Back to the future: retro cocktails deserve to be in the mix

A stylish hotel on the south coast of Spain inspires Joel Harrison to revisit a retro cocktail with a dubious image. Now back home, mixing more of the forgotten favourites only demonstrates why these drinks became popular in the first place

Words by Joel Harrison

Cocktails on a table at the El Fuerto hotel
Classic cocktails are served on the seafront terrace at the El Fuerte hotel in Marbella

I love travelling and heading out to explore new parts of the world is a real thrill. The more exotic the location, the better. Earlier this year, however, I found myself boarding a plane to Malaga in the south of Spain to visit a hotel just along the coast in Marbella.

The southern areas of Spain are always a delight to visit, thanks to guaranteed great weather and some of the best wines in the world, particularly the sherries from nearby Jerez. Yet this part of Spain comes with a fair amount of cultural baggage for a Brit like me; the Costa del Sol has something of a reputation as a honeypot for hen and stag parties, or large groups of lager-soaked lads in nylon football shirts looking for cheap drinks in even cheaper nightclubs.

What I found in Marbella was almost the exact opposite. Checking in to the newly renovated El Fuerte hotel, I found myself in a retro-oasis, a beach-front paradise that manages to meld all the glamour of the past with a nod to modern luxury. A short walk into the old town of Marbella and I could have been in a village in the Spanish countryside, church bells ringing out across the local square as elderly men played cards in the warmth of a late summer’s evening. Not a single England shirt in sight, this place had totally confounded my expectations.

The outside bar at El Fuerte hotel
The retro styling at the El Fuerte hotel called for a cocktail to match: the Cosmopolitan

Back at the hotel, the classic retro styling of tasseled, striped umbrellas on the seafront terrace called for one drink and one drink only: a Cosmopolitan. This is a drink that comes with cultural baggage of its own, thanks to the image of a neon-bright concoction that screams ‘1990s’ as much as the lads-lads-lads tours of nearby Malaga and the annual ‘no carbs ’til Marbs’ diets that were the call-to-arms of their female counterparts.

Yet here I was in a sumptuous, peaceful – dare I even say classy – location with a well-balanced, utterly delicious drink, both of which have redrawn their own reputations into something very different indeed.

It is a wonderful thing when negative connotations are defied. Marbella did just that to me. Rejuvenated and reinvented, it has, thanks to hotels such as El Fuerte, refocused on old world glamour, reframing its reputation as a stylish European destination. And the Cosmo I was sipping? It wasn’t my last and has started me on journey of rediscovery with forgotten retro cocktails.

A cosmopolitan
A modern interpretation of the Cosmopolitan, far removed from the 'neon-bright concoctions' of the 1990s (Photo: Vinnie Whiteman)

Back at home, it was time to mix up a Cosmo of my own. The simple mix of vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and lime is elevated, I find, with a dash of sparkling wine in the top, giving the drink a gentle fizz and an extra layer of elegance. This ‘Sparkling Cosmo’ fast became my go-to in the short September heatwave and sparked my curiosity for exploring other forgotten favourites.

I started to dig around in my drinks cabinet, pulling out dusty bottles and getting to work on trying out some classics. What better than to rediscover the utterly brilliant and hugely underrated Amaretto Sour. Hiding in a dark corner of my drinks cabinet was a bottle of Disaronno, purchased pre-pandemic when researching the Amaretto category. Slinging this sweet, marzipan-like liquor together with lemon juice for a nutty, almond-driven sour delighted me and before I knew it my bottle of Disaronno was empty, with another already added to my next grocery order.

From the Amaretto Sour, my exploration of retro cocktails moved on to the Snowball, the Grasshopper, even a Tequila Sunrise. And each and every one of these drinks is a winner. Forgotten thanks to fashion, not flavour, my call to you is to put aside what these drinks supposedly said about their drinkers in the past and create new memories with them. Just as Marbella is no longer about lager-swigging Brits, let these retro cocktails redefine themselves and show you just why they were popular in the first place. Dig around in the back of your drinks cabinet and see what you can find. It might just be that a lurid bottle of Midori makes a magical Melon Ball, after all.

What Joel has been drinking this month…

  • What do drinks writers choose when they’re off booze? Well, I love a refreshing cider, which, when it comes to no- and low- options, seems to be way ahead of beer in the flavour game. My latest discovery is Sheppy’s Low Alcohol Classic Cider. At 0.5% ABV, it is utterly refreshing, with all the flavour you could expect from a higher alcohol option.
  • The Isle of Harris Distillery is famed for its fantastic gin and finally, after years of waiting, the distillery has launched the first ever single malt from the island, called The Hearach. The dram is so delicious that 25,000 customers queued online to buy the whisky the day it was released in late September. I’ve had a chance to try it and it is buttery, malty and richly vanilla-led. Bottles are on general sale now.
  • For the last few years, Diageo, the biggest producer of Scotch whisky in the world, has chosen a tiny selection of their casks to appear in an annual ultra-rare Prima & Ultima series. This year sees the fourth collection released, consisting of eight different whiskies. The pick of the eight is the Talisker 1976, the oldest ever release from this distillery; it is smoky and supple, salty yet fruity. There are 413 sets of Prima & Ultima Fourth Release available for purchase, costing £45,580 each in the UK.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique