When you hear the word “cocktail,” what comes to mind? For some, it may be James Bond and classy two-to-three-ingredient classics like the martini or old fashioned. If you look through the cocktail list at many bars today, though, you’ll see paragraph-long descriptions, scientific-sounding infusions and Bloody Marys garnished with a full English breakfast.
Is minimalism dead? Maybe, and while some may mourn the loss and hold on to their Manhattans for dear life, it’s time to accept the shift. Maximalist cocktails aren’t something to fear. Sure, they’re easy to poke fun at, but you can’t argue they don’t deserve their popularity.
The maximalist movement is everywhere, not just in the bar scene. t has taken over interior design, crept its way into wardrobes and filled our charcuterie boards with cheese we can’t pronounce. Drinks have taken longer to get in on the trend, but they’re fully in it now.
A few summers back, espresso martinis were all the rage. Admittedly, the ingredient list for this specific drink isn’t that long. But having to brew coffee just to put it in a cocktail shaker is certainly a step or two above its all-spirits ancestor. Since then, bars and their customers have leaned further into the “more is more” philosophy.
Take a look at Liquor.com’s most popular cocktails from the recent summer. Number one is the painkiller, boasting an entire pineapple wedge and a mountain of crushed ice as a garnish. Right below it is the notorious Long Island iced tea. Sangrias made in a French press, six-spirit sippers and a lot of muddling populate the rest of the list.
The people have spoken. Simple is out. Niche ingredients and borderline absurd techniques are in. But why?
You could explain the rise of maximalist cocktails—and maximalism in general—in a few different ways. A convincing argument is that people, especially younger generations, want to live in contrast to tough economic conditions. It’s no secret that prices and inflation have been rising for some time now. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened it.
Now that it’s harder to go beyond the necessities, people are going big where they can. Exorbitant drinks and indulgent presentation add a touch of luxury and excitement to an otherwise sad and drab world. A new car today may cost USD6,000 more than two years ago, but you can still afford to flex with a cocktail.
Of course, maximalist cocktails aren’t beloved by everyone. Anything reaching this level of popularity is bound to have people arguing it is overrated or outright bad. That’s especially true of anything involving alcohol, as anyone whose buddy just got back from doing the Bourbon Trail can attest.
Classic cocktail die-hards might tell you a drink should elevate its base spirit, not hide it. If your libation has seven different liquors in it, something’s probably getting lost in there. Others might lament that if you need to hide the booze in your drink, you probably shouldn’t be drinking.
There’s also a persistent idea that simpler cocktails are more refined. After all, the old fashioned is called that because the combination of liquor, bitters and sugar is one of the earliest cocktail recipes in print. Why mess with the classics? If it was good for the past two hundred years, it’s good now.
More practical arguments involve cost and labour. It’ll take your poor bartender much longer to make a six-plus-ingredient, highly technical cocktail than a spritz. Considering all the liquor going in it, it’s also likely to cost more.
It’s time to say nay to those nay-sayers. Popular drinks are popular for a reason, and it’s not just the Instagrammability of a hurricane glass with contents that look like a lava lamp. The maximalist cocktail has earned its keep, and here’s why. Cocktails aren’t cheap, even if you’re ordering a relatively simple one.
An old fashioned or martini can run you USD18 at many bars. With liquor prices being what they are, any drink is going to cost a pretty penny, whether it comes neat or with five mixers. If you’re going to go out and splurge on a cocktail anyway, why not go the extra mile? Why not get a statement for your money?
Money aside, maximalist cocktails are just plain fun. Does presentation make a drink taste better? Probably a little bit, but not all that much. It does, however, put a smile on your face. Going out to drink should be fun and what’s more fun than a boozy slushie with lit sparklers in it?
Contrary to what people taking notes on their bourbon will tell you, maximalist cocktails taste good, too. They may not be spirit-forward, but that’s not the only way a drink can be tasty. Sometimes, combining things into new flavours is more exciting than honing in on existing ones.
If nothing else, people have different tastes at the end of the day. If you like simple, spirit-forward cocktails, by all means, drink them. In the same way, let people drink fruity, over-the-top creations if they want to. There’s no sense in bashing maximalist drinks as a category just because you prefer something else. It doesn’t make anyone cooler or more refined.
To cap off this defence of the maximalist cocktail, it’s time for a look at history. Despite what it may seem, exorbitant mixed beverages aren’t a new phenomenon. Some of the longest-lasting, most revered classics are ridiculous when you think about it.
The Bloody Mary is a prime example. The brunch favourite has been around for over 100 years and is the epitome of over-the-top. Even its original, most basic version includes Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce.
Since then, creating the most extravagant Bloody Mary garnish has almost become a game. You’ll find Bloody Marys with bacon, shrimp skewers and even full hamburgers on top. The sheer absurdity of it is undoubtedly part of why it’s remained so popular for so long. It’s hard to think of a funnier drink than one topped with an entire fried chicken.
There’s also the entire class of Tiki drinks. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a group of cocktail enthusiasts more devoted to a certain kind of drink than Tiki fans. There’s also no denying that Tiki is inherently maximalist.
Tiki bar culture took off in the 1930s and has been slinging fruity, rum-heavy drinks nationwide ever since. While not every Tiki cocktail is extreme, many feature multiple kinds of rum. That’s before you get to all the added fruit juices, liqueurs and ornate glassware, too. With such an endearing legacy, it’s hard to say that maximalist cocktails aren’t at least historical.
If you haven’t yet forayed into the world of maximalist cocktails, there’s no time like the present. Here are a few ideas to start your journey. The mint julep is a good way to dip your toe in the water. It’s not crazy complex or hard to make. Even so, the mint garnish, piles of ice and requisite frosty silver chalice add just enough extravagance. If you want to kick it up a notch, check out this classic mint julep recipe that calls for eight—yes, eight—whole lemons.
Tiki is a natural next step. The eight-ingredient Zombie cocktail is a classic, and the inclusion of four different kinds of rum is maximalist to the core. Just be sure to pace yourself with this one.
From there, try your riff on a Bloody Mary or dip into fat-washed and infused rums. If you want a truly tedious drink, get a Pousse-Café. Keep in mind, though, that this particular drink is a pain to make. Take it easy on your bartender and don’t order one during a rush.
Maximalist cocktails have wavered in popularity over the years, but they’ve been part of cocktail culture longer than you might have thought. You can drink something else if you like. They may fade out of the cultural zeitgeist before long. But you can’t say they don’t deserve their spot in the most popular drinks lists.