If you enjoy an Aperol Spritz, a whiskey sour or a Last Word cocktail, you’ll likely also enjoy a Paper Plane—or one of the many variations on the much-beloved drink, created during the cocktail renaissance of the aughts.
The History of the Paper Plane Cocktail
Most people don’t realize there were two early versions of the Paper Plane, both credited to Sam Ross, now proprietor of Attaboy, the New York City bar previously known as Milk & Honey.
The first version of the drink was created by Ross in 2008 for Chicago bar The Violet Hour, run by Toby Maloney (who is also a Milk & Honey alum). Maloney requested a summer-worthy drink for Violet Hour’s line-up; Ross complied with a riff on the Last Word, a classic cocktail made with equal parts gin, lime juice, maraschino liqueur and the French herbal liqueur green Chartreuse. The pre-Prohibition drink had been newly re-popularized by Seattle bartender Murray Stenson, so no wonder it was front of mind for Ross.
Like the Last Word, Ross’s new drink also was made with four ingredients, all in equal proportions: Instead of gin, bourbon took spirituous center stage; lemon juice was subbed in for lime; Amaro Nonino, an Italian herbal liqueur, replaced green Chartreuse. And instead of maraschino, Ross brought in Campari, for its shade of bright ruby and bitter edge.
Yet, the Paper Plane recipe wasn’t quite perfected—yet. Finding the cocktail too bitter, Ross made a small but important tweak: He replaced Campari with Aperol, giving the drink its now-signature orange-y hue and grapefruit-like flavor.
Why Is It Called a Paper Plane Cocktail?
Ross named the drink the Paper Plane, after the M.I.A. song “Paper Planes,” then newly released, which Ross says he had on repeat while creating the drink. (Yes, the song is “Paper Planes,” plural, while the drink name is singular.)
Today, the Paper Plane is firmly entrenched in the cocktail canon, due to its easily recognizable vibrant color, pleasingly balanced bittersweet flavor profile and impossible-to-screw up, equal-parts formula. It doesn’t hurt that it spotlights bourbon, one of the most popular spirits of the last decade.
Popular Variations on the Paper Plane Cocktail
Of course, a drink as popular as the Paper Plane has spawned dozens (possibly hundreds) of variations. Perhaps the most common involves swapping out the Aperol for a different orange (or red) bitter, or the Nonino for a different amaro, yielding a subtle difference in the finished drink. Travel anywhere in the U.S., and you can expect to find craft cocktail bars and distillery tasting rooms offering riffs that feature local spirits.
But the most famous variation on the Paper Plane is certainly the Naked and Famous. Created by New York City bartender Joaquin Simo, the drink is made with mezcal, lime juice, Aperol and soft, honeyed yellow Chartreuse. Simo describes the drink as a mashup between the Paper Plane and the Last Word.
While the official version of the drink calls for three-quarters of an ounce of each ingredient, it’s easy to scale this drink up into a larger batch to serve a small group, or to divide into even smaller portions to create a mini Paper Plane. Just be sure to keep all the ingredients in equal proportions.
Since the cocktail contains lemon juice, the drink is shaken (not stirred) with ice, not only to incorporate the juice with the rest of the ingredients but to chill the drink and create a small amount of froth. The liquid then is strained into a chilled coupe or other stemmed cocktail glass.
According to Ross a garnish isn’t necessary, “but if one is preferred, then a grapefruit or orange slice will do.” That said, a growing number of bartenders prefer a clever, self-referential—and Instagram-worthy—garnish: a miniature paper plane, perched on the rim of the glass.
How to Make a Paper Plane Cocktail
Courtesy Sam Ross, Attaboy, NYC
In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients with ice.
Shake well, and strain into a coupe glass.
Add garnish (optional).
What’s in a Paper Plane Cocktail?
Bourbon, bright-red Aperol, the Italian herbal liqueur Amaro Nonino and lemon juice.
What Does a Paper Plane Cocktail Taste Like?
Perfectly balanced, the drink boasts a booze-forward, bittersweet flavor profile.
What Kind of Bourbon Is in a Paper Plane?
According to the drink’s creator, Sam Ross (proprietor of Attaboy in New York City), it’s ideal to opt for a slightly higher-proof bourbon—ideally in the 43% to 46% ABV range.