When Bad Things Happen to Good Drinks

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


There are so many ways good drinks can go bad. The segue from ambrosial elixir to undrinkable muck can be due to something as simple as a mangled or misunderstood recipe, and as complicated as a gradual shift over time in the quality, composition or mere existence of a necessary ingredient. As David Wondrich writes in this month's Esquire, once a drink ambles down the path of ruin, it's a hard road back to redemption.

Consider the Old Fashioned, one of the simplest mixtures in the cocktail canon, and in its true form (that is to say, when made according to its earliest known and longest standing recipes), a direct link to the mixological simplicity of the mid-19th century. But how many of us, when asking for an Old Fashioned in a bar, are really served this simple mix? Wondrich writes, "If the old-fashioned you ordered looks pale and there's a thick slice of orange muddled to death at the bottom and it's fizzy with club soda, then it's a corruption of the original, which is a marriage of a little ice, a little sugar, just a drop of bitters, a citrus peel, and whiskey strong enough to stand up to the ice, sugar, bitters, and citrus."

Change is a necessary part of mixology, of course, and there are countless drinks that dropped out of favor for the simple reason that they just didn't taste very good. But recipes aren't always tweaked to make the final result better: bar owners cut corners, substituting cheaper or lower-quality alternatives for good ingredients; bartenders change recipes or procedures to make drinks easier to produce en masse, or simply because they don't know the proper way to make the drink and don't care to learn how; liquor marketers happily scrub recipes of competitors' ingredients or modify them to feature an extra-large pour of their own product; distillers and producers change formulations, cease production and otherwise disrupt the style and availability of cocktail ingredients; and drink writers—well, hey, we're human, prone to the same mistakes, missteps and misunderstandings as everyone else.

In some cases, matters are made even worse by the reluctance of a drink's creator to share its original recipe. Beginning in the 1930s, bar owners such as Donn Beach and "Trader Vic" Bergeron pioneered the once-mighty realm of exotic, faux-tropical "tiki" drinks. In an effort to dissuade competitors, the original recipes for milestone drinks such as the Zombie and the Mai Tai were kept secret, and in Beach's "Don the Beachcomber" bars, not even the bartenders knew exactly what was inside some of the bottles they were using.

Not that this threw off competitors for a minute; lacking the original recipe, other bar owners simply made up their own, sloshing together increasingly gaudy mixes of liquor, fruit juice and syrups and hanging the famous name from the concoction, a practice that ultimately dragged the whole arena of tropical-style drinks into kitschy disgrace. Only with the recent renewed interest in craft bartending and in the integrity of early formulations have Mai Tais and Zombies again been rendered close to their original, delicious forms.

Drinks ranging from the Martini to the Sidecar to the Singapore Sling have been trampled over the years, casualties of misunderstood recipes, willful ignorance or other misfortunes. It's all too familiar an experience to order a favorite drink in a bar, only to be served something that's a pale imitation of what you were expecting.

I have my own bitter memories and tales of woe; what's your horror story of a good drink gone wrong?