Baby Got Black Label
Baby Got Black Label, a 90s take on the whiskey sour (Photo: Andrews McMeel Publishing)

Captain Marvel. The cultural reappraisal of Sublime. Chunky sneakers everywhere.

The ‘90s are officially back.

And while cocktail culture truly came of age in the aughts, drinks writer (and occasional InsideHook contributor) Sam Slaughter has an affinity for the decade that brought us The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “Mambo No. 5” and Right Said Fred.

Out today, Slaughter’s cocktail tome Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum? serves as an ode to the Clinton era. It’s one part nostalgia, one part legitimately good cocktail recipes that stand up . There are riffs on cocktail classics like the Negroni (“The Gin Red Line”) and the whiskey sour (“Baby Got Black Label”) along with “original creations born from many hours talking with bartenders about ingredients and going all Dexter’s Laboratory on my liquor cabinet to grown-up versions of the kids’ drinks I enjoyed at the time,” as Slaughter writes.

Dark Rum book

It’s also possibly the most reader-friendly and colorful cocktail book you’ll pick up this year — these are all drinks any home bartender could make with ease, and the photography by Amy Ellis is bright and fun.

(It’s quite funny, too. Slaughter builds a drink themed around a terrible ’90s-era web browser he’s dubbed Fernetscape Navigator)

We spoke with Slaughter about his inspirations … many of which are Nickelodeon based.

What was your impression of drinking culture in the ’90s?
At the turn of the century, I was only 13, so my memories are what my parents drank — they were Budweiser people, then moved on to Corona and Sam Adams Cherry Wheat. During the summers, they would drink those TGIF-brand Mudslide mixes. When I think of drinkers I saw on TV, I think of Norm and Homer Simpson and all of these people drinking beer. Not a craft beer (though Norm does have that job briefly in the series where he works for the local brewery), but just a normal beer — pale yellow and fizzy. I guess what I’m saying is the drinking culture I remember of the ’90s was informed by advertising (who can forget the Budweiser frogs?). Looking back on it all, it may not have been as advanced as it is now, but the landscape would mirror what we have today, almost. The big cities were doing things and influencing drinking patterns while smaller towns followed behind.

As Long As You Rum Me
As Long As You Rum Me: Aged rum, grapefruit juice, cinnamon syrup, boy band soundtrack

The cocktail boom in the U.S. started after the turn of the century. Was there something we’re missing from the ’90s? Is it a sense of fun?
I don’t know if we’re missing anything, especially now in 2019 when just about every city has at least one cocktail bar. There are so many concepts doing so many different things out there that, somewhere, some bar staff are capturing the essence of the ’90s, even if it is only in one drink. And while I’m all for more fruity drinks, I think our knowledge of the fruits in there has grown up, so that we’re using fresh juices and making our own syrups, et cetera, which is a good thing (for quality, for our health, for all reasons, really). There’s a time and a place for the pre-bottled mixes and neon colors, but those are fewer and farther between. As far as the sense of fun, I don’t think we’re missing that at all. I recently got to check out the bar team from Maybe Sammy in Sydney during their tenure at Dante in New York City.  One cocktail came with a magic trick and one was aided by a coffee bubble gun. You can’t tell me that’s not fun.

Let’s say I’m throwing a party with a ’90s theme — what’s the one recipe you’d choose from here, and why?
If you’re batching, I’d go with the Red Room Punch. It is a punch that uses hibiscus, creating a light (yet pretty strong) floral punch. You can make pretty big batches easily. It’ll free you as the host up for doing whatever else you need to do. If you’re standing behind the bar, I’d do the Fresh Mint of Bel Air. The mixture of strawberry, gin, and bubbly, I think, is one that is great for a party atmosphere — boozy, but not too much, and bubbles, which, come on, who doesn’t love bubbles?

Those cocktail names are great — how did you come up with the actual recipes?
I’m lucky that I have access to a wide variety of spirits and ingredients, and I play around a lot. For a lot of the drinks, I did a word association of sorts, where if I came up with a pun, I’d reverse engineer what I thought would go along with the name. The Hey Arnold Palmer, for example: typically, it’d be iced tea and lemonade. I knew I needed lemon, tea of some sort, and spirits. I went with sweet tea vodka, since it’s easily available, added lemonade, then decided I wanted something else. I added the reposado tequila because I like the slight cooked agave notes and I thought the smoothness of the spirit would add a nice touch. I tried other spirits at first, but none quite did it for me like the tequila did.

The Tubthumper (a whiskey, vodka, lager, cider concoction inspired by, you know) can’t possibly taste good … can it?
The first 14 or 15 iterations were terrible. The key was finding the specific types of each drink named that matched well with each other. Irish whiskey, for example, and dry cider are a wonderful combination. Add another standard lager that doesn’t have too much flavor, and you’re still highlighting the first two. I think this drink, of all of them in the book, will be the most surprising to people.

What was the best ’90s TV show as far as drinking went?
If we’re talking cocktails, it has to be Sex and the City, but for pure drinking, I have to go with Cheers. The show was literally set in a bar, and aside from Sam Malone, almost all of the characters drank prodigious amounts of alcohol over the course of the series. It wasn’t fancy, but what neighborhood bar is?

You seem to have more of an affinity for the late ’90s than early ’90s, based on the themed playlists in the book … is that just an age thing or a preference?
I think it’s a little bit of both, but leaning more toward the age thing. I believe that 1997 was the best year in pop music in the decade, period, so that informed my choices right away. That is a hill I will die on. I think more of my choices, too, come down to the age thing because of nostalgia. I remember listening to “Sex and Candy” on Z100 during summer art classes, whereas Nirvana and New Kids on the Block and Paula Adbul, for example, all came to me in hindsight.

(And now, a cocktail recipe from the book….)

Y2K

The Y2K

We’ve made it. The end of the decade. When midnight hit on January 1, 2000, I went over to look at our computer. Had it sprouted legs and become sentient? Had it died? Well, no. It kept on doing what it was doing, as we all did. This cocktail is like the lead-up to Y2K dark, mysterious, and possibly even capable of resetting the world (or getting you drunk and having you pass out—basically the same thing). Sip this one, and remember 1999, when we thought the computers might win.

1 ounce bourbon
1 ounce dark rum
1 ounce Añejo tequila
1 ounce sweet red vermouth
.5 ounce amaro (such as Montenegro)
Orange zest, for garnish
Maraschino cherry, for garnish

Stir the bourbon, rum, tequila, vermouth, and amaro with ice and strain into a double rocks glass with a large cube in it. Garnish with the orange zest and maraschino cherry.

From Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum?: and Other Cocktails for ‘90s Kids by Sam Slaughter, Andrews McMeel Publishing