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What's in a (cocktail) name? How NYC bartenders pair flavors with words for summer drink menus

Mixologists draw on multiple inspirations and a sense of fun when coming up with cocktails like "The Donkey Kong" at The Broken Shaker and "The Tempest" at the Dead Poet.

At The Dead Poet, where all drinks are

At The Dead Poet, where all drinks are named after pieces of literature or writers, a spicy watermelon margarita made the perfect combination for "A Song of Ice and Fire." And, fresh huckleberry syrup is right on-the-nose for the gin smash-based drink the "Huckleberry Finn." Photo Credit: Claire Leaden

Whether ordering a go-to drink or trying out a new libation for the night, the name of a cocktail often draws in sippers almost as much as the concoction itself. “Martini” oozes class, “Tequila Sunrise” feels closer to the beach. A “French 75” gives permission to imagine sitting on a Parisian balcony.

Though stories of how classic cocktails earned those monikers are mostly unconfirmed, they’re said to come from locations (Daiquiri, Manhattan) to language translations (Piña Colada, Mojito) to ingredients (Tom Collins: Old Tom Gin, Martini: Martini & Rossi Vermouth).

Nowadays when bartenders and bar directors revamp their cocktail menus — which is often done seasonally — they not only have to combine different elements to make new drinks, but must also find the best names to call them by. While creating their spring/summer menus this year, NYC mixers created names from puns, plays on words and flavors, and pop culture trends — but no matter what, they always draw from the classics.

Flavors of the season

At the Broken Shaker in the Freehand Hotel in Kips Bay, which also has locations in Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles, the cocktail menu changes four times a year. When developing new drinks, Broken Shaker’s East Coast bar director Bobby Eldridge says they typically look to seasonal ingredients for ideas.

“The seasons themselves play a big part in the inspiration, like floral for spring, tropical in summer, and cozy cocktails in the fall or winter,” he explained. “When in the menu development process we do look into local inspiration, like browsing a local market with unique spices or extracts. It also helps the creative process to research popular classics to see how we can revamp them to give them a bit of ‘Shaker’ vibes.”

One new drink that draws on tropical influence is “The Donkey Kong,” a fermented banana colada with Ron Zacapa Rum, Wild Turkey 101 Rye, Crème de Cacao, coconut, pineapple and mole (and fermented bananas, of course). Eldridge said that after they developed the drink, the name was difficult to come up with. But once someone shouted out “Donkey Kong” it stuck, as an homage to the beloved video game character with a penchant for the fruit.

Kevin Cole, the owner and general manager of The Dead Poet on the Upper West Side, dubs their seasonal menus “Reading Lists,” reminiscent of college assignments. The bar’s original owner was an English teacher who wanted all the drinks to be named after poets, which their year-round menu follows. Cole is also a former English teacher, and comes up with the seasonal drinks first — mostly variations on classic cocktails — and pairs them with names second.

“I name these ones after titles, because it is supposed to be a reading list, so I get away from author names here,” he said. “And this is where we get a little more creative with either a play on the name or variation on the flavors.

“As a bartender you’re mostly just playing off somebody else’s stuff, using it as inspiration and either adding your own flavor or combining a couple different people’s flavors or combinations," Cole said.

For the spring “Reading List,” The Dead Poet embraces refreshing flavors, and more rums as the months get warmer. The Dark n’ Stormy (Gosling’s Black Seal Rum with Gosling’s Stormy Ginger Beer) was appropriately renamed “The Tempest,” and when the bar was losing customers to “Game of Thrones” on Sunday nights they came up with a spicy watermelon margarita dubbed “A Song of Ice and Fire.”

Drawing on tradition

Dakota Granados, a bartender who has worked at mostly Astoria locales like Sek'end Sun, District Saigon and most recently, The Last Word, likes to take “classic/modern cocktails that fit the drink’s template and mash up the name that way.

“I really try to keep lineage intact,” he said. “With all the bars and cocktail programs, these special drinks can get lost in history and out of our vernacular. I try my best to make sure that doesn’t happen," Granados said.

For example, on The Last Word’s spring menu, which Granados helped develop, is “The Canary.” It’s a play on the “Jungle Bird,” a modern classic cocktail made with black rum, but he swapped it out with white elements. It became a sister drink and since it was light in color was dubbed “The Canary.”

“That Dirty Dirty Martini” on the Broken Shaker’s spring menu was the easiest drink to name, according to Eldridge, because it’s basically a modified dirty martini with Grey Goose, Bombay Dry Gin, Dry Vermouth, Svöl Swedish Aquavit, Sweet Drops Peppers and Olive Brine.

“The naming process can be a lot of fun and challenging,” Eldridge said. “Some names are chosen to be fun and silly. Others are created by researching ingredients and paying homage to where or how they are created. And yes, sometimes there is a name that is waiting for just the right drink.”

Outside inspirations

But sometimes, creators have to beyond traditions to punch up the menu.

Cole will often use the “Listopia” feature on Goodreads, where he can search specific words or ingredients and then the top 100 books with that word in their title will appear. Other drinks are a match made in heaven: when The Dead Poet started creating all its own syrups and juices fresh in-house a few years ago, the “Huckleberry Finn” was born: a gin smash with fresh huckleberry simple syrup, ginger beer and hopped grapefruit bitters.

For regulars at the Broken Shaker, new cocktails may sound especially familiar.

“On our most recent menu change we used some of the bartenders' nicknames to highlight their creations,” he said. “It was both team building and entertaining.”

Broken Shaker's New York head bartender Evan Hawkins said the staff got together and made up silly ‘80s nightclub nicknames for each other — which is where the “Bobby Lava,” “Bad n’ Bitter” and “Big Citrus” names came from.

Granados’s next idea for more of a “concept menu” is to name drinks after all the bartenders' exes, and then have quippy descriptions that match the person as well as the drink.

“Great names tell you what you’re going to get,” he said. “Or they make you feel a certain way, and then the drink will complement that.”

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