Cocktails By the Decade: A Drink for Every Era

By Anne Roderique Jones  |  August 21, 2013

Cocktail menus around the U.S. are no longer obsessed with Prohibition-era drinks alone. In fact, lately we've seen a range of drinks from many previous decades come back into fashion. From the classic cocktail to the traditional with a twist, check out our list of beverage thowbacks by the decade, then see where you can throw back a version of one of these timeless tipples at a bar near you.

  • 1920s: The Kill B at Khong River House in Miami Beach, FL

    When the 18th Amendment was enacted in the 1920s, Prohibition overshadowed cocktail culture. Top-notch liquor was hard to come by, and inferior hooch often was combined with other ingredients. Enter The Bee’s Knees, a drink with lemon and honey – simple ingredients said to mask the flavor of bathtub gin. Miami’s Khong River House has one-upped this sip by springing for the good stuff and kicks it up a notch by swirling the cocktail with Beefeater Gin, lemon and white pepper-bird chili syrup. Now that’s a reason to celebrate.

    1661 Meridian Ave., Miami Beach; 305-763-8147

  • 1930s: The Mutual Feeling at Sepia in Chicago

    The ‘30s were a decade of change. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and Americans had a reason to celebrate - legally. While many date the now-classic French 75 cocktail back to World War I - the original version called for gin or brandy, lemon, simple syrup and a little bubbly - it was a rediscovered favorite among 1930s bartenders, many plying their craft for the first time in a decade. At Sepia in Chicago, the classic sip gets an upgrade with Death’s Door gin, Gran Classico, pineapple and lime, all topped off with sparkling wine.

    123 N Jefferson St., Chicago; 312-441-1920

  • 1940s: The Mai Tai at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, CA

    During the post-war 1940s, a tiki craze took over California, giving birth to drinks like the Scorpion, the Zombie and the quintessential tiki drink, the Mai Tai. Many poor interpretations of the cocktail have resulted in an overly sweet red punch concoction, but the original - born at Trader Vic’s in Oakland - is light and refreshing. Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco doesn’t stray from tradition. This ultra-hip rum den pays homage to the classic drink using El Dorado and Appleton 12-year aged rums, curacao, orgeat and fresh lime juice. Justin Oliver, manager at Smuggler’s Cove, says that they serve their cocktail in a classic double rocks Mai Tai glass with a mint and lime garnish. Oliver says, “Trader Vic’s imagined that the lime and mint sprig were like a desert island with a palm tree.” It’s one of their most popular drinks at Smuggler’s Cove, and according to Oliver, they love serving it because it has a local Bay Area history. “There were a lot of copycat bars trying to make their own version and calling it whatever the hell they wanted. But this is the original.”

    650 Gough St., San Francisco; 415-869-1900

  • 1950s: Sloe Gin Fizz: Squid Lips at The Gin Joint in Charleston, SC 

    The 1950s were a relaxed time in cocktail culture. Amid mass migration out of the city and into the suburbs, America needed a cocktail made for relaxing in the den before supper or entertaining at dinner parties. A Fizz fit the bill perfectly. The Gin Fizz, Ramos Fizz and a Sloe Gin Fizz (named for gin made with sloe berries) all had a major moment in the 1950s, taking a simple gin-based cocktail and pumping up the jam. The Gin Joint in Charleston serves their updated version called the Squid Lips cocktail: Plymouth Sloe Gin, Gin Joint rare rum blend, lemon, orgeat, Cointreau and a splash of ginger beer give this throwback tipple a fancy makeover that packs a serious flavor punch.

    182 E Bay St.: Charleston; 843-577-6111

  • 1960s: The Fresh Whiskey Sour at The Butterfly in NYC

    During the Mad Men era, whiskey ruled the bar. While Old Fashioneds and Manhattans were often drinks of choice, a Whiskey Sour really got the party started. Sadly, sour mix was a bar staple at the height of its popularity, and this cocktail became a victim. At The Butterfly Supper Club in NYC, special care is taken with this throwback beverage from the 1960s, made fresh with Old Forester Bourbon, McClure’s maple syrup, fresh lemon and Angostura bitters. According to Eben Freeman, the head of bar operations and innovations at the Altamarea Group, “The maple syrup adds a bit of Americana to this version and Angostura bitters adds a bit of depth to what is a very simple but satisfying drink.”

    225 W. Broadway, New York; 646-692-4943

  • 1970s: Harvey Wallbanger at Splitty, Brooklyn NY
    Clear sprits ruled this decade, primarily vodka, and simple, fruit-forward cocktails were king. It was the in ‘70s that a now-forgotten classic took its place at the bar: The Harvey Wallbanger. This iconic drink is made with vodka, orange juice and Galliano. Cocktail historians have been arguing over the history for decades, but there’s no real evidence where this drink was created or who invented it. Splitty in Clinton Hill has put this simple drink back on the menu, with a slight tweak: top-notch ingredients. Karin Stanley of Splitty says that her interest in this drink stems from the forgotten classics of this decade that can be reborn using better ingredients. She says, “The Wallbanger was unfairly ‘vintage’ and I wanted to give it a quality makeover and reintroduce people with fresh juice and quality liquor.”

    415 Myrtle Ave.; Brooklyn; 718-643-2867

  • Credit: Eugenia Uhl

    1980s: Margarita at Loa in New Orleans, LA 
    A slew of sugary concoctions dominated cocktails during this decade, along with a classic that regained popularity: the Margarita. Most margs of the ‘80s were made with a bottled mix and a shot of cheap tequila, or served frozen from a machine. But with a resurgence in Mexican cocktails, this once-lowly libation is now often a premium tipple. At Loa, the gorgeous cocktail lounge at the International House Hotel in New Orleans, this drink is taken to an entirely new level with anejo tequilla, pine needles, thyme, Cointreau and bay leaf. It’s shaken with an egg white and garnished with a sassafras rim.

    221 Camp St.; New Orleans; 504-553-9550

  • 1990s: Boozy Milkshakes at The Original, Portland, OR
    The 1990s were all about Gen X childhood throwbacks in pop culture, which trickled down to menu items at bars and restaurants. Case in point: the boozy milkshake emerged. The Original in Portland is doing it right with their boozy Knight Rider milkshake - made-to-order with chocolate ice cream, Kahlua, Crème de Cacao and Oreo crumbs. Or there’s the Triple B: a combination of bourbon, plus bourbon-bacon-infused maple syrup and vanilla ice cream. Jessica Casey, senior manager, says that people come in for the boozy shakes to eat with their burger, have as dessert, or slurp super late on weekend nights. “It’s a new generation of the old mudslide, and a little more gourmet," she says. "Our shakes are really popular because it’s like a meal where you get your buzz on, too.”

    300 SW 6th Ave., Portland; 503-546-2666