What’s in a name?

The Manhattan, the Martini, the Old-Fashioned, the Brandy Crusta, the Sazerac–there’s a galaxy of cocktail names out there, from the stately to the stale, the witty to the worn-out. A drink’s name is its brand, powerful enough to elevate awful drinks to mind-boggling popularity (Sex on the Beach, anyone?) while muddying the success of wondrous tipples, like the oft-forgotten Martinez. Today I’m going to talk a bit about the most common kinds of cocktail names.

But first, a disclaimer.

My musings are simply that–my own opinions on what makes a name great and on what makes one stink. There will be exceptions, exemptions and extenuating circumstances and someone smarter than I would surely have accounted for them, but unfortunately you’re stuck with me. Sorry ’bout that.

Variations

Mayhaps the broadest category, an easy way to associate a new creation with a classic. Think White Negroni, French 76 or Gin-Gin Mule. The Variation is a bold choice that associates your creation with greatness as you declare to the world that you have found a new expression of a beloved cocktail.

But I think of Variations the same way I think of TV spin off shows. “It’s like LOST, but with a touch of Boston Legal.” Yeah, that sounds great. More often than not, a Variation is just one of many dead ends that already occurred on the path to creating the classic you’re riffing off of. And, if you do hit upon a successful one, then you’re probably better off saying, “It’s a Monkey’s Gland with blood orange” rather than christening it the “Bloody Monkey’s Gland” or some other such nonsense.

Places

My bellwether cocktail is the Manhattan, but as a born and raised Brooklynite I can’t help but wish that Amer Picon hadn’t fallen off the face of the Earth so that the Brooklyn cocktail might’ve reigned supreme. Though who knows how it might go today, with all the other contenders out there (the Greenpoint, the Newark and the Triborough, for starters).

While many a Place-named cocktail is also a Variation, there are plenty of originals too: the Moscow Mule, the French 75, the Cape Cod, the Singapore Sling. Marrying a drink to a place is a relatively simple designation, but when done right–and sparingly–it seems to work, etching itself onto the public consciousness.

What doesn’t work so much is a mad grab for notoriety by naming a limp and uninspired Place-Variation after your neighborhood. Make a French 75 with bitters you made in your studio apartment on Bedford Avenue? Don’t call it a Williamsburg 75. Make a Manhattan with Japanese whisky? C’mon, there’s something more inspired than “The Tokyo”. For your drink to truly be worthy of a Place name, it’s got to really haul some ass and represent the spirit of the land. Think harder Homer.

Puns

Listen, I’m as much a punball wizard as the next guy, but when I see drinks like the Tequila Mockingbird or Jimi Hendrick’s, I cringe. At the best of times, Puns have a flash-in-the-pan brilliance that is ill-suited to anything you’re committing to a paper, especially when that paper is bundled inside of a beautiful leather-bound tome. I might be able to make an exception for one night offerings scrawled on a chalkboard, but it’s a bad habit you risk forming here. Today your “Rum, Forest, Rum!” is just a passing thought on your specials list but come tomorrow that enthusiasm might lead you to slap the “Sherry Bobbins” on the menu. Just say no.

References

For those of you playing at home, I’m up to two Simpsons references in this article, so this next section seems appropriate. I use the same rule of thumb for Reference names as I do for character names in my fiction–if it’s painfully obvious, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t call your narrator-who-secretly-becomes-the-first-cyborg-of-humanity Adam and don’t call the daiquiri in your Noir-themed bar Harry Lime (sorry The Third Man).

The best References tickle the brain of the reader/drinker, sparking either a covert smartphone search (wuss) or a conversation with the bartender (huzzah!). The One Eyed Jack of Twin Peaks-themed Mission Chinese Food comes to mind as an excellent example of a Reference-named cocktail.

Oh, and another thing about References. The more transient and topical your Reference, the more you run the risk of it becoming dated. A Djaquiri with a Western kick might seem like good Tarantino fun now, but in six months it’s going to seem pretty fucking stupid. Either be ready to toss/rename the drink or stick with something more classic (or more subtle).

Themes

Speaking of themed places, some bars may go all the way and name all (or at least most of) their drinks in a particular style. This is cute and, on some level, admirable, but it’s also easy to wind up with a bunch of forgettable drink names. Variety is the spice of life and so should your menu have many an illustrious star upon its parchment landscape. Mission Chinese Food manages to host a number of Twin Peaks cocktails on its menu, but thankfully varies the naming enough to keep it fresh (“One Eyed Jack”, “Black Lodge”, “Damn Fine Cup Of Coffee”). The trick is to be as subtle as possible, so much so that your reader/drinker may not even realize there is a theme.

Person

Sometimes fictional, sometimes not. The rules for References apply here (the more topical the riskier, go subtle), save for the random drink named after a good friend or a loyal patron; these might prove too subtle, but if you’ve got your reasons for the name then, well, screw everyone else. Come to think of it, that knowledge applies for any drink name–regardless of what I’ve written here–it’s just that naming a drink after a person tends to have more sentimental value.

Spirits/Ingredients

The Aperol Spritz. The Improved Whiskey Cocktail. The Brandy Daisy. Many a classic cocktail was named in a simpler age, when men were men and bicycles had giant front wheels. And, in this time, people were content to call their gin and tonic a Gin and Tonic. Of course, constraints around communication and the lack of internet access helped prevent conflicts (and thus the need for unique monikers with which to claim spiritual territory), but that’s a minor consideration really.

Let’s not forget the Sazerac though, or the Staggerac or any other drink named not for a spirit but for a brand. One could argue (quite successfully) that time heals all wounds and that most of us are more willing to put up with a brand-named drink from yesteryear than we are a new concoction cooked up by some marketing monkey of moderate intelligence who wears a suit. But let’s also face reality. If Absolut is paying you the big bucks to make them a drink, you’re going to have to call it something like an “Absolut Swizzle”. But what if you just really love a brand and their product? What then?

Eh. Unless the circumstances are just right, there’s likely some better choice. I will hand it to PDT for their aptly named Staggerac, a drink named both for the George T. Stagg bourbon and the fact that this Sazerac variation with 140 proof bourbon will in fact make you stagger. But most names will be nowhere near as clever.

The Kitchen Sink

While my categories above cover a wide range of possible names, there are many many other types out there. Maybe your rye, aperol and dry sherry cocktail is called Lamp. Why? Just because. Or maybe that frothy pineapple-and-dark rum tall drink is a Number 5 because that’s your favorite number and you just so happened to have tried the drink five times before getting it right. There are no rules here, no DOs and DO NOTs. Personally I find random names to be a bit of a let down when it comes to quiz-the-bartender-time, but if it’s your drink then it’s your choice.

End of story.

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Matt Miga says:

    Does the Djaquiri use Jack Daniels?

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