Twists on classic cocktails you’re going to want to try — and tips for creating your own

an old fashioned cocktail in a cocktail glass sitting on a bright blue surface with a bright red background behind it
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The old chestnut “don’t mess with a good thing” doesn’t apply to cocktails. In fact, classic cocktail recipes are often the perfect template for a new drink. And they’re almost like fashion trends in how they tend to resurface, according to Montreal bartender Kate Boushel. “Every few years, there is simply an ebb and flow of which ones people enjoy making at home and those gracing cocktail menus,” she said. The greats never go out of style — they’re just continuously refreshed.

What is new — or new again, along with espresso martinis on every corner — is how popular home bartending has become. Quarantines, anyone? When restaurants and bars closed due to the pandemic, many of us DIYed our drinks and started with the basics. But if you’re looking to fill your coupe with something a little different, try simply tweaking your favourites.

“Experiment with a new base spirit and see if it works,” said James Grant, owner of Old Gray Rabbit Bar & Beverage in Edmonton. “Try swapping … one style of whiskey for another, or sweet vermouth for another fortified wine, like sherry. If a recipe calls for simple syrup, try infusing your syrup with a fruit, spice or herb.”

“Classic cocktails have stood the test of time because their proportions are perfectly balanced,” said Toronto-based bartender Caledonia Wright. “You can use them as a blueprint to plug and play with different ingredients.”

For inspiration and advice, we asked six cocktail connoisseurs from across Canada about their favorite reimaginings of classic drinks.

A smoky chipotle and coffee negroni

Simplicity and harmony are the basis of all great cocktails, according to Stephen Flood, bar manager and head bartender at the Riviera Ottawa restaurant, where he likes to riff on one classic cocktail in particular. “I treat the bar as an ever-evolving negroni lab,” he said. “Classically, the negroni is a cocktail composed of gin, Campari, sweet vermouth. But it’s a fascinating cocktail to play with.”

In his Red Right Hand negroni, named for the Nick Cave song, he artfully balances new flavors in the drink’s standard 1-to-1-to-1 ratio.

Flood’s newfangled negroni swaps gin for mezcal, trading the botanical element for a smoky one. He also infuses the Campari with chipotle and dark-roast coffee beans, amping up the smokiness and bitterness.

“I love it for its fierce, uncompromising nature,” he said of the drink.

A tequila and sesame ‘martini’

“The easiest way to play with classics is to keep the core structure of the recipe and play around with substitutions,” Boushel said. “Swap syrups, such as replacing simple cane syrup with hibiscus syrup, or replace part of the spirit in the cocktail with [a] complementary spirit or liqueur.”

She uses the framework of a martini for her signature A La Luz, which she considers a “fresh, grassy twist” on a wet martini (though she admits it wouldn’t be pegged as the same drink given the ingredients she uses). “[It’s] a welcome change from the traditional gin or vodka,” she said.

The A La Luz combines two ounces of a brisk highlands blanco tequila with one ounce of fino sherry, two dashes of celery bitters, two dashes of cardamom tincture and five drops of toasted sesame oil. The ingredients are added to a mixing glass, topped up with ice, and then stirred until chilled. Boushel pours it through a strainer into a chilled cocktail glass. She said the resulting cocktail, which she dreamed up one cold winter day when she was craving summer, is a toast to the light—hence the name (“to the light” in Spanish). While nutty and grassy on the nose, the drink has crisp, citrusy and floral notes too. “Then one of the drops of toasted sesame oil bursts in your mouth … and you finally step into that warm and comforting ray of sunshine,” she said.

A cooled-down coffee correct

Wright’s favorite reimagined classic is a take on the caffè corretto, traditionally a shot of espresso spiked with a shot of liqueur, like grappa or amaro. She dilutes freshly made espresso with a bit of water, and freezes it into a large ice cube. She then mixes a shot of grappa with a drizzle of black cherry balsamic vinegar, a touch of fig syrup and a dash of cacao bitters, and pours it over the espresso cube. “As the espresso ice melts, the drink becomes a chilled spin on a caffè corretto that’s lovely as an after-dinner drink,” she said. “I call it ‘It’s Time for the Percolator’ as a nod to my love of dance music.”

