When Josh Gandee and Chris Manis launched Royal Fern, a chain-restaurant-themed pop-up bar, in Columbus, Ohio, in the summer of 2019, they created modern takes on the cheesy drinks of yesteryear. Cocktail options on the oversized, laminated menus included spins on the Amaretto Sour, French Martini, and Blue Hawaiian.
The Royal Fern’s riff on the Sex on the Beach, that iconic drink of the 1980s, was called the Transparent Bathing Suit. It was made with makrut-infused vodka, peach schnapps, and bitters — no orange juice.
How the mighty have fallen.
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From the start of the singles bar scene in the 1960s until the late 1990s, orange juice dominated the mixed-drink game. It featured in popular classics and new cocktails created during this time. Today, of course, you’re likely to only see orange juice at a bar during brunch service, and it’s virtually nonexistent in top cocktail programs. What happened?
Orange juice is ubiquitous in American supermarkets today but, just 100 years ago, it was fairly uncommon. But in the early 20th century, the Southern California Fruit Growers Association had more oranges than it knew what to do with, and needed a way to increase demand. By 1916 Sunkist Growers had taken out an ad in the Saturday Evening Post, encouraging people to juice their oranges. It caught on and, soon enough, juicers were in around 16,000 American homes.
That phenomenon eventually spawned the commercial orange juice industry, though with poor refrigeration methods, it was hard to just send cartons of fresh juice out into the world. And so a Florida-based cooperative started taking second-rate oranges, juicing them, and then canning then.
It was enormously successful. As of 1930, Americans drank 0.01 pounds per capita of canned OJ, compared to 18.9 pounds of fresh oranges. By 1944, however, most orange “juice” on the market was frozen canned concentrate, particularly popular among vitamin-C-seeking soldiers.
To many consumers, however, this boiled concentrate tasted like battery acid. Hardly fit for cocktails. It would take until 1948 to figure out how to essentially freeze fresh orange juice.
Still, in the meantime, orange juice started appearing as a cocktail ingredient. Harry Craddock’s 1930 “Savoy Cocktail Book” lists over 50 orange juice cocktails, including the American Beauty, Balm Cocktail, Cape Cocktail, Chorus Lady, Damn-the-Weather, and Jupiter.
Today, these are mostly unheard of and certainly unordered drinks. As is the completely ridiculous and bluntly named Orange Cocktail, comprised of a glass and a half of OJ, orange bitters, simple syrup, three glasses of gin, and a glass of French vermouth, shaken in a shaker that you are explicitly ordered to have placed on ice for 30 minutes beforehand. Meant for six people, it is completely unseen today.
In fact, only a few orange juice cocktails in the “Savoy” still pop up at bars today, and it’s hard to consider any still-ubiquitous classics. There’s the Blood and Sand, a strange mix of Scotch, sweet vermouth, Cherry Herring, and orange juice. There’s the Bronx, essentially a perfect gin Martini with added orange juice. There’s also Satan’s Whiskers, which bolsters the Bronx with the addition of Grand Marnier and orange bitters. Finally, there’s the Ward Eight, which originated in 1898 and includes rye, grenadine, lemon juice, and orange juice.
For orange juice to become the king of the mixers, the drinks had to become quite a bit more simplified.
“A Tequila Sunrise in a chain Irish Pub was the first legal cocktail I ever had,” admits Royal Fern’s Gandee, who ordered the drink on his 21st birthday per the bartender’s recommendation. “It wasn’t great, but it stuck with me as a rite of passage.”
Invented — if such a simple drink needs to be — in 1972, when Bay Area bartenders started adding orange juice and grenadine to tequila, the red and orange ingredients give a sunrise-like look to the drink (an earlier, orange juice-free Tequila Sunrise had been created in the 1930s).
When Mick Jagger chanced upon the cocktail one night and loved it, it led to him and Keith unofficially labeling The Rolling Stones’ 1972 schedule “the cocaine and tequila sunrise tour.” In 1973, The Eagles released a song with the same name — and, by then, the Tequila Sunrise had become part of the zeitgeist, mainly on the backs of singles bars, also known as fern bars.
“During the fern bar era, you were trying to break down some barriers, and there was a new wave of clientele who wanted to go out and get lit,” Gandee says. “With its prominence as the go-to morning beverage, I feel like [orange juice] was an easy jumping-off point for individuals who were new to cocktails.”
At a certain point in the 1970s, inventing a new cocktail essentially meant just adding orange juice to a spirit and/or liqueur. The Harvey Wallbanger — vodka and Galliano plus orange juice — may have originated a decade earlier, but it became a hit around this time, too.
The popularity of these drinks was often driven by the marketing efforts of spirits companies. Smirnoff pushed hard on the Screwdriver, Jose Cuervo listed the recipe for a Tequila Sunrise on its bottles, and Galliano’s McKesson Imports Company even developed a surfer mascot to promote the Harvey Wallbanger.
“It was easy for the consumer to do the flavor math in their head,” Gandee says. “OJ and peach? That adds up. OJ and whatever flavor I equate to grenadine? Easy enough, I’ll have that.”
Yet, even as orange juice cocktails were proliferating, most people were still getting orange juice from a can. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s when flash-pasteurized, ready-to-drink, “not from concentrate” juice hit the market. That greatly bolstered consumption of orange juice as both a breakfast drink and cocktail mixer.
So did the arrival of DeKuyper Peachtree Schnapps.
In 1984, National Distillers was trying to find a way to inject its low-proof, crystal-clear, sugary-sweet liqueur into the market. It was an era of fitness and frivolity, and people likewise liked their drinks fun and uncomplicated, favoring the sweet, creamy, and easy-drinking over the complex, nuanced, and boozy. Drinks like the Alabama Slammer, Dirty Banana, and the Grasshopper were already big hits.
