Back to basics: the revival of classic, minimal cocktails

Following lockdowns, bar professionals are moving from complex, theatrical drinks to elegant, minimal twists on classic cocktails. Bartender and drinks writer Tyler Zielinski investigates

There’s a certain solace in sitting alone at the bar. I may even go as far as to say that it can be a meditative experience. There’s something about the amalgamation of listening to the humming white noise of a bustling bar, watching an apron-fitted bartender deftly mix drinks, while mindfully tasting a cocktail – all without having to speak to anyone – that can put you in a serious state of flow – especially after a couple of rum old fashioneds.

I dreamt about this scenario often during lockdown. But instead of flipping through a book on a bar stool with a cocktail in-hand, I, like many others, resorted to watching Tiger King paired with a hefty glass of bourbon in an overcrowded house, uncertain if my favourite bars would ever reopen. It was quite the stark contrast to my preferred drinking situation, but the experience served as a reminder of why we go to bars. While clever cocktails are always a draw, we mostly go for the social environment, attentive service, hospitality, ambiance and comfort.

In a world reshaped by the pandemic – a world in which enthusiasts now know more about mixing cocktails than ever before after playing home bartender for nearly two years – bar-goers are looking for something different from their drinking experiences. This new wave of drinkers don’t care about the superfluous, alienating cocktails that dominated the 2010s – that period is old hat. They still want novelty, but balanced with familiarity. And this shift in behaviour has prompted the arrival of reinvented classic cocktails – drinks that apply the avant-garde techniques refined during the last decade, but in an approachable format. And it’s this trend that’s permeating London’s most noteworthy bars.

“There’s room for both high-concept and simpler drinks at the modern cocktail bar,” says Alex Lawrence, global bar director for Mr Lyan, a group known for its award-winning bars, including the newly opened Seed Library. “It’s the service and tone that needed to be re-examined, as opposed to the liquid in the glass.

The bar counter at Seed Library

“Post-pandemic, after enthusiasts had the time to learn more about drinks and actually make them, guests just need less preaching and more human touches; less ego-driven self-indulgence, and more interesting, but accessible, innovation.”

The cocktails at Seed Library are exactly that. They are minimalist and familiar at face value, while being high-concept and contemplative in their preparation. Take the bar’s Coriander Seed Gimlet for example. The name itself is common: gimlet. If you’ve had one before, you vaguely know what to expect. On the menu, the ingredients read as: ‘London dry gin, coriander seed cordial’, but there’s a bit more to the cocktail than meets the eye due to the cordial’s complexity.

For enthusiasts who are keen to learn more about the drink’s production, the opportunity is there; but don’t expect an unsolicited explanation from an egotistical bartender, which happens at stuffier bars elsewhere.

At the classic cocktail-focused Amaro in Kensington, which opened in December 2021, its approachable twists on classics have engaged educated enthusiasts who want to get more out of their bar experience. “These days, people are after an experience rather than just a cocktail,” says Elon Soddu, owner and manager of Amaro. “80% of our guests want to sit at the bar and look at our spirits selection, or simply chat with the team behind the bar. Guests always ask questions such as: why do you keep your gin in the freezer? Why do you have all your glassware in the freezer? Why did you stir this drink in a metal tin, and the other in a mixing glass? “I believe having someone in front of you ready to answer all your questions and have a genuine conversation is as important as a good classic cocktail,” Soddu says. “That’s the beauty of hospitality.”

Amaro’s delectable clarified Mango Bellini – which simply reads as Wild Turkey bourbon, mango and bubbles on the menu – was enough to get me asking questions while propped up at the bar. Even though I’ve also spent years behind the stick and had an inkling of how the cocktail was produced, I was still fascinated by the bartender’s creative process that led to this twist on the classic bellini. Its approachability encouraged enquiry. Entertaining my curiosity, Soddu explained that the cocktail is actually a mix of bourbon, fermented mango cordial, mango liqueur and prosecco, which is then clarified and re-carbonated.