The result, Wright said, is a funky, rich, sweet and savory sipper, with flavors that round out the grappa — which she described as an acquired taste — and the bitterness of the espresso. While Wright said people either loved or hated it when she introduced it, the fact that the drink developed as the ice melted “blew people’s minds.”

A vegetable American

Necessity has indeed been the mother of invention for Lindsay Jones, bar manager at the Ostrich Club in Halifax. She felt she had to find a substitute for Campari in an Americano, and in doing so, she came up with her own version of the drink. “I’m definitely a black sheep in the bar community for saying this, but Campari is just not my favourite,” she said.

She created her cocktail by swapping the Campari for Cynar—a bittersweet amaro made from artichokes, herbs and other plants—and the sweet vermouth for Dubonnet, while keeping the amount of soda water the same. “I added a couple dashes of … grapefruit and hops bitters for a little something extra, and garnished with a grapefruit wheel. It’s just so simple to make yet so complex and delicious,” said Jones. She added that the drink, named Steele Magnolia after a friend of hers, is perfect as an aperitif, digestif or low-alcohol option.

When reimagining classic cocktails, Jones suggested you start with small swaps that can still have a big impact. Her philosophy of hers is to maintain the drink’s integrity while experimenting. “Make sure the cocktail still resembles, and is recognizable as, the classic itself,” she said.

to maple Old fashioned

“Almost all my cocktails that I have designed pay homage to some sort of classic,” said Evelyn Chick, a Toronto-based hospitality expert and owner of Love of Cocktails, which offers classes and cocktail kits. One of her favorite recreations of her is the Smoked Maple Old-Fashioned.

It combines bourbon and smoked maple syrup, and is finished with plum and root beer bitters. “It’s taking arguably one of the most known classics and putting some hearty Canadian flavors to it,” Chick said. She thought of it as a way to simplify holiday entertaining as you can make a large batch before a party, to be served over ice on request.

“People loved it — old-fashioned lovers and non-believers alike,” said Chick. “[It has] a slight edge with some woodsy fruitiness, without altering the integrity of the original recipe.”

As a rule, Chick adds flair to her cocktails by tweaking measurements and changing up the base spirits and flavors while honoring the ratios of the original recipe. “I would pick apart the original cocktail and try to understand why those ingredients and flavors work well together,” she said.

A lightened-up Bobby Burns with Japanese flavors

“Classics are where we all start out as bartenders,” said Grant. “You learn those, figure out why they work, and then you can start trying to create your own cocktails.”

One of his favorites is the Bobby Burns, a blend of scotch, sweet vermouth and Bénédictine, and when he was asked to create a signature cocktail for a screening of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, he devised a version he called the Drifter. It combines Japanese whiskey, umeshu (plum wine), sencha-infused Bénédictine and yuzu bitters, and is served in a cocktail glass garnished with a twist of lemon. Grant’s creation is a drier take on the original, with hints of bright citrus to balance the earthiness of the tea.

He described the drink as both refined and rugged, albeit approachable. “I often worry with stirred, spirit-forward cocktails that they might be a bit too strong for some guests,” he said. “However, the Japanese whiskey and umeshu are lighter in body than the classic scotch and sweet vermouth used in the Bobby Burns. And so the Drifter comes across a little more elegant as a result, a little easier-drinking.”

To create cocktails based on classics, Grant also recommended starting small, swapping spirits one at a time or infusing your syrups. But he also had a tip for the next time you’re out at a bar. “If you see something interesting on a cocktail menu, ask the bartender about it!” he said. “If a bartender is nerdy enough to do an infused fat-washed split-base old-fashioned for a menu, I bet they’ll be more than happy to chat about it.”

Jen O’Brien is an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her @thejenobrien.

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