The 20th Century Cocktail

How turning back time makes for an old-fashioned, yet modern, cocktail

Classic cocktails have really been getting explored and revived over the last few years. Manhattan's and martini's and sazerac's never really left, but Fourth Regiment's and proper Aviation's have slowly become commonplace in good bars all over the world. With innovators like David Wondrich, Dr. Cocktail, Gary Regan, Robert Hess, and their ilk writing books and collecting really old recipes, and even more current releases like the PDT Cocktail Book collecting tons as well, it's easy to suddenly feel a little saturated with drink ideas — lot of which are fairly similar, particularly if you want to rifle through pages upon pages of gin and vermouth variations in just about any 1930s cocktail book. Let's be clear here: this is not to put down in any way what these men and women have done, that is essentially the birth of an entirely new cocktail culture that for the previous 30-plus years was arguably dead. It is also a little mind-boggling to think that they have themselves narrowed down the sea of cocktail ideas to what they deemed best, and yet I still feel a little daunted when trying to decide what to make next at home.

The key is really to narrow down the handful of truly important drinks that stand the test of time, or find those that stand out in their ingredients or purpose. A "Last Word" in a collection of pre-Prohibition cocktails, for example. So this brings me to my momentary obsession in a cocktail sense: The 20th Century. When thinking of chocolate in drinks, chocolate syrup and flavoured vodka at chain restaurants comes to mind, and not anything "classic," yet here is one hailing from the 1930s that can be balanced and refreshing, and thankfully has a gin base. Crème de cacao is not a typical ingredient the cocktail nerds see nor many craft bartenders use, perhaps because of its modern associations or perhaps because it tends to be a fairly flat-tasting product. Yet, again, here is a simple, classic drink in which it works.

The Drink

The challenge of making a very old cocktail is finding the "proper" ratios with which to mix the ingredients, so the answer is always to just make it how you like it but to be mindful of how it was intended. Using too much chocolate liqueur would bring us back to that overly sweet grossness that in part gave mixed drinks such a bad name, so be mindful that this is a gin drink and should be mixed as such. The PDT book lists 2:1 for gin to everything else, whereas Ted Haigh adapted his to 1.5 gin to 3/4 Lillet and lemon, to 1/2 crème de cacao, and I've seen ratios of lemon drop even to 1/4. I prefer my drinks drier in general so I lean towards the Haigh's recipe, but we also get into tricky territory without specifying the exact chocolate liqueur. Here's where my suggestion comes in — don't use crème de cacao. Vancouver's Pourhouse bar, one focusing almost strictly on classic cocktails or at least the mentality of such, makes their 20th Century quite differently to delicious results by using Giffard White Chocolate Syrup and changing the proportions a fair bit. This makes for a surprisingly balanced drink that is not too sweet at all, albeit much less dry than some palates may be accustomed. This is an excellent drink to introduce or coax misinformed or close-minded souls to gin, and one that anyone — even those who sat at your bar looking for Appletini's — can enjoy. To play with the idea even further and treat this as a dessert cocktail, which in my opinion it is, an egg white can be added, with the suggestion to back off the syrup a little further as egg will increase the perceived sweetness.

Click here for Rhett Williams' 20th Century Cocktail recipe and to read more.

— Rhett Williams, Shakestir