Although Colonial author Washington Irving’s “A Knickerbocker’s History of New York” (1809) is a satirical farce, current residents of The Free State may take pride in his acknowledgement that the cocktail, a concoction of alcohol, bitters, water, sugar and botanicals, came to prominence right here in Maryland. Irving labeled us Merry-landers, as we “were prone to make merry and get fuddled with mint-julep and apple-toddy.” Our geographic ancestors “were, moreover, great horse-racers and cock-fighters, mighty wrestlers and jumpers, and enormous consumers of hoe-cake and bacon. They lay claim to be the first inventors of those recondite beverages, cock-tail…”
I get it. Yes to horseracing, yes to the hoe-cake and bacon (although we prefer corn pudding in my house), and yeah, we dig cocktails. This spring, I offered my elder teenage daughters sips from my drinks on an out-of-the-country vacation, where the legal drinking age was 18. One daughter picked up my mojito.
“Mom, it looks like someone dumped the grass clippings in here,” she sneered.
“It’s mint. Taste it! It’s good!”
She took a sip, pursed her lips, and squinted her eyes shut.
I waited for a response.
“It’s alright,” she mumbled, dropping the clear plastic Dixie-cup on a small, sand-covered table next to my chaise lounge. Then she offered a more definitive opinion: “I don’t like it.”
My feelings were hurt, which is ridiculous, since I was exemplifying bad parenting by offering my child alcohol.
I should have been proud of her for not wanting it, and for expressing a strong opinion, different from mine.
“You’ve got something green between your front teeth there, missy,” I scolded.
“Oh great,” she fumed, and stormed off to find a mirror.
Another daughter opted to taste a poolside margarita later in the trip.
“Why is it that weird color?” she asked apprehensively.
“It’s sour mix,” I volunteered. “It’s harmless.”
“It doesn’t look harmless. What’s in it?”
“What’s in sour mix?” I mimicked. In an effort to gain authoritative superiority, I bought myself a few seconds by repeating her question aloud.
“I’m not sure,” I fibbed with confidence. “Probably lemons or limes? Some sweetener?” A lemon has lemon in it. Sour mix does not. Sour mix has corn syrup and preservatives. And Yellow #5.
The daughter ventured a tiny taste. She broke the icy surface of the glowing concoction with the tip of her tongue. She pulled back from the cup as if she had been stung by a bee, then sucked bleached rock salt from her bottom lip. “This is disgusting,” she proclaimed.
I’m not proud that my generation rocketed grain alcohol products like Zima to fame, or that we fell for the hoax that two wheat-chewing, overalled country boys named Bartles and Jaymes mixed fine vintages into glass beer bottles for our enjoyment. A familiar sear of humiliation returned to me as I offered my daughters their first sips of our Maryland inheritance, the cocktail.
My generation, Generation X, could now lay claim to punching holes in the ozone layer with sport utility vehicles, the college admissions scandal, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bacardi Breezers.
But all is not lost, according to professional bartender Buck Wiley. The classic cocktail is undergoing a transformative return to dignity thanks to everyone’s favorite scapegoat generation: The Millennials. Everything old fashioned, (like the old fashioned and the Manhattan, the negroni and the aperol spritz) is new again.
“Millennials like ryes and whiskey. It used to be the older generations that enjoyed these drinks,” Wiley says, garnishing a Manhattan with a curlicue of orange rind and a ruby-fleshed Luxardo cherry. “But now young people gravitate towards them too.”
Wiley tends bar at Scossa in Easton, where the printed martini menu is rarely used. People these days are forgoing the apple and mocha-tinis for the classic. Wiley appreciates the personal exchange that takes place between a bartender and a patron when ordering a martini. The cocktail is built around a customer’s favorite brand of vodka or gin. This decision is based on taste, marketing traditions, or even dietary restrictions. (Most vodkas sold in the United States are made from grain, but Scossa offers grape and corn-based vodkas as well.)
Wiley has some customers that like their Martini ultra-dry, some like it “as dirty as swamp water.” It’s a matter of personality and personal taste. Whether shaken or stirred, Wiley serves martinis old-school: in a stemmed, chilled glass, garnished with a sophisticated twist or a spear of stuffed olives.
So there may be some truth in Irving’s fictitious reportage: we do love our cocktails here in Maryland, enough to bring them back to the essentials. However, Wiley believes there are still plenty of tipplers that prefer the excitement of modern trends. “Sometimes you want the lavender foam, or a cocktail on fire,” he muses, “and that’s okay. But sometimes you just want the classic.”