It seemed like a great idea. Get the editors of a popular magazine that’s plugged directly into the current zeitgeist to choose 100 of the top bars in America, get a drink recipe or three from each, photograph a bunch of them, and then slap your brand name above the title.
If you asked me and my fellow Daily Beast Half-Full Cocktail Commandos to put together such a thing today—I mean, who’s more plugged into the zeitgeist, really? (jk—don’t @ us)—you’d end up with recipes from bars such as, to pick a random sample, La Factoria in Old San Juan, Sweet Liberty in Miami, the Belmont in Charleston, the Ticonderoga Club in Atlanta, Petworth Citizen in Washington D.C., the Oyster House in Philadelphia, and on through the Northeast, the Midwest, New Orleans, Texas and the Rockies to the Tiki Ti in Los Angeles, Prizefighter in Oakland, Tommy’s in San Francisco, Pépé le Moko in Portland and Rumba in Seattle.
The drinks would be rich in funky, pot-stilled rums, locally distilled rye whiskies, sherries from interesting bodegas, rare Italian amari, single-village mezcals, vinegar shrubs, fresh, seasonal fruit juices and complex, house-made syrups. The drinks that benefited from being stirred would be stirred, the ones that should be shaken would be shaken, the ice cubes would be large and perfectly clear, the garnishes inventive and tasteful, the names of the drinks cryptic and allusive. And forty years from now people will be making vicious fun of them all.
That, anyway, is one of the lessons I’ve drawn from an interesting little book I picked up recently at an antiques barn in Hawley, Pennsylvania: Benson & Hedges 100’s Presents Drink Recipes from 100 of the Greatest Bars. Benson & Hedges, for those of you who are members of the vape generation, was a brand of cigarette known for being so long—a full 100 millimeters, or about four inches, which is a little more than half-an-inch longer than a standard smoke—that you were always getting the tips of the things bent in amusing and photogenic ways. That’s what the ads tried to convince you, anyway. I never smoked them.
Anyway. The folks at Philip Morris, who owned Benson & Hedges, thought their advertising money would be well spent by putting out a series of recipe books tied in to the number 100. After a couple of volumes of 100 of the World’s Greatest Recipes, edited by Craig Claiborne and James Beard, no less, and 100 Recipes from 100 of the Greatest Restaurants, in 1979 they turned their sights to drinks and bars.
To edit the list, they went to Playboy. That was pretty much top of the heap for drinks coverage: sure, Esquire devoted the occasional column to what the jaded urban sophisticate was drinking, and Gourmet was happy to print the recipe for the drink with the frozen grapes you had one time at that inn in the mountains of Portugal, if you wrote them and asked nicely for it, but Playboy had the most liquor ads, the best booze features, published the biggest, most popular drink book (out that year in a new and improved edition) and it had Thomas Mario—or “Thomas Mario,” seeing as his real name was Sidney Aptekar.
Mario had been Hugh Hefner’s food and drink editor since he founded the magazine, and while he had plenty of competition on the food side when it came to national experts, on the drink side he practically stood alone. As Colman Andrews, former editor of Saveur magazine, wrote in the Daily Meal upon Hugh Hefner’s death in 2017, “If you care about food and drink, though, whatever you think of its founder, you should know that Playboy was for many years an articulate, innovative, and influential purveyor of information about the gastronomic arts.”
And yet. The book is—how do I put this?—utterly fucking terrifying. It’s not 100-percent Cujo: a small handful of the included bars are perennial classics, and the drinks they contributed are the ones they’ve been making for generations. But the 21 Club’s Southside, the Buena Vista Café’s Irish Coffee and the Polo Lounge’s Planter’s Punch aren’t much when you put them in one pan of the scale and in the other you’ve got scores and scores of creations such as a thing called “Pete’s Peach”: an ounce of Southern Comfort, an ounce of grenadine and half-an-ounce of lime juice, blended with ice and a quarter of a canned peach and dumped into a Champagne glass (nowadays, that ounce of grenadine would feed a cocktail bar for a week).
That drink was contributed by the venerable Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans, who should have known better. But other old-line bars contributed drinks just as awful: the Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel—where Cary Grant was drinking in Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest when he got called to the phone and misidentified as a spy—sent in an “Atlantic Breeze” that reads like a fucked-up Harvey Wallbanger, but weaker and sweeter, while the gorgeous old Pied Piper bar at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel sent in a “Pied Piper Fizz” that attempts to balance out an ounce-and-a-half of lemon juice with a mere teaspoon of sugar, and tries to paper over the mess with two ounces of heavy cream.
