do Most Cocktails Named After Cities Fail to Thrive? - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Why Do Most Cocktails Named After Cities Fail to Thrive?

I recently came across a 1947 newspaper ad touting a cocktail I’d never heard of. It was the New Orleans Cocktail, and the ad copy promised it to be a “thrilling adventure in drinking pleasures,” as well as “Easy to Make!” and “Delightful to Drink!” 

I was curious. After all, I live in New Orleans, and this was a simple drink, consisting of just two ingredients: Southern Comfort and grapefruit juice, and made with two parts liquor to one part juice. Shake with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and Bob’s your uncle. Easy to make? Yes. Delightful to drink? Well … taste is a funny thing, isn’t it? This drink might be exactly the thing someone else is looking for. 

This small adventure in drinking the past got me to thinking: How did this drink get to claim the mantle of the New Orleans Cocktail? That’s a pretty big set of shoes to step into, after all. The city is famous for the drinks invented or perfected here—the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Sazerac, and the Brandy Crusta, among others—but the New Orleans Cocktail never got enshrined in the canon of classics.

Have you ever sidled up to a bar and ordered a New York Cocktail or a San Francisco or a Los Angeles or a Miami? 

Much the same might be said of other cocktails named after major cities where they were born and nurtured. Have you ever sidled up to a bar and ordered a New York Cocktail or a San Francisco or a Los Angeles or a Miami? 

I’m guessing the answer is no.

But you actually could, with a little research and gentle prompting of your bartender. The New York Cocktail emerged after Prohibition and was basically a Whiskey Sour made with lime juice and grenadine. There was also the Los Angeles Cocktail, another Whiskey Sour variation, which was corrupted with the addition of sweet vermouth and a whole egg, making it an unholy mash-up of a Manhattan and a Golden Fizz. The adventurous might also order a San Francisco Cocktail, which is essentially a sloe gin Perfect Martini. Or a Miami Cocktail, which arose in the 1970s, involving a mix of rum, white crème de menthe, and lemon juice. The Chicago and Washington cocktails, as they appear in various editions of the Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide, both call for apricot nectar, which gets introduced to Champagne in the former and white vermouth in the latter.

What do these cocktails honoring great cities have in common? As mentioned, taste is a difficult thing to comprehend. But none of these drinks are especially appealing, and none went on to become classics. If you walk into a bar today and order a Miami or a San Francisco, you will be rewarded with a blank stare for your effort. 

Yes, it’s true, a handful of classic cocktails have embraced city names, in part. There’s the New York Sour, which first surfaced in the late 19th century—apparently in Chicago. And the Singapore Sling and the Moscow Mule (although the latter traces its paternity to the Smirnoff marketing department, and had never set foot in Moscow). In each of these cases, the city serves more as modifier than base ingredient. 

And yes, reader, I can hear you muttering, “What about the Manhattan? What about the South Side? Are these not cities?” Actually, no, these are neighborhoods. And the classic and modern cocktail canon is littered with neighborhoods: the Bronx, the Brooklyn, the Bywater, the Vieux Carré. (Some smaller cities have also made their way into cocktail guides, such as the Saratoga and Sevilla.) 

Why have major metropolises been overlooked and smaller districts embraced? … My theory is: All drinking is local. 

Why have major metropolises been overlooked and smaller districts embraced? I have a theory, naturally, because one well-known side effect of sipping cocktails is rampant theorizing. My theory is: All drinking is local. Enjoying cocktails is always done block by block, never city by city.

Cocktail culture thrives when cities thrive. Many of the nation’s great bars and great drinks arose during the various golden ages of urbanism, when cities were their most vital and vibrant: the 1860s, the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1950s, the first decade of the 2000s. People gathered in saloons and hotel bars and cocktail lounges. Bartenders looked out their windows and celebrated where they were by naming drinks for where they lived and where they drank.

The drinks named after entire cities I suspect more reflect the voraciousness of marketing departments at various liquor companies. Smirnoff’s Moscow Mule, for instance. And the Chicago and Washington cocktails, which call for apricot nectar, specifically call for Mr. Boston’s Apricot Nectar.

And Southern Comfort probably thought they’d hit a home run with their New Orleans Cocktail—a drink named after the city where the whiskey liqueur was invented. Instead, that hit went foul. But it provided a lesson for all: Think globally. Drink locally. 

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