The nineties birthed some of the world’s most iconic cocktails, from the infamous Cosmopolitan to the mouth-puckering Appletini. Now, bars around the nation have (re)introduced cocktails to their menus that once dominated the era’s cocktail scene. As it’s been said, everything old is new again.
We all know that trends are cyclical, but what actually spawns them is a brew of the cultural, social, political and economic issues of the time, which consequently influences how we drink. The nineties are increasingly topical as it defines many of the trends of today—our clothes, our music, and especially our cocktails.
The Cocktails that Defined the Nineties
While classics like the Old-Fashioned and Manhattan still reigned supreme, the nineties were a time of exploration for bartenders, especially a select band of bartenders who helped birth the cocktail renaissance that continues to this day. Fruit and vodka led the pack, and if it was served up in a V-shaped glass, it became a “martini.” Let’s take a look at some of the cocktails that defined the nineties.
Cosmopolitan A decadent mix of citrus vodka, curacao, lime and cranberry juice, the cocktail’s origin—often debated like many cocktail origins are—spawns from New York City’s French-American bistro The Odeon in the late eighties. Thanks to Madonna’s fandom and Carrie’s drink of choice in Sex in the City, The “Cosmo” became an overnight star, making it one of the most recognized drinks in recent history.
Appletini This unnaturally green, mouth-puckering sour cocktail is far removed from the martini but is widely renowned for holding real estate on nineties bar menus from Lola’s in West Hollywood (where it was invented) to an Applebee’s near you.
Dirty Martini Even as the classic 2:1 martini has endured for decades (and is still stealing the show), in the nineties, people packed barrooms in droves for its briny cousin. Whether it was the subtle hint of olive brine or having the appearance of pond water, the dirty martini satisfied anyone looking for a savory alternative to the fruit-forward cocktails that ruled the era.
Cape Cod This incredibly simple cocktail ruled the nineties for two reasons: vodka’s stratospheric growth and cranberry’s use in drinks like the Cosmopolitan, both of which helped the Cape Cod become a mainstay at bars worldwide. The drink, originally created by Ocean Spray as a marketing ploy in the 1940s was called the Red Devil but became known as a Cape Cod in the sixties due to the region's connection with cranberry bogs.
Espresso Martini This caffeine-infused cocktail pairs coffee liqueur such as Kahlúa with vodka to create a deliciously-frothy pick-me-up. The cocktail was invented in the early eighties by London bartender Dick Bradsell, considered the godfather of the London cocktail renaissance. The tale goes that a not-to-be-named supermodel asked him for a drink that would “wake me up, then **** me up.” It’s been a classic ever since.
What’s Driving the Resurrection of Classic 90’s-Era Cocktails?
In short, nostalgia.
After two years of a global pandemic, we yearn for safety and comfort. In an article for Business Insider, Hillary Hoffower writes that "nostalgia is a refuge”, and that when we’re met with such uncertainty, “people turn to the feelings of comfort, security, and love they enjoyed in their past."
It’s true. Generations that grew up in the nineties experienced an entirely different world than we live in now. Cell phones were few and far between; social media didn’t exist. The last two decades have been a sequential series of such monumental change that these generations long for simpler times. Unfortunately, many of these generations missed out on the fun adult parts of the nineties—especially the nightlife. Now, they can reminisce and access parts of an era they feel a connection with through the cocktails that defined it.
In the same vein, Becky Hughes makes a case for the Dirty Shirley as the drink of the summer, arguing that many millennials flocked to the suburbs at the beginning of the pandemic to return with “post-suburban ironic taste” and the influx of new restaurants that evoke the feeling of the chain restaurants of suburban living aid in this nostalgic aesthetic.
While it’s part of a larger trend, what might be driving the resurgence in nineties-era cocktails is not just nostalgia, but that they’re so elementary in nature. It’s possible bar-goers are fatigued by the molecular-focused “mixology” trends of today and long for something simple and comforting—something that feels familiar.
That’s not to say new versions of these classics can’t exist. Bartenders around the nation have revisited nineties-era cocktails and revamped them with a modern-day twist. Here are three modern riffs we are drinking.
3 Modern Riffs on 90s-Era Cocktails
Patrick Smith’s Espresso Martini
By Patrick Smith, The Modern | New York Recipe according to PUNCH
1/2 oz. demerara syrup (1:1, demerara sugar:water)
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