Murder on the Dancefloor

23 September, 2015

Having all the subtlety of a Bee Gees bouffant, the cocktails of the 70s were perhaps the least likely contenders for a comeback. Yet Hamish Smith finds otherwise



Every industry has its dark age. For cocktails, the dark age was also the bright age – soupy saccharine concoctions made from powdered mixes or a rainbow of liqueurs and syrups. Umbrellas were required to hide their radiating embarrassment.

These were the Disco Years of the 1970s but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the industry pulled itself off the dancefloor and headed back to the bar. A new breed of bartender was born. Often termed ‘mixologists’ (though this word dates to the 19th century) the modern, serious bartender rejected the Disco Years and became ingredient-conscious and knowledge-thirsty.

They say the industry hasn’t looked back since, but in moving forward that’s exactly what it did. First to Jerry Thomas et al and the pre-Prohibition clas sic era. There’s been European reminiscing with the likes of Belle Epoch, Prohibition itself and the clandestine drinking dens they produced, Cuban classics, and even tiki. In an industry so bent on continual renewal, it was probably only a matter of time before the dark ages of the 1970s to 1990s were revisited. So here we have it: disco drinks are back. But is it still murder on the dance floor?

The esteemed historian and drinks commentator David Wondrich has raised his concerns. Earlier this year, his Esquire article enti- tled The Misguided Return of the Crappy Drink questioned the sense of returning to the scene of the neon crimes of the 1970s.

He said we’re seeing bartenders “reach back into the Dark Ages with some vague idea of making better – that is, modernised – versions of the shooters and disco drinks that this whole craft cocktail thing was created to avoid”. He added: “But here’s the problem: those drinks resist craft. The point was not to create interesting combinations of flavours you could savour but rather to dis- guise cheap booze in ways that would get you blitzed.”

So perhaps going retro is a retrograde step for an industry that has come so far to prove its skills and craft. The counter argument is that no drink should be off-piste and if they make people happy, that’s all that matters. Educating the customer may have given way to bartending liberalism.

Few decent cocktail bars are producing Blue Lagoons, Grasshoppers, Long Island Iced Teas, Slippery Nipples and B52s to recipes verbatim. Mostly they are taking the concept and refining the ingredients, taking their knowhow and access to ingredients and creating the best Slippery Nipple anyone has got their lips around.

But to Wondrich: “If you replace the Midori in a melon ball... with a house-made bitter-melon cordial, sure, you’ll probably ‘improve’ the flavour of the drink. But who needs a better melon ball?” Partly this trend is down to bartender boredom with classics, reach- ing for another era’s drinks to manicure and make their own. But it’s more profoundly a sense that drinks are supposed to be fun, not serious, and the time of the moody mixologist, fas- tidiously preparing drinks while customers fall unconscious, is over. As World Class 2014 champion Charles Joly tells us: “Don’t take the fun and romance out of bartending. We are making drinks, not performing surgery.”

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