A look at four of the nation’s most revered cocktails and one non-alcoholic calling card, and the fame each has corralled for its institution.
By the time San Francisco’s legendary Buena Vista Cafe opens its doors at 8 a.m. on weekend mornings, the line extends down the block, visitors chattering side by side as they await entry into the 123-year-old establishment for their taste of the cafe’s world-renowned Irish Coffee.
“We’ll sell more hard liquor on a Saturday morning than most bars will that night,” Buena Vista general manager Larry Silva says.
While the thought of having a hearty shot of Irish whiskey to start the day might not appeal to some, the Buena Vista has built its reputation on the millions who have embraced the pick-me-up beverage morning, noon, or night since its debut in 1952. The BV, as the locals call it, has become synonymous with the ubiquitous drink, which drives traffic and sales at the lauded Fisherman’s Wharf institution.
But how do restaurants gain fame for their proprietary cocktails? By and large, it’s a lot of luck with a pinch of savvy, behind-the-bar craftsmanship, and a dash of operational know-how, says Joseph DeLuca, a well-known mixologist and frequent speaker on creative beverage programs.
“Truthfully, the market dictates which drinks will take off; restaurants don’t get to pick and choose what they’re famous for,” DeLuca says.
There are, however, commonalities among some of the nation’s most famous beverages, DeLuca says, principally a broad appeal that attracts regular imbibers, as well as those who might only indulge on special occasions.
“Being able to pull in the casual drinker is actually where the bigger potential is,” DeLuca says, adding that a number of the nation’s most famous cocktails carry a sweeter taste that minimizes the alcohol’s bite and broadens the drink’s appeal. “I always say, design cocktails for the enthusiast, as well as grandma on her birthday.”
SAN FRANCISCO First popularized in the Shannon Airport on the southeastern tip of Ireland by chef Joe Sheridan in the 1940s, the Irish Coffee came to the Buena Vista Cafe in 1952 when a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle discussed the drink with the Buena Vista’s operators.
Staff soon recreated the warm beverage, which has a 6-ounce, pre-heated vessel filled with 2.5 ounces of fresh coffee, two cane sugar cubes, and a 1-and-1/3-ounce shot of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey capped with heavy whipping cream.
Long one of San Francisco’s top bars, the Buena Vista Cafe was thrust into a different stratosphere with the Irish Coffee, as patrons swarmed the shop for a cup of the hearty beverage. By the mid-1970s, Silva says about 10 percent of all imported Irish whiskey bottles in the U.S. arrived at the Buena Vista Cafe. On its busiest days, the cafe serves about 4,000 Irish Coffees— though Silva reports that the cafe has sold as many as 6,000 in a single day—to locals as well as world travelers.
“I had a non-English speaking Italian grandmother in here clutching her travel book and sipping an Irish Coffee,” Silva recalls.
The Buena Vista markets the drink with advertisements on San Francisco’s famed cable cars, instructional booklets and kits, and the occasional headline-grabbing publicity endeavor, such as its 2008 stunt to create the world’s largest Irish Coffee: a 12-gallon drink in a $5,000 glass. That effort popped up on San Francisco’s evening news programs and was picked up by outlets around the country, which only served to advance the Buena Vista’s notoriety as the Irish Coffee spot.
The $9 drink brings the Buena Vista a constant flow of people, which requires skilled staff capable of making up to 100 Irish Coffees at a time, an efficient operational plan, and the equipment to keep pace, including 1.5-kilowatt coffee warmers and special plumbing to drain away hot water and excess coffee.
“Having such a popular drink drives business, there’s no doubt about that, but it also creates a responsibility to deliver every time,” Silva says.
The Takeaway: With a proprietary cocktail, attacking dayparts outside of the evening hours can create big results amidst underwhelming competition.
CHICAGO For years, mixologist Toby Maloney had been trying to concoct a tasty cucumber mint gimlet. After abundant failed attempts, Maloney stood behind the bar of The Violet Hour in Chicago in the summer of 2007. He picked up a cucumber, dashed some salt on a slice, and took a bite.
