The Agents of Smash

Whiskey smashes are really hot right now, and just the thing to cool you off on Labor Day.

Courtesy of Applebee's
A whiskey smash.

Courtesy of Applebee’s

Today, we have a tasty, late-summer beverage for you. When I say “you,” I mean you, the discerning adult thirsty to wrap up the season with a simple sunny drink. When I say “we,” I mean I, a drinks writer supposing that smashes are having a moment this year.

At the NoMad Bar in Manhattan, you can buy a Madison Park Smash—a “supercolossal eight-drink megacocktail”—for a mere $110. At Williams & Graham in Denver, you can try the “Centennial Smash” recently proposed as the unofficial cocktail of Colorado. Smashes have turned up at the regional franchises of the Northeast and in the hot spots of North Carolina. Variations have been proposed by the recipe columnists of San Diego and the dipsographers of the blogosphere alike. I write this sentence having just ordered a classic whiskey smash at an Applebee’s. What is going on here? (Other than my earnest contemplation of steak quesadilla towers.) Why are smashes hot right now? Please hop on this here barstool to hear a brief yarn about trends in taste.

The smash began as a combination of liquor, sugar, mint, and ice—“simply a julep on a small plan” in the oft-repeated phrase of Jerry Thomas, the seminal 19th-century barkeep. Imbibe!, David Wondrich’s history of Thomas and his era, gives us a taste of the days when the smash was a big hit:

From its first appearance in the mid-1840s until after the Civil War, the Smash was just about the most popular thing going. In the 1850s, at the height of the Smash’s popularity, all the “pert young men,” the Broadway dandies, San Francisco swells, and junior New Orleans grandissimes, seemed to spend the warm months of the year with a smash glued to one hand and a “segar” to the other. In fact, the Smash became rather an icon of dissipation, as in the hit in Harper’s Monthly from 1859 about one young son of privilege’s experience in college, “he acquired the proper proficiency in Greek, Latin, Mathematics, slang, billiards, and brandy smashes.”

Thus, cocktail writers continued including it in their books into the 20th century, even though it was not really anything to write home about. Not until the 1990s did Dale DeGroff have the bright, brightening idea to muddle some pieces of lemon with the mint leaves. DeGroff—whose nickname, “King Cocktail,” testifies to his status as a founding father of today’s fancy-schmancy cocktail world—has often talked up his whiskey smash as a drink for people who think they hate whiskey. (Also, he has recommended pairing it with tomato, cheese, and dough in the pages of the restaurant industry’s most delightfully named magazine, Pizza Today.) In 2009, one of DeGroff’s heirs, Jim Meehan, elaborated the smash’s attractions: “The name and base spirit were manly enough for the Manhattan drinker, and the muddled mint and citrus convinced the fruity-cocktails crowd to give it a shot.”

Which brings us to 2014 at Applebee’s. “It’s unusual for casual dine,” the chain’s beverage director, Mike Hurt, told me this week. “A clean, straightforward, whiskey-prominent cocktail.” No, such a thing is not typical at a casual dining restaurant, no offense. The sticky-sweet Fireball Whiskey Lemonade on this new menu is much more their cup of Long Island iced tea. How shall we account for the appearance of this classic in these precincts?

Here, have a theory: The smash is the in thing at some craft-cocktail bars because of its simplicity. Those cats and kittens, exiting a Baroque phase, are rediscovering the virtues of minimalism. But their exercises in artisanal arcana have had a broad influence; the general public has grown more daring in its tastes, the humble publican more sophisticated in his offerings. I wonder how many other people had the vacation experience I did, this August, of strolling into a favorite oceanside restaurant to find that the old drinks list, which seemed to have been written by Jimmy Buffett, had made way for a new one featuring such ingredients as fig puree and kombucha.

The titans of casual dining have been savvily shameless about adjusting to these changes in mass taste and popular pretense, this new free range of motion. (“Consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated about what makes a balanced cocktail,” Wayne Curtis wrote in a 2011 Atlantic article, “and the chains don’t want to be caught flat-footed, the way the major beer labels were when regional microbrews arose.”) In May, T.G.I. Friday’s announced its Peach Honey Smash in a press release titled “TGI Fridays™ Launches Food Truck and Tour of Handcrafted America to Celebrate New Summer Menu Featuring a Variety of Handcrafted Enhancements.” (The enhancements included not just the items listed on the menu, but the thing itself, with its “natural-textured finish and bold photographs that communicate the brand’s handcrafted quality.”) When I asked Matt Durbin, the Friday’s executive responsible for “beverage and bar innovation,” how the Peach Honey Smash came to be, he nodded at research suggesting the popularity of brown spirits among millennials and women, and he described the smash’s appeal in DeGroffian terms—“an approachable way to enter the whiskey category.” Also, he used the syllable “craft” about 20 times in the course of a 10-minute conversation.

Which is to hint that the smash is in this condition because of its mint. It’s not just that the muddled leaves give a drink a springy zing. It’s not just that the sprig on top is pretty to sniff. It is that the mint represents, in Durbin’s useful phrase, “a great quality cue.” Garnishing the drink, it garlands the brand, concisely suggesting freshness and vibrancy and know-how. “It increases credibility,” said Hurt, of Applebee’s. “We really want to signal to our guests that there’s a real bartender back there.”

Of course, the spearmint does not make the barmaid, it seems obvious to me, from my perch at Applebee’s, watching my smash get bashed out. The bartender doesn’t shake the drink. Doesn’t really stir it, either. Here I sort of have a lot of bourbon sitting atop a mint lemonade. Still, I’m making out better than I would have with a Skinnybee Blueberry ’Rita.

I want you to avoid my fate when assembling your own home-crafted whiskey smash this Labor Day weekend—and I want to share a labor-saving tip. Start making your drink by tossing a small handful of mint—10 small leaves or five large ones, say—into the shaker: You’re going to let the ice do the muddling for you, and you’re going to skip the business with the lemon wedges (unless your bourbon is so cheaply sweet that you badly need the bitterness of lemon oil to counter it). Add half an ounce of simple syrup, half an ounce of fresh lemon juice, and 2 ounces of bourbon or rye (the latter will sizzle all the more nicely if you dash in some orange bitters). Shake well with ice. Strain into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice, crushed or otherwise. Top it off with more ice yet and a sprig of mint as green as the grass on the other side of the fence.