When Bad Drinks Go Good

Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the bar manager of Pépé Le Moko and Clyde Common (also in Portland), is arguably the high priest of this populist trend. His new-and-improved rendition of the lowly amaretto sour, now served at bars around the world, began as a secret, under-the-bar special he would serve only to friends.

“It wasn’t cool to say you liked amaretto sours,” Mr. Morgenthaler said. “I didn’t want to be excommunicated from the cocktail world for serving it.”

When Pépé Le Moko opened in 2014, however, he let his democratic colors fly. “We had reached the maximum density on cocktail snobbery,” he said. “People were getting fed up with the cocktail nerd who would judge your drink order.” Joining the amaretto sour on the menu were reimagined recipes for the Grasshopper and the Blue Hawaii.

Just referring to any cocktail as bad is enough to get Mr. Morgenthaler’s back up. (“There are no bad drinks, only bad bartenders,” he has said.) But generally speaking, in mixology circles, cocktails are deemed subpar for any number of reasons: a lack of subtlety or balance; an overreliance on alcohol or sugar; the past use of poor ingredients, including spirits with artificial colors or flavors; silly names; or just a negative reputation as a favorite of undiscriminating bars and drinkers.


Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Pépé Le Moko is among the high-end bartenders updating the recipes for some out-of-style cocktails.

Thomas Patterson for The New York Times

The new versions of these shady drinks, however, are not the cocktails your parents knew. While some bartenders may champion underdog cocktails, they are also aware that the drinks need a little work under the hood. Mr. Morgenthaler’s amaretto sour is boosted by a dose of bourbon. Mr. Dauermann’s Midori sour calls for gin, homemade lime cordial and egg white. And the hue of the blue margarita at the Automatic comes not from blue Curaçao but from butterfly pea flower.

“I can’t do it poorly,” said Dave Cagle, an owner of the Automatic. “I can’t look people in the face and sell them an $11 cup of food coloring and corn syrup.”

The Long Island iced tea may be the cocktail that most often inspires quixotic bartenders to don their lifeguard gear. Mr. Morgenthaler improves his with Mexican Coke, which contains cane sugar, not corn syrup….

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