Mixologists shine up retro drinks with craft techniques

tony negroni

Now that Manhattans, sidecars and other classic drinks from the early 20th century are mainstays on cocktail lists, bartenders are mining the 1970s and ’80s for inspiration. What they’re discovering is that sweet concoctions—fuzzy navels, kamikazes, amaretto sours, grasshoppers and Long Island iced teas—appeal to millennials’ thirst for the novel (to them) and boomers’ sense of nostalgia.

Why now? “So many bars are doing speakeasy classics, which at this point have been done to death,” says Doug Phillips, beverage director for The Heavy Feather, which opened in Chicago in July. It’s a new-school version of a fern bar—the late-1970s concept that catered to singles and typically was decorated with hanging plants. Many credit the original TGI Fridays in New York City as the first fern bar.

“Retro is hip and can spark volume and sales,” says Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of Technomic’s adult beverage resource group. “Younger consumers gravitate to the authentic vibe while older ones appreciate the throwback appeal.”

The Heavy Feather offers updated, upgraded takes on drinks popular in the ’70s and ’80s. “We always use fresh juices and housemade syrups, and we tweak for a modern palate,” says Phillips. The result, he says, are drier, less sweet cocktails inspired by the originals.

The grasshopper, for example, blends high-end cognac (instead of domestic brandy) with creme de menthe, creme de cacao and ice cream—the last ingredient Phillips’ riff on the original recipe. “This cocktail looks like a soda-shop milkshake,” he says. When it’s ordered, the creamy green drink turns heads and garners plenty of me-too sales, he adds, which builds checks. Plus, the higher quality ingredients and ice cream warrant the grasshopper’s $12 price tag—$2 more than The Heavy Feather’s other cocktails.

The sloe gin fizz is another classic that Phillips re-engineered. His Plum Gin Fizz uses damson-plum gin instead of sloe-berry gin. “This cocktail also utilizes Italian artichoke bitters—a product that never would have been seen at a 1970s fern bar but is a staple of the modern bar,” he says.

With its program, The Heavy Feather has carved out a competitive point of differentiation. “As the first fern bar to re-emerge in Chicago, we are absolutely a niche,” says Phillips. The uniqueness certainly has attracted customers, he says.

Other operators are not reviving an old concept so much as revisiting their own history. It was in the 1980s that TGI Fridays, which had grown into a multi-unit chain, inaugurated its World Bartender Championship. Participation has since grown to over 8,000 TGIF bartenders.

“I wouldn’t say that retro cocktails are making a comeback, per se, as much as consumers are rediscovering simple, balanced drinks,” says Matthew Durbin, vice president of brand strategy and menu innovation at casual-dining chain TGI Fridays. 

“What’s different now is consumers have set the bar higher—they are looking for premium ingredients and fresh juices,” he says. For us at Fridays, this fits right into our wheelhouse, since we popularized many of these retro cocktails and have always had a drink menu.”

blueberry pomegranite long island

The Long Island iced tea is a case in point. To give this drink a modern spin, Fridays created an Ultimate Blueberry Pomegranate Long Island Iced Tea, which combines muddled blueberries with premium spirits. The cocktail, which debuted this summer, is promoted at Fridays’ Happy Every Hour all-day happy hour, often at a $5 or $6 price point, which encourages trial, says Durbin.

“Our cocktail innovation serves two purposes: Attracting new guests seeking innovation as a part of their social experience, and driving frequency of existing guests by offering innovative drinks at a great value,” says Durbin.

Technomic’s Hood Crecca agrees with this strategy as a way to make 1970s drinks relevant for today’s consumer. “On-premise operators and retailers looking to differentiate may want to give these cocktails from the time of wood paneling and lava lamps a second look,” she says. 

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