After years of worshiping brown spirits and classic drinks, booze fans at this year's Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans turned the spotlight on a new color: blue. In particular, the sometimes-neon liqueur blue curaçao—often reviled as the antithesis of all things vintage and authentic—is back.
Blue drinks have long been a mixologists' in-joke. When bartenders were getting serious about pre-Prohibition cocktails about five years ago, jet-setting New Zealand bartender Jacob Briars invented the Corpse Reviver Number Blue, a piss-take on the sacrosanct classic Corpse Reviver #2 that was enjoying a major comeback.
Since then, he and other bartenders have been practicing "sabluetage"—spiking the drinks of unwitting victims with blue curaçao when no one is looking. The forbidden liqueur can now be found on the menus of a few of the world's best cocktail bars, including Jasper's Corner Tap in San Francisco, PDT in New York City (where it's mixed with other unfashionable ingredients, such as Frangelico and cream), and London's Artesian Bar (winner of the World's Best Hotel Bar award this week), where a new blue drink—called Blue Lagoon—also features Sprite and bubble tea.
What has spawned this artistic blue period? According to a panel discussion on the topic this weekend, blue-curaçao-cocktail recipes date back as far as 1908 (predating the margarita and even the original Corpse Reviver #2), but the reappearance of the ingredient is likely more an elitists' embracing of the down-market and absurd—the mixological equivalent of trucker hats among fashion's hipoisie several years ago.
There is also a consensus that perhaps everyone is taking all this classic-cocktail stuff a bit too seriously. Today's top bartenders may be walking encyclopedias of cocktail knowledge, but they're also aware that no one goes to a bar to hear an encyclopedia reading. Blue drinks are a reminder that drinking is supposed to be fun.
"At the end of the day, people want to have a good time," says Artesian's head barman, Alex Kratena, as he demonstrated making his drink for the Tales of the Cocktail audience. Of course, his cheeky blue bubble-tea drink will run you about $23 back in London. If you're willing to sacrifice the cool factor, you could always join the hordes of partying tourists on Bourbon Street, one block away from the convention, gulping down blue drinks that are served in souvenir plastic cups—for half the price. Irony, as always, costs extra.
—Camper English is an international cocktails and spirits writer and the publisher of alcademics.com.