The appletini at Milady’s.
Photo: Christian Rodriguez
A couple months back, I was at the cocktail bar Split Eights in the Financial District, watching with equal parts curiosity and horror as the bartender poured out a shot that was as blue as the aliens in Avatar. “It’s the Corpse Reviver Blue,” our barman said with a shrug before he downed his own shot. Even a year ago, this might have been enough to get any cocktail professional barred for life from the Official Mixology Board. But here, in 2022, a “serious” shot made with a goofy ingredient like Blue Curaçao is more or less business as usual.
Eric Adams may be the mayor, but we are living in the espresso martini’s New York. While that drink has saturated nightlife thoroughly enough to lose some cachet, we are now starting to see what its long influence has wrought within New York’s bars. “What the espresso martini did,” says Ryan Dolliver, a bartender at Palmetto in Bushwick, “is mark the end of the original American cocktail revival.”
For a long time — at least since Milk & Honey opened over 20 years ago — there were rules (sometimes literally, usually posted in a bar’s bathroom). Drinks were a serious endeavor undertaken by serious individuals who worked hard to procure the right applejack or to infuse bourbon with the right bacon. Things have been trending toward the more chaotic end of the spectrum for a while, but this was the year, many people working in New York’s nightlife industry say, when the shackles finally came off for good. In 2022: Anything goes.
Bartenders report that all kinds of freakish drinks from the past have resurfaced (one bartender told me she poured “quite a few” Adios, Mother Fuckers this year), and weird experiments such as making milk punch with blue Gatorade in it are now standard operating procedure. “If I have to point at some trends that are starting to come back, it’s like these bastardized cocktails from the ’90s,” says bartender Michael Aredes, who has a lychee martini on the menu at the bar Pretty Ricky’s. He’s also working on a recipe for an appletini and has tried, unsuccessfully thus far, to introduce Jell-O shots (both of which appeared at the reopened Milady’s in Soho, it’s worth noting). “Someone ordered a Sex on the Beach from me the other day,” Arende reports. “I was like, Really?” Yes, really. Sadly, Arende didn’t have any Peach Schnapps — a necessary ingredient.
Novelty cocktails are back, and nobody is quite sure why. “A Kamikaze has been a really popular drink. I don’t know who really drinks those anymore except Gen Z-ers who are 21, 23 — like, Where did you learn about this?” says Jeff Rutley, a bartender who has worked at establishments in both Brooklyn and Hudson Yards this year. He counted off several other popular drinks from the past 52 weeks on both sides of the East River: the Long Island Iced Tea (“That’s come back in a major way”), Lemon Drop shots (“That was a huge thing this summer”), and green-tea shots (“Popular during the beginning of the year … it kind of fell off”).
An official drink of the summer never materialized, though dirty martinis did surge in popularity. But bartenders are reluctant to call that drink a trendsetter, mostly because, when pressed, they had trouble identifying any real trends: Mezcal? Spritzes? Bud Light? “I don’t think there was necessarily any drink trend,” argues bartender Sarah Ku, who worked in Brooklyn before taking a job in Manhattan.
Several say that the closest we came this year to achieving anything close to a single “drink of the year” was after a clip of House of Dragons actor Emma D’Arcy discussing their love of the Negroni Sbagliato took over TikTok for a few days. At bars across America, orders for the mix of Campari and prosecco took off, and an army of PR professionals fired a barrage of “trending now” emails into the inboxes of unsuspecting journalists. But no marketing can compete with the appeal of the video itself, says Aredes: “The allure of hearing the way it’s transmitted and the way that the video is edited, of course it’s like, Oh, shit, I gotta try this.”
Ku agrees that nothing moves product these days like a prominent moment on social media. “I think with TikTok and virality in general, it puts drinks in the spotlight a lot quicker and the trends die really quickly,” she says. “One of the things that’s hard for a lot of bars is curating a menu that catches lightning in a bottle.”
Ultimately, the people making New York’s drinks say, 2022 was a transitional year for big trends. Even if nothing new has emerged to replace it, at least one movement is definitely finished: the old timey pre-Prohibition fetish era. “I’m glad that’s over, dude,” says Rutley, the Hudson Yards bartender. “It was just a bunch of people trying to out-nerd each other.”
Where does that leave us, as we head into 2023? Nobody is quite sure, although we do have at least some clarity: There won’t be a Sex on the Beach comeback anytime soon.