“The salt made it pop,” says Maloney, who was determined to create a gateway gin drink at a time when gin was an afterthought to other liquors, namely vodka.
Inspired, Maloney, also a partner at The Violet Hour, forged ahead and crafted The Juliet & Romeo, a cocktail with Beefeater Gin, mint, cucumber, and rose water.
The drink went straight to the top of the gin section at the bar’s cocktail menu, and Maloney watched it gain an immediate following. Fellow bar owners inquired about putting the drink on their menus, while customers phoned the bar requesting the recipe.
“I was dating a girl at the time who swore she’d never drink gin—and even she loved it,” Maloney jokes.
Over the years, Maloney has seen grandmothers, hipsters, and burly NFL linemen enjoy the drink, a beverage he calls simultaneously complex and accessible.
“We’ve served tens of thousands of Juliet & Romeos over the years, and we’ve had maybe three returns,” says Maloney, who also doles out the drink at two additional establishments in which he has a hand, The Patterson House in Nashville and the Bradstreet Craftshouse in Minneapolis. “And it’s the most popular drink at those two places, as well,” he adds.
On a busy night, bartenders at the James Beard–nominated bar can be called upon to fashion more than 50 Juliet & Romeo cocktails, which sells for $13. While Maloney says that number may not seem like much, the drink’s complexity makes constructing 50 in a night quite the task.
“When you’re in the service well and you’ve made 40 of them in a night, maintaining your focus to keep up the quality is tough,” he says.
Maloney frequently sees The Juliet & Romeo appear on other bar menus, particularly as a special offering around Valentine’s Day. At the Violet Hour, however, the drink is a year-round phenomenon.
“It’s nice to be recognized for something that people appreciate for its creativity,” Maloney says. “I know it’s not Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night,’ but it’s still pretty cool.”
The Takeaway: Prominent drinks demand prominent real estate on the menu.
NEW ORLEANS According to Shelly Waguespack, the third-generation owner of Pat O’Brien’s flagship location in New Orleans, the Hurricane arrived in the 1940s when liquor salesmen persuaded bar owners to purchase large amounts of rum, a readily accessible liquor during the wartime era.
Acquiescing to the nudges of its liquor salesman, Pat O’Brien’s collected a stockpile of rum, eventually questioning how it could ever unload the backlog. With that, the Hurricane was born. The Pat O’Brien’s team—no one person has ever received full credit for the drink’s invention, Waguespack says—crafted a passion fruit-flavored drink and served it in a glass shaped like a hurricane lamp, among the nation’s first specialty glass programs.
“It was a happy accident,” Waguespack says.
In the early years, Pat O’Brien’s clever marketing efforts included pretty women sauntering about the restaurant with the colorful drink in hand to entice purchases. Later, in the 1960s, Pat O’Brien’s began having photographers roam the restaurant to capture images of guests enjoying the cocktail, a practice that furthered the Hurricane’s popularity. More recently, the Hurricane’s ubiquity on bar menus around the globe and the sale of branded Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane cocktail mix has further escalated interest in the cocktail and its founding restaurant.
“The Hurricane is a part of the ambience of Pat O’Brien’s and has gained notoriety for being the signature drink at a place that’s so much fun,” Waguespack says, adding that Pat O’Brien’s largely relies on goodwill PR, such as fundraisers and friendly chatter, to market the drink these days.
In a year, Waguespack says Pat O’Brien’s New Orleans’ establishment will sell more than 500,000 Hurricanes, which are now produced in mass quantities and mixed together in large tanks for swift distribution.
“While we don’t make it from scratch anymore, the basic recipe flavors haven’t changed a bit,” Waguespack assures of the $8.50 drink.
As food and beverage trends come and go, Waguespack says the Hurricane’s continued relevance allows the New Orleans-based establishment to employ more than 200 workers, attract guests, and capture worldwide notoriety.
