What makes a cocktail a classic? Staying power. Look up any classic drink and you’ll find it’s been around for decades, with few changes to the original recipe. Everyone has their favorite, but we think these four classics are Atlanta’s finest.
Most historians agree the Old Fashioned — a mix of whiskey, sugar and bitters — originated in the late 19th century with a Louisville bartender who devised the cocktail in honor of bourbon distiller Col. James E. Pepper. It’s said that Pepper then brought the drink to the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, and the rest is history. Variations on the classic have emerged, with the debate still raging over whether bourbon or rye is better, or whether one should dare to muddle orange into the concoction. Empire State South’s beverage director, Kellie Thorn , said the restaurant’s Old Fashioned comes in both the bourbon and rye varieties. But, it’s the housemade Old Fashioned syrup that makes the classic one of Empire State South’s most popular cocktails. “The simple syrup we created for our Old Fashioned muddles lemon and orange peels into the raw sugar and bitters mixture. The floral tones from the citrus expressions in the syrup really highlight the floral notes of the whiskey,” Thorn said. Simple, spirit-forward and strong, the Old Fashioned is the granddaddy of cocktails. Empire State South, 999 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-541-1105, empirestatesouth.com.
The Aviation arrived on the bar scene in 1916 with the publication of “Recipes for Mixed Drinks” by Hugo Ensslin. Known for its ghostly violet hue, this gin cocktail straddles a fine line between sweet and tart. Julian Goglia, owner of Pinewood Tippling Room and the Mercury, explained that his version was inspired by love and Ensslin. “Our Aviation at both bars is the exact same. It’s my fiancée’s favorite cocktail and was one of the Top 10 most Googled cocktails last year, so it’s something we aim to make the single best way we know how,” he said. Goglia sticks to Ensslin’s original recipe of a mild gin (he reaches for Bombay Sapphire), lemon juice and maraschino liqueur, and keeps the crème de violette, which gives the drink its signature color and sweeter notes. What results is a lovely floral cocktail that is slightly sweet, with a bright bite. Pinewood Tippling Room, 254 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-373-5507, pinewoodtr.com. The Mercury, Ponce City Market, 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-500-5253, themercuryatl.com.
New Orleans French 75
Most cocktailians are familiar with the gin and champagne version of the French 75, but, like all classic cocktails, there’s a muddled history. If you’ve ordered cocktails in New Orleans, chances are you’ve found yourself at Arnaud’s French 75, sipping on their namesake drink. While Harry Craddock’s 1930 “Savoy Cocktail Book” claims the original drink is made with gin, Arnaud’s claims a much-older cognac version. Whatever the origins, Kimball House is siding with the world-renowned bar and mixing up the classic with the French brandy variety. Cognac adds a lovely breadth to the cocktail, giving it meaty warmth without being too bold. Kimball House skillfully pairs the cognac with a dry, carbonated muscadet, keeping the drink balanced and not too sweet. Kimball House, 303 E. Howard Ave., Decatur. 404-378-3502, kimball-house.com.
The vodka cocktail Moscow Mule is said to have been created in 1941 by Smirnoff and a Los Angeles British pub, Cock n’ Bull, as a way to sell the Russian spirit to a wary U.S. drinking audience. Vodka wasn’t popular before the 1940s, so Smirnoff wanted to concoct a drink Americans would love. Enter spicy ginger beer and a bling-worthy copper cup. Whether the cup had anything to do with the drink’s popularity is a question for the ages, but the gingery vodka mixture, coupled with tart lime, captured imbibers’ hearts and remains a bar menu staple 75 years later. The Sound Table ditches the signature cup but sticks to the cocktail’s key components of vodka, ginger beer and lime. However, the Old Fourth Ward bar adds orange bitters to tone down the drink’s sweetness and gives this oldie but goody a touch of modernity without detracting from its classic charm. The Sound Table, 483 Edgewood Ave. S.E., Atlanta. 404-835-2534, thesoundtable.com.