Looking to throw the perfect cocktail party this holiday season? The Hearty Boys, otherwise known as Steve McDonagh and Dan Smith, have a new book with tips to show you how.
“The New Old Bar: Classic Cocktails and Salty Snacks From The Hearty Boys,” is all about making home cocktails easier and more fun, with a nod to many favorite drinks of the past as well as bar snacks and appetizers to balance out those strong flavors.
“The cocktail scene over the last five to seven years has been so hot on both coasts,” notes McDonagh, who is based in Chicago, where he runs the restaurant Hearty. “But the average person still doesn’t understand what’s going on. This book is written for the regular person who feels intimidated by today’s cocktail list.”
He says it’s also about empowerment, about showing people who don’t know their Peychaud’s from their Angostura (they’re two types of bitters) how to make cocktails on their own and throw a cocktail party.
To that end, the Boys are especially fans of four- or five-ingredient cocktails based around a primary liquor matched with a liqueur, a sweetener, citrus and bitter served in a small glass; they believe our drinks these days are simply too large.
“I just love the mixing, the ritual of it, the ritual of the muddling, the shaking,” McDonagh adds. “And it’s important to add in a toast.”
He and Smith got the idea for the book from their experience on the Food Network, where they won the first season of “The Next Food Network Star” and then hosted their own series called “Party Line With the Hearty Boys.”
“We’d say to ourselves, ‘Dan’s mom can’t get that [ingredient],’ ” McDonagh says. “It was the big lesson we took away. We’re talking to everyone.”
Of course, they didn’t want to dumb it down or simplify things too far. Neither did they want to focus their recipes on specific brands, unless a drink absolutely called for one.
What they love is the chance to highlight lost and long-out-of-production spirits that, thanks to the cocktail craze, are trickling back into production again. Things like crème de violette, an important ingredient in the classic Aviation cocktail; or green and yellow Chartreuse (made in the Swiss Alps for more than 400 years) and maraschino liqueur, two ingredients McDonagh swears by.
Ingredients for a cocktail party
As for the home bar, he also recommends keeping the following on hand: Benedictine, a cognac-and-herb-based liqueur; elderflower liqueur (“it works so well with pre-Prohibition recipes”); Galliano, a sweet herbal liqueur made from vanilla, star anise and herbs; three types of whiskey (rye, bourbon and Scotch — “you do need all three, they’re so different”); tequila as well as mescal; a good vermouth (he likes Dolin and Vya); and Lillet, a French wine-based aperitif that comes in white and red versions.
“You don’t need much vodka at all,” he notes. “I’m very big into bitter and herbal flavors, they go with food.” The original purpose of the cocktail hour was to “get our palates going,” he says. But these days, people drink more vodka cocktails, often loaded with sugar to make them palatable.
Hard sought-after vintage recipes figure prominently, many from wood-bound books the duo found along the way.
For Thanksgiving, McDonagh likes to give his guests something made with Campari when they first arrive, such as his recipe for the light Mistaken Negroni (see below). He also highly recommends the vintage Widow’s Kiss, a blend of Calvados, Chartreuse and Benedictine, the recipe for which is also below:
From “The New Old Bar”
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce fresh orange juice
Sparkling wine or Prosecco
Orange peel for garnish
1. Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
2. Shake well.
3. Strain into a Champagne flute and top with sparkling wine (or pour over ice).
4. Serve garnished with a flamed orange peel (see note).
Note: “To flame an orange peel, hold a 1-inch round of peel (skin side facing the drink) between thumb and forefinger, being careful not to squeeze and dispel the oils,” McDonagh says. “In the other hand, hold a lit match or, my preference, a long matchstick lighter, between the peel and the cocktail. As you squeeze the peel over the surface of the cocktail, the oils will spark through the flame and leave a lovely, caramelized, aromatic finish to the drink. You can then toss in the garnish as you normally would.”
From “The New Old Bar”
1½ ounces Calvados
¾ ounce yellow Chartreuse
¾ ounce Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Maraschino cherry for garnish
1. Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
2. Shake well.
3. Strain into a chilled coupe and serve garnished with a maraschino cherry.
Photo: Widow’s Kiss cocktail by the Hearty Boys. Credit: Steve McDonagh
On a recent Saturday evening, my husband and I came in from the bracing cold that whipped through New Orleans’ French Quarter and collapsed into seats at the Hotel Monteleone’s revolving Carousel Bar. Where I come from, 5 o’clock means only one thing, and it was no mistake that we’d made ourselves winter nomads in a city where some of the country’s most creative bartenders have invented drinks like the Ramos Gin Fizz and rye whiskey-based Sazerac.
My husband ordered a Pimm’s Cup for himself and one of those Ramos Gin Fizzes for me, and we watched the bartender expertly finish the concoctions in one woozy rotation of the bar, our stools pulling up in front of him again just as he topped the milky Fizz with club soda. It’s no wonder that the town known for beloved bars like the Carousel, a Hemingway and Capote haunt, honors the craft with what may be the country’s most curious cocktail destination.
