Because though the show celebrates — and has boosted modern-day interest in — classic cocktails, it is set in a decade, the '60s, when mixed drinks were sliding into a sugary slump, says drinks historian David Wondrich.
"Cocktails were struggling because they were kind of for the square, old-establishment types, they weren't for the new generation," says Wondrich, drinks columnist for Esquire magazine. Old-school bartenders were retiring and "getting replaced by young wannabe novelists and actors and not people who were going into it for a profession."
Since those days, there's been a revival of well-made drinks and the ingredients to create them, and bartending has become so seriously scientific it's known as mixology.
Back then, producers were still trying to sell spirits, but with new, zippy approaches that leaned heavily on brand advertising. "Those drinks can be fun in context; they're not primarily aimed at flavour or balance or anything like that," says Wondrich.
But if the drinks weren't particularly exciting, the "Mad Men" era was the best of times for the cocktail scene setting.
"The culture of the cocktail really exploded in the '60s," says Maureen Petrosky, author of "The Cocktail Club." Suddenly there were cocktail dresses, new glassware, bar couture, Tiki drinks. The cocktail hour had its own wardrobe.
What the "Mad Men" — and women — drink says a lot. One of Petrosky's favourite drinks scenes in "Mad Men" is when Roger returns from a business trip with a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka, not then available in the U.S. He shares it with Don, but when Pete, the colleague no one finds particularly congenial, shows up Roger tells Don to pour Pete a drink — but not the Stoli. "It was so telling of his opinion of Pete and of this new vodka," says Petrosky.
With the final episodes of the season set to begin April 5 on AMC, we put together a selection of signature drinks from the series and era.
— Vodka gimlet: This is Betty's signature drink and would most likely have been made with half vodka, half Rose's West India Sweetened Lime Juice served over ice. When the Cuban missile crisis looms and there's trouble in her marriage to Don, Betty orders a gimlet at a bar before engaging in a backroom tryst with a stranger.
— Dry martini: The show's second season picked up in 1962, the year "Dr No" came out informing the world that James Bond drank a vodka — as opposed to the more traditional gin — martini that was shaken and not stirred. A traditional approach is 2 ounces vodka, 1/3 ounce dry vermouth, olive garnish. If you're serving this over ice, Wondrich points out it really doesn't matter whether you shake or stir.
— Old fashioned: Back then this would have been made with a cheap, blended whisky, possibly Don's favourite Canadian Club. Start with a sugar cube and a few drops of bitters and muddle in a cherry and orange wedge, adding the whiskey and possibly a lemon wedge garnish. These days, bartenders use a good bourbon or rye and add just a dash of sugar and bitters.
— Bloody mary: These are a leitmotif of "Mad Men," sometimes served as a morning eye-opener and made by young Sally Draper for her parents, Don and Betty, in Season 2. Sally goes heavy on the vodka, but these drinks normally would have been made much as they are today, says Wondrich. A simple approach is 1 1/2 ounces vodka poured over rocks in a tall glass, fill with tomato juice, add dashes of Worcestershire and Tabasco sauce, salt and pepper to taste and a celery stick garnish.
— Bonus cocktail, the bull shot: This hasn't been featured in the series, but Wondrich says it's the kind of off-menu drink that ad men would order in the '60s to boost their street cred. The recipe is simple — a couple ounces vodka, equal parts Campbell's Beef Consomme, a few shots of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces, served on the rocks. The drink, says Wondrich, is "actually kind of good. Disturbingly good."
Michelle Locke tweets at https://twitter.com/Locke_Michelle