The craft cocktail is a genre that refuses to define itself by a set string of words. Eater gave it a go by asking 14 experts and writers, “What exactly is a craft cocktail? And how is that different from a classic cocktail? Or an artisanal cocktail? Or just a mixed drink?” In 2015, VinePair wrote, “While we can agree that the definition of a craft cocktail is flexible to an extent, branding yourself as a craft cocktail bar gives you license to be pricey.” When talking about the Austin cocktail scene at the Austin Food & Wine Festival, cocktail bar DrinkWell’s Jessica Sanders defined craft cocktails as a coming together of “quality spirits, fresh juice and good techniques.”
These varied definitions beg a simple question: What makes a craft cocktail a craft cocktail?
The craft cocktail’s origins can be traced back to the Prohibition era.
The reform movement that came into effect at midnight on January 17, 1920, was a nationwide ban on the import and distribution of alcoholic beverages between 1920 to 1933—enforced by a constitutional amendment—to reduce drinking and its presumed association with crime and corruption. On January 16, 1919, Nebraska’s ratification of the 18th amendment along with 35 other states outlawed liquor after reaching the three-fourths threshold. Soon, a new crop of homemade alcohol started emerging from the hidden enclaves of bootleggers. Industrial alcohol became a popular ingredient for the illegal alcohol trade, but the increase in production didn’t help the unpalatable flavor of the final product.
This bad taste resulted in the rise of a counterfeit high-proof liquor prepared in stills called moonshine. Illicit producers went to great lengths to mimic classic flavors such as bourbon or gin by adding agents like manure, dead animal parts and even rotten meat. Beyond the use of harsh flavorings to create spirits, bartenders also embraced fresh ingredients such as berries and herbs to mask the foul essence of the moonshine—an inflection point that has led us to modern-day craft mixology.
First conceptualized in the late 1980s when the Prohibition-era speakeasy became an ode to the troublesome times, the world can thank Dale DeGroff—an award-winning bartender and author—for its introduction. When the Rainbow Room reopened in December 1987, the James Beard award winner added fresh ingredients to cocktails at the bar. From new recipes to timeless cocktail menu items inspired by the Prohibition era, DeGroff is credited for adding an artistic and mindful touch to the craft cocktail.
Until recently, it was mostly early bars like acclaimed bartender Sasha Petraske’s Milk & Honey that would promote the nuance and health benefits of importing raw bergamot from Italy instead of pouring in the syrup. But according to New York and Los Angeles-based Apotheke —an apothecary-themed speakeasy—the pandemic made people reflect on what and how much they’re drinking, and the counter-cultural movement of mindful drinking began, which has been a favorable shift for the craft industry.
“Our culture is changing and bars are trying to keep up, but craft bars got a head start,” Apotheke told Paste. “This selection of cocktails is by definition additive-free, organic and sustainable in the long term.”
Today, the craft cocktail industry is booming. At the upscale 1940s-era bar room of The Carlyle Hotel, classic elixirs like the touted The Maple Leaf are bringing in young enthusiasts from around the world. You can buy pre-mixed craft cocktails in a glass bottle or can or send a craft cocktail kit as a gift. You can escape to the presidential allure of The Roosevelt Room in downtown Austin while sipping on their popular Buck to the Future or ordering a Cosmo at happy hour. Head to the cocktail section on Etsy, and you can even pick up a custom ice stamp, edible shimmer dust to spell out “craft” or a six-pack concoction of CBD bitters.
“This is an era craft of cocktails. The movement has spread rapidly and become a culinary sensation. This is a slow but steady fight through generations that is now stronger than ever,” said AJ Sedjat, beverage manager for Orno and Mamey at THesis Hotel in Miami. The simultaneous rise of conscious consumerism in the last decade, further accelerated by the pandemic, made a clear impact on where and what people order in bars and restaurants. “They like to see and hear a story from vine to bottle. And they appreciate the clarity from brands.”
Despite the rising interest in the craft cocktail culture, there’s more to come. Cocktail bar Death & Co. —the pioneer of Manhattan’s craft cocktail scene—is planning to expand beyond New York after 15 years, while San Francisco-based Rickhouse is redefining quintessential cocktail bar ambiance with rock and roll. And now, Portland International Airport’s Juliett is one of the first airport craft cocktail bars in the country.
For today’s craft saloons and post-Prohibition era recipes, fresh and natural ingredients are so much more than a way to reel in the urban crowd. From intent to history to often personal stories, a new generation of mixologists is borrowing inspiration from bygone days and lending them an allure, artistry and a flavor all their own.