Blue Cocktails Are Coming Back, and They Are Delicious
Danny Meyer just launched his latest project, a rough-hewn, deep South-accented bar in New York’s west Chelsea, Porchlight, where he’s doling out bourbon bar nuts, cheddar corn bread, rye whisky, and homemade cola. One cocktail on his list is a standout: Gun Metal Blue, a smoky mezcal base with a rich citrus kick that also happens to be, well, blue. Porchlight isn’t alone. Among cocktail jockeys, blue curaçao is making as unlikely (and impressive) a comeback as Michael Keaton did in Birdman.
Take Alex Kratena, head bartender at the award-hogging Artesian in London. He regularly uses the colorful liqueur in his Wonka-like creations, like the gin-based Bubble Tea Blue Lagoon. (It involves green tea-infused blue curaçao and ponzu vinegar.) Or Jim Meehan, who reports that one of the top sellers at his beloved Manhattan speakeasy, PDT, is the pastel blue Shark, topped with a paper umbrella. San Francisco’s Dirty Habit combines gin, sherry, pineapple juice, and blue curaçao to make Son of the Beach, while the team at Kirkland Tap and Trotter near Boston uses its own house-made curaçao in the tequila-based Leaps and Bounds.
The exact origins of blue curaçao are hazy. Most experts credit Dutch booze conglomerate Lucas Bols with introducing it some time in the early 20th century. Bols took a traditional triple sec made from bitter oranges grown on the namesake island and added a cheery slug of artificial dye for extra shelf appeal. By the 1950s, this neon liqueur was widely available; to boost sales, a rep from the firm encouraged a Waikiki bartender to create a vodka-and-pineapple-based drink called the Blue Hawaii. In an era of Hawaii Five-O and tiki bars, this kitschy tribute to Polynesia became a runaway success, quickly making Bols’ blue tincture ubiquitous on back bars. (Perhaps it’s also the reason Romulan ale is aquamarine.)
The liqueur’s reputation suffered in the 1970s and '80s, when it was too closely linked with the sweet, proudly artificial drinks that were becoming staples on cruises and at cheap beach resorts. By the 1990s, when a few nerdish purists reached back past Prohibition for skills and recipes to kickstart a new age of bartending, blue drinks were sneerily dismissed, and blue curaçao was used more as a punchline than for punch. It’s for that very reason New Zealand bartender Jacob Briars became its unofficial champion.
“Cocktail archeology—bringing back drinks from pre-Prohibition, or creating bespoke bitters—comes with a slightly suffocating seriousness at times,” Briars says, proudly brandishing a bottle of blue curaçao at the kitchen counter of his apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I love serious drinks, but really? Can we no longer have fun?”
Briars has worked as a brand ambassador for more than a decade—currently, in a senior position with Bacardi—but it was eight years ago, while organizing a cocktail competition, that his sense of mischief was piqued by a silly Facebook group. “It was called "Jihad on All Blue Drinks," and I thought: Is this what we have come to?” he laughs. Briars started experimenting with some blue curaçao and devised a witty riff on the newly rediscovered gin-based cocktail from the 1930s, the Corpse Reviver Number 2; he called it the Corpse Reviver Number Blue.
Delicious yet subversively day-glo, it became a cult favorite among colleagues; soon, rebel bars were offering their own blue drinks, a nosethumbing gesture to the snooty affect of some new cocktail joints. One Melbourne den even playfully offered the chance to upgrade any drink on its menu with a slug of blue curaçao for 50 cents. (They called it ‘sabotage’.)
By 2012, the blue bandwagon had gained enough momentum that Briars was asked to helm a seminar on the subject at Tales of the Cocktail, the bartending world’s boozy version of Davos. This endorsement rapidly encouraged the revival of blue curaçao over the last two years—and for good reason. It’s a versatile spirit, a citrusy triple sec that can sub for Cointreau or Grand Marnier in most recipes, deeding a slightly sweeter, heavier flavor profile and a proudly unnatural color to the resulting mashup.
Bols may make the best-known blue curacao, but there are alternatives, such as the Genuine Curacao Liqueur, made on the island by the Senior & Co. family, or Kirkland Tap & Trotter’s small batch house liqueur, cooked up over 20 days from vodka, gin, bitter orange peel, and cloves before receiving its signature tint. Briars, who championed blue curaçao as a deliberate rebuttal of such artisanal intensity, is keen to preserve its kitschy joy. “There’s not a single time you can put a blue drink down in front of people when it doesn’t make them smile.” He pauses, “And that’s what we’re in this industry for, after all.”
Drink This Now.
Inspired to dabble in blue drinks at home? Start off by making these three modern classics, including the drink with which Briars began it all.
Corpse Reviver Number Blue
By Jacob Briars
1 oz Bombay Sapphire
1 oz Lillet Blanc
1 oz blue curaçao
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1 dash of absinthe
Shake well, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon zest.
By John deBary, PDT, New York
1.5 oz. Butter-infused Bacardi Heritage Rum*
.75 oz. lemon juice
.5 oz. Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum
.5 oz. pineapple juice
.375 oz. Frangelico
.375 oz. Senior Blue Curaçao
.25 oz. cane syrup
.25 oz. heavy cream
.25 tbsp. Bittermens Elemakule Tiki Bitters
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled rocks glass filled with pebble ice. Garnish with a lemon wheel and an umbrella.
(*To produce buttered rum, melt one stick of unsalted butter over a medium heat. (Do not brown.) Add to 750ml of rum, leave for 24 hours at room temperature to infuse, then put in the freezer for two hours. Remove the fat with a fine strainer and bottle.)
Son of the Beach
By Brian Means, Dirty Habit, San Francisco
1 oz. Citadelle Gin
1 oz. Fino Sherry
.5 oz. pineapple gum
.5 oz blue curaçao
.5 oz lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and shake for about 10-15 seconds to chill down. Double strain over shaved ice in a double old fashioned and garnish with pineapple leaves and seasonal berries.
Gun Metal Blue
By Nick Bennett, Porchlight, New York
1.5 oz Mezcal Vida
.5 oz blue curaçao
.25 oz peach brandy
.75 oz lime
.25 oz bitter cinnamon syrup
Shake all the ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe, topping with a sliver of orange peel. (Singe with a raw flame, if possible, before dropping into the liquid.)