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Drink It Up? Bartenders’ Takes on Flipping the Serve of 5 Classic Cocktails

Up or rocks?

It’s a fundamental question of drink preparation. While the line separating shaken and stirred cocktails is fairly clear (unless you’re James Bond), there’s more gray area when it comes to ice versus neat, and the decision is often made by tradition.

“We’re taking something they were doing since the late 1800s as gospel,” says Mike Capoferri, owner-operator of Thunderbolt in Los Angeles. “But we can try these things different ways and see if there are improvements to be made.”

In the spirit of challenging convention, we hit up six pros to reexamine five classic cocktails traditionally served down or on the rocks and weigh in on whether an up version is worthwhile — or possibly an improvement.

Fair warning, some cocktail heresy may lie ahead.

The Boulevardier

The bourbon-based Negroni riff emerged from famous expat watering hole Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. Owner Harry McElhone credits the drink to American writer Erskine Gwynne in his 1927 book “Barflies and Cocktails,” but fails to mention how it’s served. To this day, Harry’s serves it on the rocks, but McElhone stipulates that another Negroni riff, the rye-based Old Pal, should be served up. So why not the Boulevardier?

“It’s kind of a hybrid of a Manhattan and a Negroni,” says Kelso Norris, former bar director at Genever in Los Angeles and current creative director of beverage programming at Sips of Impact. Like the Manhattan, she wants the Boulevardier up.

Capoferri dissents. He doesn’t care for Manhattans and likes to “under-dilute” his Boulevardier so it evolves in the glass over ice like an Old Fashioned, with “the sweetest, coldest sip coming at the very end.”

Up drinks are intended for faster consumption, especially in the sub-tropics. This is why Christina Ramirez, head of mixology at the Westin New Orleans and formerly the first female bartender at Latitude 29, joins the “rocks” team. The Boulevardier deserves time, but in New Orleans, people “slam anything in a coupe,” she says.

Of course, sitting on ice raises the issue of dilution.

Toby Cecchini, writer, bartender, and co-owner of the Long Island Bar in Brooklyn, has always served the drink up because he wants the Boulevardier’s trio of attention-demanding ingredients to remain intense. “I don’t want whiskey to become flabby at all,” he says.

Ryan Chetiyawardana (who goes by Mr. Lyan), owner of Silver Lyan in D.C., Lyaness and Seed Library in London, and Super Lyan in Amsterdam, also prefers the marriage of bourbon, Campari, and vermouth served up where he can control dilution.

“There is an elegance to pulling it at a particular moment in its journey,” he says.

Siding with the “up” drinkers is William Elliott, executive bar director and managing partner of Maison Premiere in New York City, who feels the Boulevardier belongs in that “frozen state of perfection.”

Consensus: Drink it UP

The Negroni

The classic equal-part cocktail was allegedly invented by a count of the same name around 1919 at Caffé Casoni in Florence. Whether it was the count, or bartender Fosco Scarselli who ingeniously swapped out the soda for gin, the world will never know. What everyone does know is that it’s delicious over ice. Could it possibly be more delicious straight up?

“The only way I’m ordering that up is if I’m in a hurry to catch a cab,” says Ramirez.

“That sounds delicious because it veers into Vesper or Martini territory.”

Cecchini prefers it on the rocks, but his policy is to ask the customer, though he doesn’t know why they bother since “nobody ever takes it neat.” While this seems like a contradiction of his Boulevardier stance, he argues that “gin likes ice,” with the notable exception of the Martini.

Elliott agrees that the Negroni necessitates a rocks serve and thinks many bartenders don’t dilute it enough. “You can take that drink somewhere really beautiful by giving it an aggressively long stir,” he says.

“Bitter, boozy, and on ice,” Capoferri likes his Negroni as a slow sipper. If it’s up, it warms too fast and brings out “all the wrong aspects of that bitter component,” he says.

Chetiyawardana serves an up Negroni at Super Lyan with a celery leaf gin and black olive. He likes the drink in either preparation if the decision “feels confident.”

Does a plot twist like Wayne Collins’ White Negroni change anybody’s mind?

Norris, who is ambivalent about how a standard Negroni is served, is the only one excited by the idea. “That sounds delicious because it veers into Vesper or Martini territory,” she says.

Consensus: Keep it DOWN, ON THE ROCKS

The Margarita

The tequila-based Daisy descendant has one of the murkiest origin stories in the world of cocktails, rife with tall tales and hoaxes that have even bamboozled national newspapers. Its close relatives, the Sidecar and Daiquiri, are served up, so it seems natural to throw this venerable classic on the list for coupe consideration.

“It needs to be blisteringly cold. But definitely straight up on that one.”

“That is a drink where everyone wants it their own way,” says Cecchini, likening it to the equally subjective Martini. He leans toward the rocks camp, but it’s “completely a 50-50 flip.”

“Shit man, Margarita served up? Great drink,” says an ebullient Capoferri, who feels there is no wrong way to make one, be it frozen or San Francisco Mission-style in a pint glass.

Norris is also firmly in the coupe camp since serving it up “let’s the spirit shine a little more.”

Ramirez agrees, unless it is hot and she is outside, then she prefers it on the rocks.

