The Fresco Cocktail is made with rum, pineapple, and lime. Or with gin, cucumber, and mint syrup. Or with melon-flavored vodka and grapefruit. Or simply Champagne and lemon juice (and without other alcohol).
Please insert “shrug” emoji here. The Fresco Cocktail is one of those drinks that meets two criteria: first, the name is broad, appealing, and vaguely generic. And no version of it has ever arisen that’s seized the public’s imagination to the point it became a classic.
Others in this class include the Cherry Blossom Cocktail, which in 1984 called for brandy, cherry brandy, and triple sec, and by 2022 had evolved into a cocktail with sake, cranberry juice, and lime juice. And there’s the Around the World cocktail, which cropped up in the 1957 Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide with gin, pineapple, and crème de menthe. It then disappeared before resurfacing more recently in Difford’s Guide with rhum agricole, falernum, pineapple, and lime.
This is not an unfamiliar situation in other realms. When a football player becomes famous enough, their jersey number is retired. No one else can be No. 9, or whatever. Until then, there’s a revolving cast of No. 9s, each occupying it for a few years. Likewise, a hurricane’s name is retired only when it destroys enough property. So now there’s only one Camille, Betsy, or Katrina.
And so it goes with cocktails, although a bit less formally. When a drink reaches a pinnacle of fame, the name becomes permanent and the ingredients more or less fixed forever. Think: The Manhattan. The Daiquiri. The Bloody Mary. The Espresso Martini.
Cocktail names that don’t quite reach that pinnacle may be given a moment of glory, but then are sent out for recycling.
Cocktail names that don’t quite reach that pinnacle may be given a moment of glory, but then are sent out for recycling. The name can be a vessel into which any drink can be poured, until the day someone hits on a brilliant recipe and it’s enshrined as a classic.
In this context, let us consider the bumpy history of the Fresco Cocktail. The first mention I can find dates to 1934, the year after Prohibition was repealed. A New York Times story cited it as a “new drink” created by Dan Donnelly of the Hotel Biltmore Bar. It got the paper’s attention because it won “an old-time bartender’s contest” at a liquor trade show. (Right after Prohibition, I suppose all contests were “old-time bartender’s contests.”) The recipe called for a jigger of rum, a teaspoon of sugar, the juice of a lime, and an indeterminate amount of muddled pineapple, “well frappéd.”
The cocktail apparently was popular enough to survive more than a decade—it appears in David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks in 1949. The recipe is all but unchanged from Donnelly’s original specs, although Embury finds merit in modern technology: “If you have a Waring Blendor [sic], whip in the Blendor.”
In the 1950s, the cocktail evidently went into eclipse. I can find no reference to it for years, and it even fails to appear in any edition of Mr. Boston, which was updated regularly and did a commendable job of tracking what the public drank.
The Fresco then starts to resurface with the most recent cocktail boom, often with modifiers. There are the Spritzer Fresco, the Neo Fresco, the Cucumber Fresco (created by Chad Whittington at the Dilworth Tasting Room in North Carolina), and the Al Fresco, which is touted by Van Gogh Vodka in its marketing material.
To be sure, “fresco” is one of those words that seem to invite repeated use. It means absolutely nothing in English, but seems like it should.
To be sure, “fresco” is one of those words that seem to invite repeated use. It means absolutely nothing in English, but seems like it should. It’s short and punchy, and projects Anglo-Saxon roots, even if it lacks them.
The uptick in popularity might also be related to the glorious term “al fresco,” which is now essentially an English phrase that means “dining outdoors.” Americans loved drinking and eating on patios and rooftops even before the pandemic kicked everyone to the curb outside. It evokes leisurely and warm days with distant views of the Mediterranean, no matter that one is sipping an Aperol Spritz in a seating corral tucked along the edge of a strip-mall parking lot outside Scranton.
The term “fresco” literally translates from Italian as “fresh”—the fresco murals of the Renaissance were so named because they were worked in fresh plaster. “Al fresco” literally means “in the fresh,” but is more generally translated as “cool,” “crisp,” or ”refreshing,” which is just about a perfect name for any cocktail. (Less refreshingly, “al fresco” also can mean “in prison” to Italians, referring to the perpetual chill of the cell.)
Fresco also has a cousin in Spanish in the now-commonly heard “agua fresca,” which means literally “fresh water” but more often refers to fresh juice. And the term is subtly linked to Fresca, the popular grapefruit-flavored diet soda introduced by Coca-Cola in 1964. None of this undermines the allure of the word applied to a cocktail.
All of this is by way of saying that this is now essentially one of those public domain cocktail names. If you’re casting about for a name for some brilliant concoction that’s both crisp and refreshing, “fresco” has a blinking “Vacancy” sign out front. Feel free to fill it with a beverage of your own choosing. Make it memorable enough, and you can retire it for the ages.