Penicillin: The Cocktail Cure-All

The new age of cocktails has a cosmo deficiency. Penicillin is the remedy

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Are you a survivor of the tyranny of the cosmopolitan? Freshly made or frozen, buoyant and regal, it dominated every club and bar, enthroned on the stiletto-thin stem of a martini glass—empress of early-’00s nightlife. Sharing the name of the magazine that championed female libidinal liberation, adopted as the in-house cocktail of HBO’s Sex and the City, the cosmo became an affordable accessory for women—and to a large extent, gay men—who aspired to a lifestyle that was otherwise fantasy. It almost didn’t matter how it tasted.

Eventually, the dictatorship of vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice was overthrown; a culture of cocktails that was idiosyncratic and loca-bar, both retro and avant-garde, took over. Still, however, the shadow of the ancien régime persists. Today’s mixologists can barely disguise their annoyance when asked, “When are you going to create something new that’s as successful as the cosmo?”

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They will argue that a number of drinks have emerged as new classics, taking a seat at the bar and imparting the new philosophy. Case in point: Penicillin, which has spread from a bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to establishments around the world. A fancy French bistro overlooking the Las Vegas Strip boasts that its Penicillin is the cocktail of the year (though it did not originate there). Meanwhile, Brooklyn Brewery has created a Penicillin-like beer as a tribute. “Friends send me pictures of Penicillin on the menu from all over,” says Sam Ross of Milk & Honey, who concocted the drink in 2005 and proudly shares the recipe. He says the name is a joke about its being a cure-all.

Essentially, Penicillin is a transmogrification of a whiskey sour with a peaty single-malt, richly muddled ginger and honey, and a heady overlay of an Islay scotch like Laphroaig—tangy, sweet and smoky all at once. Compared with the cosmo, it is a universe of complexity, the ferocity of the single-malt absorbed and lathed by the honey and ginger. In Ross’s hands, Penicillin is particularly luscious, perhaps because of the viscosity of the bar’s freshly made honey-ginger syrup. “Most successful new cocktails are variations on the classics and use only a few ingredients,” says Ross. “Sasha Petraske”—owner of Milk & Honey—“says that if we’ve concocted something with seven or eight, we haven’t been working hard enough on the recipe.” Ross is set to inherit the Milk & Honey space in October and plans to turn it into a new bar called Attaboy.

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Penicillin is the most popular creation of the neo-speakeasy culture that emerged in the middle aughts—one full of secret entrances to tiny bars, long wait lists compiled through arcane connections, sometimes vulgar showmanship and a stunning connoisseurship of flavors that blend, complement and adhere despite conflicting natures. It is easy to spoof the new mixology: there is at least one YouTube satire set to hip-hop. But its brashness—in adopting molecular gastronomy even as it revives old recipes—is bracing. The result is a mixology renaissance not seen since Prohibition. There may not be a new cosmopolitan, but its place has been filled. Says John deBary of the seminal neo-speakeasy PDT, an adviser to the Momofuku restaurant empire: “The cocktail is the new cosmo.”

2 oz. any favorite single-malt or blended scotch (lightly peated)
1⁄4 oz. Islay scotch
3⁄4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1⁄8 oz. honey syrup
3⁄8 oz. sweetened ginger juice
candied ginger to garnish

The New Classics
The new golden age of mixology has spawned other popular creations, apart from Sam Ross’s Penicillin. Here are three more. Directions as well as the recipes for other classics—both new and old—can be found in Ross’s iPhone app “Bartender’s Choice.”

The Bramble
Created by British mixology legend Dick Bradsell, it predates the cosmo, but its friendly-flirty spirit remains nouvelle—thanks to the blackberries
2 oz. gin
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 oz. simple syrup
3 oz. muddled blackberries
crushed ice

Gin-Gin Mule
Invented by Audrey Saunders—one of the luminaries of the current cocktail scene—it’s like a first ride on a swing: cheerfully addictive fun
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1⁄2 oz. simple syrup
1⁄2 oz. sweetened ginger juice
2 oz. gin
club soda

Oaxaca Old-Fashioned
Disarming but treacherous, it slides you into a new kind of intoxication with its substitution of mescal and tequila for bourbon. Only real Mad men need apply
1 1⁄2 oz. reposado tequila
1⁄2 oz. mescal
1 tsp. agave nectar
dash of Angostura bitters
orange peel with pith

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