Bartenders have observed what they call “the fajita effect,” where a visually appealing cocktail prompts more orders of the same drink. In recent years, popular fajita favorites have included drinks like the espresso martini, blue cocktails, and flaming beverages. The latest trend in this category includes layered cocktails, which feature different liquid components settling out in separate strata, resulting in a striped or ombré appearance.
Conrad Hayes, the beverage director at the Brooklyn bar Ottava, explains that the rise of people taking photos of their drinks and sharing them on social media has contributed to the aesthetic appeal of layered cocktails. Ottava’s current menu features the “Cruella de Vil,” a rum drink served over crushed ice with a vibrant scarlet layer of Lambrusco on top.
There are two techniques for layering a cocktail: floats and sinkers. A float is a stripe of liquid, such as wine, spirit, bitters, or juice, carefully applied to the surface of the completed drink. A sinker, on the other hand, is poured last but sinks to the bottom of the glass due to its weight.
Both floats and sinkers create striking visuals, making them popular in today’s visual age where a cocktail’s appearance is nearly as important as its taste. These techniques date back to before Prohibition, with the Pousse Café being a popular drink sporting several layers. The New York Sour, a mid-20th-century drink that has recently regained popularity, is essentially a whiskey sour with a float of dry red wine. The Tequila Sunrise is another famous drink with a sinker, as the red grenadine sinks beneath a mixture of tequila and orange juice.
Many of the new layered drinks are surprisingly easy to make. For example, Brother Wolf in Knoxville, Tenn., offers a layered twist on the Italian spritz called the Bicicletta. It features a red Italian bitter called Select settling at the bottom of the highball glass. Another example is the Oaxacan Sunrise at Dante in New York City, which is similar to the Tequila Sunrise but made with mezcal instead. At Freight House in Paducah, Ky., they serve the “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” cocktail, a New York Sour made with honey syrup.
Some layered cocktails verge on the baroque, such as the Haifa Vice at Chez Zou in Manhattan. This drink allows customers to apply their float themselves using a special glass vessel with two chambers—one filled with a milk punch and the other with a mixture of Aperol and pomegranate. Another D.I.Y. opportunity can be found at LilliStar, the rooftop bar at the Moxy Williamsburg hotel in Brooklyn, where customers can add the contents of a hollowed-out passion fruit to a mango-flavored Negroni riff called Ley Lines.
Layered cocktails are not limited to alcoholic options. elNico in the Penny Williamsburg hotel offers a mocktail called Remolacha, made with yogurt, green tea, grapefruit and lime juices, cardamom, and beet cordial, with a beet juice float. These nonalcoholic options provide the same visually stunning effect.
Bartenders believe that floats and sinkers go beyond being visually appealing—they also balance the flavors of the drink. For example, the dryness of a red wine float can counteract the sweetness of certain cocktails. Additionally, floats and sinkers add an extra punch to the drinks, providing an exciting element for the customer.
Over time, the layered appearance of these cocktails gradually fades as the ingredients interact. Bartenders, such as Joey Smith from Chez Zou, see this as a positive aspect, as it allows the cocktail to evolve as the customer consumes it.
Christine Wiseman, the creator of cocktails at LilliStar, suggests that floats and sinkers can be seen as an expensive garnish. In this visual age, where the presentation of a drink is highly valued, these layered cocktails offer a striking and dynamic experience for both the eyes and the palate.
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