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Gage & Tollner cocktail for Let me tell you
Photograph: Courtesy of Lizzie Munro | Gage & Tollner

Let me tell you—all the good cocktails already exist

Good work, everybody!

Amber Sutherland-Namako
Written by
Amber Sutherland-Namako

“Let Me Tell You” is a series of columns from our expert editors about NYC living, including the best things to do, where to eat and drink, and what to see at the theater. They publish each Wednesday so you’re hearing from us each week. Last month, Food & Drink Editor and Critic Amber Sutherland-Namako argued that “foam” no longer cuts it as eye-rolling shorthand for restaurant snobbery.

In a 1986 episode of Cheers, Woody the bartender wants to create a new cocktail. (It’s one of the more hospitality-forward episodes even for a show about a bar; the parallel plot has Sam and Diane warring over a hot restaurant reservation out of desire and spite.) The joke is one part, all the good drinks have already been invented, one part, Woody forgets the recipe for his new hit creation—something red like a gin-based Opera served in what looks like a martini glass.

“I never had anything like it,” Frasier says. “This one gets you in the Cocktail Hall of Fame,” Carla says. Now, Frasier’s plausibly erudite in this regard and Carla’s mean, so the ace character architecture here truly supports the suggestion that Woody really created a good one. That he dissolves into comedy whimpers trying to recall its ingredients is broadly, bittersweetly relatable (the man is pure of heart and just wants to leave his mark on the world—to give honor to his name), and a sort of cerebral riches to rags (you lose some) tale. 

Every combination in the world’s been done to death by now. You couldn’t possibly have made anything new.

Prior to the weepy punchline, Woody accidentally concocts an existing recipe for a “Blue Moon,” closer to neon Tiffany-aqua than the 1940s-ish era formula turned purple by the addition of crème de violette. Carla calls it, pro that she is, and Sam tells Woody not to worry, “Every combination in the world’s been done to death by now. You couldn’t possibly have made anything new.” Whatever Woody finally came up with for that brief, semi-private flash of success, Sam’s words are truer now than they were then. 

Cheers ended in 1993. Frasier ended in 2004. Anyone born at the conclusion of the former is old enough to drink and then some. Anyone born at the conclusion of the latter is old enough to have a fake ID. Even the dang Cosmopolitan, a relative newcomer, was created before either time. You expect me, a taxpaying vintage television fan and accomplished drinker, to believe that something original and enduring has been spawned in the interim? Dirty who? I don’t know her. 

NYC’s cocktail renaissance—when a critical mass, or at least particularly vocal flock, took a more precious interest in their mixed tipples than previously—generally dates to around the fledgling 2000s. This also coincides with NYC’s first post-prohibition speakeasy-style resurgence. Angel’s Share was early to arrive in 1994 and Milk and Honey followed on New Year’s Eve, 1999, but it wasn’t until a little after Pegu Club opened in 2005 that standard-issue undergrads were going out for libations

Then things went too far and the lily got gilded. 

Each of those bars, and many others now long gone, were very good, and the drinks were genuinely a house-made infusion of fresh air. They also ushered in a regrettable host of bad jokes about mustaches, suspenders and whatever at the expense of the mixologists who deigned to take their occupation seriously. Even within the industry, there was sneering about the nerds who dared care. But they, unlike Woody, who—at least for about half an hour in season five—wished to add to the canon of history’s greatest drinks, were doing the great good work of bringing classic benders to more elbows. Then things went too far and the lily got gilded. 

In 2022, NYC has enough novel cocktails to inebriate generations. We reached, passed and looped back on the saturation point of takes, updates, interpretations of and “kind-of-our-version-of-a” drinks some time ago. The glass is two-and-a-half halves full. 

Even a notional espresso martini, which enjoyed a recent, curious turn in the limelight, was roughly conjured back in this same Cheers episode. Typically accepted to have been created in London in the 80s, it would have certainly been uncommon across the pond by this bit’s 1986 air date. Woody, ideating: “How ‘bout gin, vermouth and black coffee?” Norm: “That’s paint remover.” 

That dastardly take has been more common in recent years, though its often been preceded by “kind-of-our.” “This is kind of our take on the Manhattan/old fashioned/daiquiri” is as ubiquitous an introduction to an item as its reconfigurations are useless. To say nothing of the unending parade of supposed Negroni variants and vibrant, fruit-flavored sugar water masquerading as martinis. The tinkering adds little at best—maybe a seasonal spice festive enough and better left on its calendar page. The supposedly new inventions are worse, not just because they, like Woody’s Blue Moon, aren’t wholly unique, but because their deviations depreciate. 

A recent such insult at a new opening had a novel moniker and uncommonly combined components: hallmarks of attempted innovation. Its unholy blend of an herb-infused, often botanical, clear spirit, citrus, green Chartreuse, pistachio orgeat and aquafaba tasted like soapy pan deglazing liquid. It was so disgusting that it would be worth the money to see for yourself, but the restaurant in question has since removed the offender from its menu. This drink simply did not need to exist in this, now justly-stricken form, with these precise elements, in their particular quantities, assembled in a certain order and served at an intentional temperature in a carefully selected vessel. If it was meant to be, it would have been. 

This is good news. Creativity and originality are lazily assumed mutually inclusive, but creativity and mastery are even better combined. All of the best cocktails already exist, and it would take lifetimes of hangovers to try, much less learn, them all. Let’s let a Manhattan be a Manhattan. Keep old fashioneds old fashioned. And, for god’s sake, a martini has two ingredients before the garnish—I no longer even care if one of them is vodka! So if all of us drinkers, makers and threatening creators re-commit to these and other pinnacles of the form, like those near-forgotten Operas and Blue Moons, if we simply grab a weathered old bartender’s guide, close our eyes and land a finger on the page, our drinks will have a far higher success rate. 

And no more tears.

Time Out Tip: Try a new-to-you cocktail like an Opera or a Blue Moon. 

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