While technical descriptors such as clarified and fermented are still important to include on menus as they more accurately capture flavours and textures to expect in a drink, the lack of them on Amaro Bar’s menu fits their classics-focused concept, and subconsciously gives guests more confidence to engage with bartenders in an organic way. Soddu entertained me while I nerded-out about the serve for a couple of minutes, before he let me get back to the other two cocktails set in front of me. (I’m an ambitious drinker, alright?)

This new wave of drinkers don’t care about superfluous, alienating cocktails. They want novelty balanced with familiarity

Other London bars such as KOL Mezcaleria and Soma, in their own styles, take similar approaches to menu design and cocktail development that aim to balance high-concept ingredients with relatable verbiage for guests seeking that balance of comfort and innovation.

The agave spirit-focused KOL features a Cucumber & Pine Martini on its hyper-seasonal drinks list – a twist on the iconic classic that calls for an unorthodox mix of Volcan blanco tequila, Dolin dry vermouth, pine distillate, crème de cacao blanc, and cucumber that pushes the boundary of what we’d define as a martini. The cocktail simultaneously gives guests something familiar – via the familiar construction of a martini cocktail with common flavours such as cucumber, pine, and cacao – but it ends up as something thoughtful due to the way the ingredients are manipulated, with pine needles transfigured into distillate form.

Nearby in Soho, at the sexy, hidden cocktail den Soma, modern minimalism is the name of the game. The drinks list features a selection of cocktails containing no more than four ingredients, all of which are reimagined versions of classics. The old fashioned-style cocktail on the menu dubbed Jaggery – which has ‘old fashioned’ listed in brackets above the drink’s name to make it approachable for guests – is an elegant blend of jaggery cane, Knob Creek bourbon, toasted coconut, and mace.

As I was sipping this brilliant cocktail for the first time, while also analysing the rest of the drinks list, I couldn’t help but resonate with the idea of simplicity being the ultimate sophistication – an insightful proclamation by none other than Da Vinci himself. It’s true, though: simplicity isn’t simple – it takes years of refinement and mastery to develop compelling high-concept takes on classic cocktails.

Unfortunately, that meant living – and drinking – through the years of experimentation and the obnoxious ten-ingredient cocktail that was thrown from one shaking tin to another just for the flair, but the pandemic seems to have halted that nonsense in its tracks. It’s a sentiment shared by Soddu as well, although he also believes some of these extravagant serves were driven by consumers’ desires as well. “Years ago, guests were after theatre, showmanship and eccentricity,” he says. “I had guests who ordered the most ‘Instagrammable’ cocktail instead of reading the menu and seeking suitable flavours, only to send the drink back after realising it wasn’t what they liked. Today, excessive mixes and presentations have been replaced by minimal sophistication and classicism.”

In the couple of years prior to the pandemic, when I was still bartending a few days a week, cocktail culture was on the cusp of moving towards this trend of minimalist and familiar drinks with a focus on warm hospitality. After the opening of New York City’s Katana Kitten in 2018, and other Japanese-influenced cocktail bars, bartenders slowly started realising that less can actually be more – as long as ‘less’ is a concept that’s married with precision, ingenuity and hospitality.

Tyler Zielinski mixes a drink

As a bartender myself, it’s a philosophy and style that I slowly started integrating into the drinks I developed for menus – albeit from a more analogue and classic-driven perspective (think: Blanche Armagnac martinis laced with a hint of banana). And this approach is still the one I used to use when crafting cocktails for the odd pop-up and guest bar shifts that I do these days. Would we have got to this point in drinks culture without the pandemic? Absolutely. But did the slow pace of life and extra time to reflect on what a bar’s true purpose should be help spur this trend on? In my opinion, there’s no doubt.

As life continues returning to normal, imbibers may very well resort back to wanting bartenders and the cocktails they craft to be more entertaining and social media-friendly than hospitable and familiar at some point in the future. But after many lockdowns and years of discomfort, this new trend towards reestablishing that human connection with guests via innovative classics is one that I think most of us can easily get behind. And I must say, reading my book at a bar counter, elegant and classic cocktail in hand, beats watching Stanley Tucci shake a negroni on Instagram any day.