And those are the old-line bars, which make up just 20 of the 100 bars. It leaves places such as Elevation 92 (Anchorage), Daisy Buchanan (Boston), The Mutiny (Coconut Grove, Florida), Yesterdays (Los Angeles), Lettuce (Wichita), Maggie McFly’s Saloon (Santa Barbara), the magic Time Machine (San Antonio), Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Emporium (Orlando), The Original Bobby McGees Conglomeration (Scottsdale) and, of course, Shenanigan’s (Phoenix). Oh, and let’s not forget Crisis Hopkins, in San Francisco.
Leafing through the drinks sent in by these places, you find an awful lot of blender drinks (70, by my count, out of 190 total). That in itself is not damning; there are good blender drinks. But the recipes! Here’s one with an ounce of brandy, half an ounce each of triple sec and grenadine, and “6 oz fruit punch, chilled.” If the alcohol doesn’t get you high—and with that amount, it ain’t gonna—the sugar will, in a must-play-every-last-game-at-Chuck-E.-Cheese sort of way. And how about the “Lettuceade” (from, of course, Lettuce): an ounce-and-a-half of vodka with eight ounces of orange sherbet, plus orange juice, blended, poured into a giant brandy snifter and topped with whipped cream and a cherry. If that’s too tart for you, they can also make you a “Chocolate Snow Bear,” with an ounce-and-a-half of amaretto, an ounce of crème de cacao, plus eight ounces of vanilla ice cream, a squirt of chocolate syrup and a couple of dashes of vanilla extract, by far the most potent liquid in the thing. Blend and, naturally, snifter it. Better buy more game tokens.
I don’t mean to pick on Wichita. The big cities are just as bad: Jimmy’s Milan in Philadelphia chimed in with a tooth-rotter featuring two parts Galliano to one part sweet vermouth, while Harrison’s on Peachtree in Atlanta sees the Chocolate Snow Bear and raises it God knows how many by taking two ounces Kahlua and blending it with not only six ounces of vanilla ice cream, but two ounces half-and-half and a whole egg. Nutmeg on top, for the classic touch. The famous Maxwell’s Plum, in New York, makes its “Fresh Mint Daiquiri” also in a blender, with fresh mint, to be sure, plus Puerto Rican rum, lime juice and sugar—only there’s an ounce-and-a-half of the juice, which is a quarter ounce more than there is rum, and a full half ounce of superfine sugar. Oh, and three quarters of an ounce of crème de menthe, just to make sure it tastes good and minty.
This is not mixology, at least not the way it was taught back before Prohibition or by modern pioneers such as Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders, Murray Stenson, Gary Regan, Julie Reiner, or the late Sasha Petraske. Over and over again, the book offers drinks where the only spirits are liqueurs, where juices are measured by the cup and cream by the half- and quarter-cup, where banana is paired with chocolate mint and pineapple is paired with everything. All too often, there is no balance, no artful construction of a whole that transcends the sum of its parts. Benson & Hedges got the best people to pick the best drinks from the best bars, and still ended up with something that is, on the whole and with significant exceptions, a steaming heap of shit.
But let’s not get too cocky. In 1979, when this atrocity was compiled, the kind of drinking it records was already at its point of decadence. It had been building for twenty years, it replaced, more or less, whatever came before it, and now it was the orthodoxy of the land, to the point that even people who should have known better—I’m looking at you, Oak Bar—were sucked into it.
When things reach that stage, pioneers like Pat O’Brian’s, TGI Friday’s and Maxwell’s Plum are drowned out by the me-toos; by the Shenanigan’s and the Original Bobby McGees Conglomerations of this world. People who are just doing what they see other people doing, without worrying about why or trying to understand the principles of the thing or caring very much how it all fits together; how it actually tastes. Sure, your drinks are absurd, but so are everyone else’s, so it must be ok.
By 1989, everyone was drinking vodka Martinis, Long Island Iced Teas (which at least have booze in them) and Cosmopolitans and this stuff was pretty much dead.
You see where I’m going with this. If I had to put together a book like this today, once I got past bars that are in my comfort zone; bars like the ones listed above, which always keep their eyes on the fundamentals, I’m not at all sure that I wouldn’t end up with a book just as silly as this one. It’s just possible that all those trendy ingredients I listed above are the ice cream, fruit punch and Kahlua of our time. That, in incurious hands, they can make for drinks just as unbalanced as the ones in the Benson & Hedges book. Where those were too sweet, these are too bitter; where they were too weak, these are too boozy; where they pandered too much, these pander too little.
In short, it’s better to be like Scandia, the old-line Scandinavian restaurant on Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip which contributed a couple of simple, conservative, but not dull, aquavit-based variations on the Bloody Mary to the Benson & Hedges book, than to be like Bananas! (with the exclamation point), of Boulder, Colorado, whose “Strawberry Banana Split” and “Lola Granola” are to drinking as watching Jell-O wrestling is to sex.