Revisiting the Wonderful World of Vintage Cocktails

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Revisiting the Wonderful World of Vintage Cocktails

For those who imbibe, and I can personally attest to this, much of our taste for alcoholic beverages developed as a result of experimentation. Growth in age and palette absolutely changed my tastes, and there are drinks that I would never touch now.

Although there has been no shortage of new and innovative cocktails coming to the fore in recent years, there has also been a desire to rediscover those from a bygone era. Why did some continue to be popular while others faded away? With that in mind, I decided to mix up some vintage cocktails!

Several of the cocktails I list below are part of my own drink choices to this day, and this list is by no means definitive. I did set a few parameters. Each one is said to have been invented within the last 100 years, and I’m not including certain classics that have never gone out of style.

Join me on this journey into the realm of vintage drinks as I share some oldies but goodies.


1. White Russian

Although you may not expect a dairy product to be a big player in cocktail culture, several stronger spirits and cordials have been turned into dessert drinks when mixed with something creamy.

A blend of coffee liqueur (such as Kahlua), vodka and cream, the White Russian is undoubtedly the best known of the dairy-based cocktails. With the White Russian, I think the vodka certainly cuts down the level of syrupiness you get from the milk and coffee liqueur.

As stated in Chilled Magazine, the White Russian was created sometime in the 1950s in a Brussels hotel. Inevitably, the thrill died down, and the drink all but disappeared until 1998. Thanks to The Big Lebowski , where Jeff Bridges’ character knocks back a few of these throughout the film, the White Russian renaissance began. The Dude certainly knew a good thing when he drank it, and so do I.

Most dairy-based drinks use cream or half and half as a mixer. If either is too rich for your taste, you can certainly substitute milk. I think you do need a decent amount of milkfat to allow the spirits to blend with the dairy properly, so I would not recommend using skim milk. I personally have not tried making these kinds of cocktails with a non-dairy milk substitute, but I would imagine that the results would be just as tasty.


2. Mojito

I first tried the Mojito at a bar here in Boston in the early 2000s and have adored it ever since. It always makes me think of some sultry beach town where I’m lazing my days and nights away.

Combining white rum, sugar, freshly squeezed lime juice, club soda and
fresh mint leaves, the Mojito is very light and refreshing. It’s perfect for hot and humid weather, but if you can get your hands on bunches of mint throughout the year, it shouldn’t be limited to just the summer.

According to Taste Cocktails, the exact origin of the Mojito has long been debated. One story involves 16th-century English explorer Sir Francis Drake’s invasion of Cuba, a crew suffering from scurvy and dysentery and the subsequent creation of a medicinal tonic with contents similar to the modern-day Mojito. However, Havana restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio claimed it came up with the official recipe, author Ernest Hemingway gushed about it and the rest is history.


3. Painkiller

Contrary to its intimidating-sounding name, this Painkiller doesn’t have anything to do with medication, nor the amazing 1990 Judas Priest album.

If you love the Mai Tai, the Bahama Mama or the Blue Lagoon, the sweet and fruity flavors of this tropical cocktail (rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, cream of coconut and a sprinkling of nutmeg) will also transport you to a beautiful island paradise.

The drink first came to be back in the early 1970s at a bar in the British Virgin Islands, according to Liquor.com. Using their own product as the main spirit, Pusser’s Rum trademarked the drink in the 1980s. This cocktail has been gaining plenty of traction beyond the tiki or beach bar, and am I a fan! Give me a Painkiller rain or shine, winter or summer. Light on the orange juice, heavy on the coconut.


4. Pearl Harbor

A long time ago, vibrantly colored spirits were all the rage, and so were the cocktails that used them. Along with Blue Curaçao, one standout was Midori, a bright green, melon-flavored liquor that tastes rather medicinal on its own.

Monikered for the famed naval base on Oahu, the Pearl Harbor (melon liqueur, vodka and pineapple juice) incorporates this cordial and one of the staple crops of the Hawaiian islands. The Spruce Eats says the drink was created sometime in the late 1980s.

I couldn’t find any Midori and wouldn’t go through a bottle at any rate, so I substituted a bright green melon schnapps. I misjudged the amount of vodka I used, but after I added more pineapple juice, the true flavor that I had forgotten about came through.

After once again sampling the Pearl Harbor, I decided that I could go for one every now and then, but this drink may not be to everyone’s liking. Just like the Painkiller, this would work well for a tropical-themed event.


5. Pink Squirrel

Known for its sweetness and baby pink hue, the Pink Squirrel rose to fame largely because of its presence on television sitcoms. Name dropped on both Roseanne and The Nanny, this cocktail contains white crème de cacao, heavy cream, nutmeg and crème de noyaux. It’s that last ingredient that the gives this drink not only its dominant almond flavor but also its lovely shade. I finally tried one many years ago, and since I prefer sweeter drinks, I certainly enjoyed it.

According to Difford’s Guide, the Pink Squirrel was created in Milwaukee in 1941, with the original recipe calling for ice cream rather than cream. About twenty years later, the bar’s then-new owner modified the recipe, which stands to this day.

Crème de noyaux, made from the pits of apricots, can contain trace amounts of cyanide, which is poisonous. This quantity of cyanide is unlikely to cause any problems, but I had my reservations about both the ingredients and the high price tag, so I passed on the crème de noyaux. To mimic the flavor and color, I mixed up amaretto, white crème de cacao, whole milk, nutmeg and red food coloring. Granted, it’s not a traditional Pink Squirrel, but it was still on point.

I went a bit overboard with the food coloring, so I ended up with a Hot Pink Squirrel, which should be of no surprise to anyone aware of my deep affinity for shocking pink. If you love the White Russian and its fellow dairy-based libations, you will go nuts for this drink.

These libations may have first come into our orbit a lifetime ago, but who knows? Maybe one of these will become a staple at your next cocktail party or night out on the town.


A Massachusetts native and ‘80s kid through and through, Katy Kostakis writes about arts and entertainment, lifestyle, food and beverage and consumer issues and culture. Her work has appeared in Film Inquiry, YourTango, Wicked Local, and Patch. Check out her quips and rants on Twitter @KatyKostakis, on Instagram @katykostakis and on her website.