When should we cancel cocktails (& when should we leave them alone)?

Agent Orange, Red Headed Slut; some cocktails leave a bad taste in the mouth.

When should we cancel cocktails (& when should we leave them alone)?
The Agent Orange cocktail: who'd want to drink such a drink? Illustration: Boothby/Shutterstock/Wikicommons

There was a brief flurry of outrage last year when a certain international drinks publication posted a cocktail on their social media feed, the truly unfortunately-named Agent Orange cocktail. The name refers to a herbicide and defoliant chemical used by the American armed forces during the Vietnam War to strip foliage from vast swathes of jungle where the Vietcong ran their supply lines.

Agent Orange led to serious health complications, cancers, and birth defects the effects of which are still seen and felt today, affecting more than 3 million people in Vietnam.

Posting the Agent Orange cocktail on social media without the context of history was clearly a mis-step. It was followed by the expected process of admonition, outrage and the white text on black background apology we have all grown accustomed to seeing in this modern age, with promises of introspection and a willingness to ‘do better’. So far, so routine for the contemporary internet outrage ecosystem.

For what it is worth, I believe the situation was handled as well and with the best intentions possible by the publication which I highly doubt meant to harm or insult anyone.

The cocktail itself is a rather middling mix of vodka, Grand Marnier and orange juice, a particularly forgettable mix not worth thinking about much — if not for the name. It understandably caused a huge amount of hurt to people across our industry who have Vietnamese family or experience; for me it was particularly vexing as I was working on a project in Hanoi built around how fermentation and food is deeply tied to Vietnamese culture, and after working with a truly inspirational group of people who are dedicating their life to maintaining fading culinary practices through modernist techniques, such lazy ignorance was frustrating to see.

This had come hot on the heels of the announcement of Rickshaw Bar in Melbourne, an orange-splashed mishmash of offensive cliche poking ridicule at the real, lived realities of the Vietnam war through design and menu programming. It was widely met with derision from the industry and the public alike and helped to spawn the phrase ‘rickshaw chic’. This phrase refers to the ignorant design, style and offering often seen throughout many ‘pan-Asian’ eateries and bars too numerous to name check.

However, the biggest surprise was not the standard cycle of outrage and apology but the chorus of dissenting voices decrying a politically correct cancel culture and listing other supposedly hallowed classic cocktails and questioning whether or not they would be next in front of the firing line of the ‘woke’ movement.

Here is a quick review of some of the cocktails offered up with the phrase “Oh what, should we cancel this cocktail now because of snowflakes?”, and my brief thoughts on both.

Agent Orange: I don’t really see how this could be anything but offensive to any parties.

B52: Potentially, as it was the name given to the Superfortress class of bombers which rained hell upon multiple civilian centres from the second world war up to the first Gulf war, including Vietnam – and practised wide campaigns of indiscriminate carpet bombing. Also, anything to stop me having to layer shots at 2am on a Friday.

Red Headed Slut: Given our industry’s pretty infamously lackluster treatment of women on both sides of the bar, perhaps looking at how we frame gender in cocktails could be beneficial in trying to address some of the ingrained prejudices in bartending? I’m also sure we can survive without having to mix cranberry, Jaeger and peach schnapps in an exceptionally sticky cup of chunder fuel.

Kamikaze: Widely viewed as a shameful chapter in Japanese history where young men were radicalised by the extreme interpretation of the Bushidō code which was in itself partially fabricated by the ruling military class, perhaps reviewing the subject matter of a bunch of young radicalised suicide bombers usually heavily under the influence of amphetamines can provide some context as to why the Kamikaze might be offensive. You can also just order a Balalaika with lime instead of lemon if you’re so desperate for a Vodka Daiquiri.

Irish Carbomb: As someone whose wife’s mother was caught up in the IRA car bombings in London I probably am predisposed against this cocktail, but instead I’ll provide the example of when I worked in the rebel county of Cork, Ireland in the early 2000s. I recall our publican Paul, who had a fist full of broken knuckles and a couple of gold teeth, telling the American tourists who ordered the Irish Carbombs that perhaps they’d prefer a couple of 9/11s instead. (This is the same man who also threatened to glass another tourist who requested a shamrock on his pint of Guinness, so perhaps it was more of a personal issue).

Zombie: While the name is definitely taken from the Haitian belief system encompassing Vodou, when the entire tiki category is based around various forms appropriation I think this particular example is the least of our concerns.

Going through the list of these and other cocktail names that have not aged well, I couldn’t help but wonder why some of our industry would choose this as their particular hill to die upon when it comes to reviewing our collective cocktail history.

Have we as bartenders not evolved past such immature innuendo, even if our customers haven’t? It fills me with pride to see brands and bartenders embracing and spearheading the fundraisers and initiatives which mean we can have a real,  measurable, and positive impact in our communities and industry.

We have a real industry-wide passion to support ecologically-driven programs, to strive for equity in our industry for people marginalised across gender and racial divides, we help our local communities to feed out-of-work bartenders during public health shutdowns, highlight the stigma of mental health and addiction in our peers, come together to raise money for Covid-19 support for those impacted communities and nations which inevitably provide the workforce to keep our industry moving, and support indigenous culture and identity through initiatives which make sure the returns go towards the stewards of the land.

While there is still so much work to be done, we have grown and matured so much as an industry in the last few decades and the question remains: “Is there room for cocktail names like these in our lexicon?” As we work towards true inclusion and equality in our industry should we not review our past and choose to exclude the potentially insulting or harmful names from drinks that, let’s be honest, nobody was ordering anyway?

There seems to be a solid case to be made for how cringe-worthy names matching up with awful drinks, presumably linked to the disco-era ‘slump age’ of cocktails which stuck around until the mid-nineties, when using ‘shock’ names was de rigueur to encourage tittering neophytes to order them as the quality of the ingredients ranged from bad to worse.

It’s very current to decry the demon of cancel culture, a supposed affront on our liberties and the mawkish ode to our so-called freedom to refuse to read the winds of cultural change. But we could choose to review our history judiciously and highlight and excise those moments which have been particularly negative and hurtful for those who make up the international modern bar industry. This can be our Song of the South moment, where Disney decided to remove the aforementioned film from its distribution due to its rosy-tinted treatment of American slavery.

We don’t need to erase cocktail history, but we can view it through a modern lens which enables us to be empathetic to modern sensitivities and adjust our messaging to ensure traditionally marginalised peoples feel like they have a part in our modern and mature industry.

And besides, no-one was ordering most of these horrible drinks anyway.