“Being the place that created the Hurricane is a nice thing to have in our pocket, because no matter how young or old the guest, the Hurricane remains a constant,” she says.
The Takeaway: A tasty beverage is just one part of the equation in creating a proprietary cocktail. Clever marketing plays and a fun-loving atmosphere shouldn’t be overlooked.
DETROIT As one cocktail website wrote about The Last Word, it’s “the true zombie of the cocktail world.”
It’s a fitting description for The Last Word, which gained fame in upscale hotels and bars throughout the 20th century before disappearing from the cocktail landscape in the late 1900s, only to be resurrected in recent years by studious artisan bartenders in hip cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and London.
For years, the history of The Last Word—an ounce of dry gin, an ounce of fresh lime juice, an ounce of green Chartreuse, and an ounce of maraschino liqueur—was shrouded in mystery. One long-embraced storyline held that the drink was created amid Prohibition as individuals played with cheap, illegal booze. While some researchers pointed to the Detroit Athletic Club (DAC) as the cocktail’s birthplace, others spoke of a New York conception in the 1920s.
Scouring old DAC dining room menus for an answer, DAC historian Ken Voyles and his crew stumbled upon a 12-page list of cordials and entrees from 1916. And there, in black and white, it was: The Last Word.
“That was our smoking gun,” Voyles says.
The DAC restored The Last Word to its cocktail menu in 2009 and, while enjoying The Last Word at the DAC is a members-only affair, the drink has been recreated in bars across the country.
“There are lots of people interested in this drink,” Voyles says, adding that the esteemed private club, which has been the center of Detroit’s social elite for generations, has received more media interest on The Last Word than anything else in its recent history. “It’s a cool reminder how special this place was and still is, and it’s nice to be able to say, ‘That’s ours.’”
Built from relatively uncommon ingredients, The Last Word “doesn’t taste like anything else,” according to longtime DAC member James W. Tottis.
The Takeaway: Consider digging into the archives of once-famous lounges or researching famous drinks from a past era to resurrect a cocktail for the 21st century.
ATLANTA A signature beverage need not be alcoholic to make its mark. The Varsity, dubbed the world’s largest drive-in restaurant, has become an Atlanta institution for two reasons: its chili hot dogs and its Frosted Orange.
Called the FO by The Varsity’s devotees, the Frosted Orange has been a staple on The Varsity’s menu since FDR inhabited the White House. The chilly drink, invented as a result of requests of some early customers, is a calculated blend of vanilla milkshake and the Varsity’s proprietary Orange drink, a non-carbonated concoction of real orange juice concentrate and pure cane sugar that The Varsity’s bottle room men make fresh daily in 125-gallon batches.
“The drink caught on and became so popular that we named it the Frosted Orange and made it a permanent menu item,” The Varsity’s director of operations Terry Brookshire says.
Last year, The Varsity’s flagship location in downtown Atlanta sold more than 200,000 medium-sized Frosted Oranges for $2.99—a total of 48,000 gallons worth of the beverage. That demand requires Brookshire ensure all eight of The Varsity’s Georgia locations are stocked with Mayfield Dairy’s shake mix and ample Varsity Orange.
“You have to be prepared with product and ready to meet the volume you’re going to encounter on a daily basis,” Brookshire says.
While the FO was initially made by hand—workers hand-spun milkshakes and then mixed in The Varsity’s Orange drink—the beverage became so popular by the 1960s that crafting the drink by hand, which thickens with the addition of Varsity Orange, was no longer feasible. Today, the FO pours directly out of a machine ready to go.
The Varsity’s fame requires little advertising, as Brookshire says the store is blessed with constant word-of-mouth buzz, as well as complimentary airtime anytime television producers want to show a celebrated Atlanta scene.
“People might be able to get fries and a hamburger somewhere else, but you can’t get a Frosted Orange just anywhere,” Brookshire says. “It’s special, and it’s ours.”
The Takeaway: Listen to loyal customers, who might just have some of the grandest ideas of all.