Retro Cocktail Conundrum

Ahhh…the ’70s. The era of shag-carpeted fern bars where the groovy types slugged back Harvey Wallbangers. Creamy drinks were also in—Mudslides, Pink Ladies, Grasshoppers—as were citrusy Amaretto Sours and Kamikazes. Bearing sometimes outlandish monikers, many of these libations delivered punches of familiar, almost comfort-food flavors such as orange, peach and vanilla (along with heavy cream), often invoked to mask less-than-premium spirits and, frankly, to encourage excess consumption.

Many of today’s bartenders scoff at the lack of skill, quality ingredients and care involved in churning out the drinks of the disco days. A handful, however, are dipping their toes into the shallower end of the mixology pool to experiment with applying craft cocktail techniques to update these drinks.

The move raised the ire of cocktail historian and drinks expert David Wondrich, whose recent column in Esquire questions the need for a better Melon Ball or a Long Island Iced Tea that challenges the palate. Well-known bartender, author and influencer Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who holds forth at Clyde Common in Portland, OR, answers Wondrich with his own column. He asserts that “rehabilitating” these drinks is a worthwhile creative challenge. Doing so with respect for the drink’s origin is part of practicing the craft of bartending, he says, not to mention fun for the bartender and, when done well, the guest.

I suspect these two will agree to disagree, but they raise an interesting question. Can the cocktails of the 1970s be made relevant for today’s consumer? As the marketers of PBR and the retro Miller Lite can will surely attest, retro is hip and can spark volume and sales. Younger consumers gravitate to the authentic vibe, while older ones appreciate the throwback appeal. On-premise operators and retailers looking to differentiate may want to give these cocktails from the time of wood paneling and lava lamps a second look.

Some things to consider when pondering the ’70s cocktail conundrum:

Long Island Iced Tea

  • This one, created in the 1970s at the Oak Beach Inn, remains a standard in many bars. Two-fifths (39%) of consumers order the drink on-premise once a month or more often, according to our SpiritsTAB.
  • The LIIT lends itself to volume: Six in 10 consumers order two or more per occasion.
  • The drink appears on menus at numerous casual-dining chains, including a traditional rendition with premium brands menued at Applebee’s and the Long Ireland Iced Tea recently added to the Bennigan’s menu, featuring Jameson Irish Whiskey.


  • Created in the 1950s and popular through the ’80s, the cocktail’s presence on menus is on a downward slide lately; the number of operators offering the drink declined 23% in 2014, according to MenuMonitor.
  • Some menus do present creative updates on the creamy libation. Quaker Steak & Lube offers the SoCo XO Mudslide, involving Southern Comfort, Patron XO Café, Island Oasis ice cream and Hershey’s syrup.
  • In the better-for-you age, this dessert-style drink may offer a welcome indulgence, but the looming calorie-count regulations may require some drink engineering savvy.


  • One-quarter of Millennials report increased shot consumption at home and in restaurants or bars, according to our 2015 Trends in Adult Beverage survey. This classic shot could be positioned to capture some of those increased occasions.
  • Updated versions of the cocktail include the Khan’s Kamikaze, featuring Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Chambord, lime juice and cranberry juice at Genghis Grill.

Donna Hood Crecca

A veteran of the foodservice industry, Donna Hood Crecca leads the firm’s Convenience Store Practice and is active in its Adult Beverage Practice. She develops research-based insights and recommendations for leading and emerging supplier and operator companies to enhance their go-to-market and product development programs and strategies.

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