Needing a way to sell its new brand of schnapps, National Distillers exec Jack Doyle and his bar owner buddy Ray Foley came up with combining Peachtree plus orange juice. They both loved it, claiming they could “smell the fuzz.” And, just like that, the Fuzzy Navel was born.
“Jack immediately bought suitcases for all his salesmen and ordered them to go around the country with bottles of Peachtree and orange juice,” Jaclyn Foley, Ray’s wife, once recalled. It was a sensation, not just bolstering orange juice’s place at the bar, but turning Peachtree into the 9th-best-selling alcohol in all of America in 1985.
By 1987, the Fuzzy Navel was the most popular drink in America. It started a boom time for orange juice cocktails — the Slow Comfortable Screw (vodka, sloe gin, Southern Comfort, and orange juice), the Ball Banger (ouzo and orange juice), and, eventually, the biggest of them all, the Sex on the Beach. The latter dominated the cocktail scene well into the 1990s, a drink any bartender in any city could make whether they were working at a buzzy nightclub, sleepy pub, or family-friendly chain restaurant.
“Probably more so then than now, every household had OJ in their fridge,” Gandee says. (In fact, three-quarters of Americans stocked it at its peak, circa 1998.) “Whether you liked it or not, it was always just available, and what’s available is approachable … approachable was a must.”
Then, in 1999, just one year after peak OJ, American drinking culture turned upside down. An NYC bar, Milk & Honey, launched the cocktail renaissance that has since gone global.
No one yet realized it, but orange juice’s days at the bar were numbered.
The Problem With OJ
“Really great cocktails just can’t be balanced with orange juice,” Pamela Wiznitzer, a top bartender and beverage consultant in New York, says. She cites the Blood and Sand in particular as a cocktail whose original specs are totally unbalanced, greatly lacking in acidity.
Paul McGee agrees. “I hate orange juice in cocktails,” he says. “It’s not tart, it’s not bright; it usually just adds a lot of water content without having that orange flavor.” As co-owner of Chicago tiki den Lost Lake, McGee has been known to completely eliminate orange juice in classic drinks that call for it — in his Fog Cutter, he 86es OJ and replaces it with dry curaçao for orange flavor, and ups the orgeat to add sweetness.
“Orange juice also has such a distinctively fresh flavor,” Gandee says. “It’s not as easy to replicate, it doesn’t hit your palate and just register as ‘sour’ as lemon or lime can. It hits your tongue and for better or for worse your mind instantly says, ‘There is OJ in my mouth.’”
At around one-tenth the acidity of lemon or lime juice, Gandee explains that’s one reason why you often see orange juice split with other citrus fruits, or even manipulated with acid powders.
In 2014, famed Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler wrote a piece for Playboy called, “OJ Is Guilty. The Case Against Orange Juice in Cocktails.” His gripes against the fruit are that it can be messy to juice, what with all that damn pulp, and is hard to do so in large quantities because most citrus juicers are designed for smaller limes and lemons. Orange juice quickly becomes bitter, too, Morgenthaler writes. But its biggest problem, according to him and most other bartenders, is that it’s already too damn sugary.
“Because people are so much more health-conscious and calorie-counting, orange juice has already declined as a category,” Wiznitzer says. “People see it more as a filler today.”
The statistics support this, with orange juice sales tanking, in free-fall since the turn of the millennium, with orange juice consumption decreasing by 30 percent over the last decade. That’s despite the fact that the orange juice you can get these days is vastly superior to the soda-gunned crap that bars might have dispensed just a decade ago.
But, not all is lost for orange juice cocktail fans.
“In the popular imagination, orange juice has come to symbolize the opposite of complexity — simplicity defined,” writes Alissa Hamilton in her 2010 book “Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice.”
For many of us, orange juice is synonymous with bottomless Mimosas at brunch, or high school kids sneaking off to drink Screwdrivers. That’s one more reason why some cutting-edge cocktailers turn away from OJ: It feels kinda childish.
On the flip side, however, many modern bartenders love a cheeky challenge. These confident mixologists welcome the chance to reimagine banana Daiquiris, for example, or reclaim Amaretto Sours. And so now, in some circles, orange juice cocktails are making a bit of a comeback.
One of the most famous drinks at New York’s Dante, recently named the No. 1 bar in the world, is a take on the Garibaldi, an orange juice cocktail. The Italian aperitivo combines Campari and orange juice and, at Dante, each drink is literally made to order: Valencia oranges are run through a high-speed Breville juicer to create an extremely frothy, fluffy mixer. It’s become such a sensation that, in the last few years, it’s been copied and riffed on at top bars from coast to coast.
Despite intentionally omitting OJ from his Sex on the Beach variant, Royal Fern’s Gandee is actually a huge orange juice cocktail fan. His menu features a version of his own foray into cocktails, the Tequila Sunrise, and Royal Fern’s biggest orange juice cocktail hit is something called the OJ Rifkin, an obscure “Seinfeld” reference. He pairs Watershed Distilling’s chamomile-flavored Guild Gin and vanilla bean-infused Aperol with orange juice. It’s odd, but completely delicious.
Gandee thinks it takes a truly great bartender to deal with this deceptively difficult fruit. “Orange juice is one of those ingredients that will yield a large quantity, but drinks don’t necessarily require a large amount for its flavor to be effective, so you need to get creative in what it plays well with,” Gandee says, and then he laughs, adding, “OJ was the original Allspice Dram.”