“It needs to be blisteringly cold,” says Chetiyawardana, whose first bar experience was a tequila bar where Margaritas were treated like Daiquiris. “But definitely straight up on that one.”

Conversely, the Daiquiri comparison is why Elliott stands firm in the “rocks” camp.

“The Daiquiri is just so quenching, it dares you not to drink it fast,” he says, not wanting to slam the more complex Margarita that quickly. However, Elliott confesses that the hibiscus-tinged “Victorian reimagining” of a Margarita he’s putting on Maison Premiere’s menu will, ironically, be served up.

Consensus: Drink it UP

The Whiskey Sour

One of the oldest styles of cocktail, the mix of spirit, lemon, sugar, water, and ice first appears in Jerry Thomas’s original 1862 “Bartender’s Guide,” though bon vivants and sailors alike certainly drank sours long before. Thomas’s recipe says to shake with shaved ice and strain into a claret glass. At some point bourbon supplanted brandy, egg white and sometimes red wine were added, and a rocks serve became common. Given its origins, it’s an obvious coupe candidate.

Elliott remains steadfast that sours should be down on the rocks to avoid the “rapid decay” of a coupe. If it contains egg white, however, he wants it up.

“The egg white version is visually stunning,” says Norris. But she isn’t a fan of egg white cocktails and prefers her Whiskey Sour on the rocks without it.

Cecchini could go “either way,” but because of a “raging olfactory sense” that tortures him, he emphatically boards the no-egg train. “I just smell dog, f*ck egg whites,” he says. “I hate that shit, I smell it on my mixing tins three drinks later.”

Cecchini adds a little homemade ginger syrup instead of straight simple in his sours, which he serves on the rocks. That twist, he believes, might be improved by an up serve.

Ramirez prefers an egg white sour up “all day and night.” But as soon as the drink veers toward “whiskey lemonade,” or is made with sour mix, then “God knows, I gotta cut through that with some ice,” she says.

Bourbon, lemon, and sugar aren’t enough for Capoferri, either. He is staunchly in favor of the coupe serve and cannot imagine the whiskey sour without egg white.

“Besides adding the foam,” he says, “the egg kills some of the tannin from the whiskey, softening the edge and making it more appropriate for a shaken cocktail.”

Chetiyawardana rounds out the “drink it up” contingent, believing the sour is “way more luxurious” when served in a coupe with the egg.“I also think it is way better with Scotch,” he adds.

Consensus: With egg? Drink it UP. Without? Keep it DOWN, ON THE ROCKS

The Sazerac

Another drink steeped in lore, the official cocktail of New Orleans was invented by apothecary Antoine Peychaud at his Royal Street shop in 1838. Originally, Peychaud strained the mix of Cognac, sugar, and bitters into an egg cup with a twist of lemon. Eventually, the brandy was swapped for rye, a little absinthe was added, and it was served in a rocks glass without ice. Given the drink’s first vessel, the aromatic elements, and the traditional neat serve, is there a case to put the Sazerac in a coupe?

“If anyone was presented those drinks side by side, without historical reference, I think everyone would prefer it with the ice cube.”

“Dude, I’m not going near that, I don’t want to start a war with the people of New Orleans,” says Cecchini, who serves the drink down and neat at his bar. At home, however, it’s a different story.

“I do a Sazerac with a cube for myself, but I look out the window to make sure nobody is watching me,” he says.

Elliott believes the key to the Sazerac is the absinthe element. At Maison Premiere, he swizzles absinthe over crushed ice in the glass while making the rest of the cocktail separately. The cold, diluted absinthe is then strained, not dumped, into a sidecar and served alongside the neat drink.

“Just spraying a glass with undiluted absinthe is super vulgar,” he says. “You just smell ethanol.” As for glassware, Elliott feels the rocks glass matches the harsh, rustic, machismo intrinsic to the cocktail.

Norris agrees with Elliott to the letter — she’s loved that preparation ever since she learned it while working at Raines Law Room.

For Chetiyawardana, the glass choice is “not so much the absinthe, it’s the lemon aromatics.” He prefers a rye Sazerac with the lemon peel in a rocks glass, whereas with Cognac he likes a coupe with just a waft of lemon over top. He’ll take the drink in any preparation, if the decision is thoughtful, but he draws a line with ice.

“I don’t want something that funnels absinthe mist into my nose,” Capoferri says of the coupe serve while suggesting the Crescent City’s sacrosanct cocktail is better on a frozen brick of ice.

“If anyone was presented those drinks side by side, without historical reference, I think everyone would prefer it with the ice cube,” he says, believing the neat preparation was less of a craft decision and driven more by ice availability in 19th-century New Orleans.

Ramirez, a New Orleans native, drinks her Sazerac down, without heresy, but thinks that an oversized coupe is appropriately decadent for the local tradition of ordering a double Sazerac.


“Blasphemy,” she says with a laugh. “If you’re ordering it on ice, maybe you’re not ready for a Sazerac.”

Consensus: Keep it DOWN

The article Drink It Up? Bartenders’ Takes on Flipping the Serve of 5 Classic Cocktails appeared first on VinePair.

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