If you visited New York or San Francisco—two of America's most vibrant food cities—and hit up their coolest cocktail bars five or six years ago, you'd find yourself face-to-face with an army of vested, mustachio'd gentlemen chattering about brambles and fizzes and the nuances of making the perfect Old Fashioned. The age of the decidedly indiscreet speakeasy was in full swing.
But after a while, worshipping the old got kind of old. And girls and boys alike, sooner or later, just want to have fun.
If you're cruising around either of those metropolises these days, you'll still find places that worship Aviations and tinctures and wax poetic about their antique light fixtures. But you'll also find a hell of a lot of people who are content to kick back with a piña colada and let the trashy good times roll.
And Pink Squirrels … well, they're for those who love a good time. And nutmeg shavings.
Invented in the 1950s by Bryant Sharp at Bryant's Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Pink Squirrel has enjoyed an illustrious ride in drink history, starting as a cheeky but somewhat glamorous cocktail, then swaying into the territory of marked girlishness, and eventually fading into obscurity. Traditionally, it's made with heavy cream, crème de noyaux (almond liqueur), and crème de cacao—yes, this drink is very, very creamy—but interpretations have incorporated everything from ice cream and white chocolate to maraschino cherries. The drink was included in Tom Cruise's poetic soliloquy in Cocktail, but its last appearances in mainstream pop culture came in a rash of mentions on 90s feminist sitcoms; apparently, if your name is Roseanne, Fran, or Ellen, the Pink Squirrel was square on your radar during the era of crimped hair and mom jeans.
On a 1988 episode of Roseanne, the star's forlorn, Basset Hound-ish friend Crystal opts for one after getting dumped in the episode "Here's to Good Friends." In The Nanny, Fran gets trashed after indulging in the innocuous-seeming cocktails, slurring to herself, "I don't know what they put in a pink squirrel, but I don't know how squirrels hang on to their nuts." (The clip starts at about 8:39 below.)
Ellen DeGeneres, in fictionalized form on her eponymous mid-90s sitcom Ellen, makes a quip about her gay friend Peter's affinity for the decidedly un-macho drink. But thereafter, there was hardly a Pink Squirrel to be found for a couple of decades.
But as cocktail culture has continued to chug along beyond its passionate affair with craft whiskeys and suspendered mixologists, we've found ourselves opting for drinks—and bartenders—that take themselves a little less seriously. Take, for instance, the trend forecast report recently released by J Walter Thompson's Innovation Group, which says that young people are increasingly opting for 70s retro over played-out flapper-era cocktail nostalgia. Or tell the mill of coolness to go fuck itself, but note New York's invasion of new bars that are more interested in serving maraschino-topped Mai Tais than minimalistic Manhattans. Should you long for a flamboyantly garnished, Golden Girls-friendly drink in the Big Apple, the last year alone has seen the opening of the East Village's Mother of Pearl, the West Village's Happiest Hour, Bushwick's El Cortez, Forest Hills' End of the Century, and Williamsburg's Xanadu and Oleanders.
At Xanadu, the year-round rooftop bar atop the McCarren Hotel, the Pink Squirrel has reappeared, thanks to an interest in emulating the style of old-school cocktail pioneers like Dale DeGroff, who never shied away from crème de menthe or cherry liqueur.
"Being in New York at the time of this Prohibition revival was great, and it was great to enjoy these beautiful classic cocktails of that era," explains bar manager Francis Verrall. "But now it's fun to enjoy these cool drinks that were popular in the 70s and 80s."
RECIPE: Xanadu's Pink Squirrel
Verrall had never had a Pink Squirrel before working Xanadu, but always had an affinity for its better-known, mintier cousin: the Grasshopper, which is served downstairs at Xanadu's sister bar, Oleanders.
"One of my guilty pleasures since I was 18 years old, and I'm 35 now, was a Grasshopper, which is a very similar-type drink. And being a bartender especially in New York City, you don't often tell people your guilty pleasure drinks. You tell people, 'Oh, if I'm not drinking beers or shots, I'll have Old Fashioneds or Negronis,' but I always had a secret liking for the Grasshopper."
Apparently, so do a lot of other people. Both the Grasshopper and the Pink Squirrel have proven successful menu additions.
"The Pink Squirrel is sort of one of those cocktails that our mothers drank when they were in college," Verrall says. "It's one of those late-70s, trendy cocktails that people were drinking in New York especially."
Many Pink Squirrel recipes incorporate cheap syrups or even vanilla ice cream to achieve the dessert-like quality that makes them such a treat, but in Verrall's words, "If you're on a rooftop and you want a night out, you're not generally going to want a whole cup of ice cream." Xanadu instead uses crème de noyaux and crème de cacao made by Tempus Fugit, a spirits company that specializes in resurrecting rare liquors and traditional absinthes.
But trust us, you won't taste the pretense. The Pink Squirrel isn't about showing off; on the contrary, it's about finding a sexy and delicious quality in something a bit gaudy, like Fran Drescher's laugh.
"People scoff at the idea of these drinks, but when you use quality spirits and you make them well, a lot of bartenders have expanded ways to really make these drinks taste great," argues Verrall. "I think over the next year there will be a lot more fun stuff happening. It's like going back to the early TGI Friday's days."
And who wouldn't love a platter of potato skins to accompany their Pink Squirrel?