To find out more about visiting MOTAC, to become a museum member or to shop at its online store, go to www.museumoftheamerican
There, you can also take a virtual tour of the museum or find out about its monthly Monday Mixology series as well as upcoming events like World Cocktail Week (May 6–18, 2010) and the Manhattan Cocktail Classic (May 14–18, 2010).
To learn more about Dale DeGroff, or to order "The Craft of the Cocktail" (Clarkson Potter, 2002) or "The Essential Cocktail", go towww.kingcocktail.com.
To find it, walk to the south end of the city’s tourist-centric Riverwalk Marketplace, pass the neon food court and don’t blink. There, in what was formerly a dress shop, is the one-of-a-kind Museum of the American Cocktail (MOTAC). Opened in 2004 and originally housed in the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, MOTAC is the brainchild of an impressive group: Dale DeGroff, America’s premier mixologist and author of “The Essential Cocktail” (Clarkson Potter, 2008); his wife, Jill, an artist; Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh; DrinkBoy.com creator Robert Hess; cocktail historian David Wondrich; Phil Greene, a descendent of the famous Peychaud bitters family; and New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian, and his wife, Laura, among others. The mind-blowing, one-room collection, curated by Haigh, tracks more than 200 years of American mixology and showcases DeGroff’s and Haigh’s personal cocktail relics along with treasures loaned or donated by private collectors around the country.
Glamorous bar menus from giants like New York’s Rainbow Room, where DeGroff tended bar in the late 1980s, and New Orleans’ own Roosevelt Hotel line the glass cases alongside dusty bottles of medicinal bitters, iconic liquor memorabilia like a Coates & Co. (producers of Plymouth Gin) match striker, yellowed newspaper headlines, bar-ware patents and curiosities such as a grand 1927 Prohibition-era silver trophy whose four pieces could be disassembled and rearranged into a fully functioning cocktail shaker when the law wasn’t around.
If visitors have doubts about their knowledge going in, they soon learn to tell a roemer from a pub rummer, and a sling from a flip. MOTAC’s holy grail is the oldest piece in its collection: a 1790 edition of “The Practical Distiller,” donated by DeGroff. “It’s probably the same edition George Washington used,” he points out. “You know, he was a whiskey distiller.” The museum also displays two extremely rare copies of Jerry Thomas’ “Bar-Tender’s Guide” (Dick & Fitzgerald, 1862), the first cocktail manual ever published. With illustrations of long-ago gems like the Brandy Crusta, served in a lemon peel-lined wine glass, these alone are worth the price of admission.
After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Commander’s Palace Restaurant invited DeGroff and Haigh to relocate MOTAC inside their Las Vegas eatery. So the two boxed up the museum’s contents and headed west. “But it was always our dream to get back to New Orleans,” says DeGroff. In 2008, MOTAC returned to the Crescent City, settling into its current location inside the quirky Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
DeGroff still hopes to find a permanent home for the museum that could also house a cocktail library. “We don’t have a big angel that’s ready to buy us a building, so we’ll see” he says. Meanwhile, DeGroff and his co-founders plug away at preserving America’s cocktail history and elevating its culture. “The cocktail is a uniquely American metaphor,” DeGroff says. “But some people still joke about the museum.” With a chuckle he adds, “They ask who our members are.”
Photo: Dale DeGroff
Tales of the Cocktail, the international cocktail conference/festival, took itself on the road last week, traveling from its steamy New Orleans-in-July locale to the drizzly downtown of Vancouver for a one-day event (with parties on both the preceding and following days). That one day, however, was a microcosm of the Cajun Tales, replete with seminars — from cocktail luminaries like Allen Katz, the host of the cocktail hour on Martha Stewart’s Sirius station; Dave Arnold, head of culinary technology at New York’s French Culinary Institute; and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of five books on Tiki drinks — demonstrations, tastings and, yes, lots of schmoozing and drinking.
The cocktail movement is spreading horizontally
The real star of the show, to my mind, was Vancouver itself (and its legion of young, smart and highly professional barkeeps). I have said for over a year now that the cocktail movement hit a ceiling in terms of the wild inventiveness and creativity that fueled its rise and that the only direction for it to go was horizontal — to spread from epicenters like New York; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; and Chicago to places where telling the bartender you want the Last Word will get you a greenish beverage, not an ejection. Despite its cold, damp surface, Vancouver has a drinking scene that doesn’t lack for heat (lots to talk about beer- and wine-wise there too) these days. And for me, who had spent only one long night in British Columbia’s largest city 10 years ago, there’s no place more exciting a place than a city whose cocktail/bar scene is taking off.
One thing driving Vancouver’s transformation is an influx of bartenders from around the world, particularly around the Commonwealth. Two of the great early epicenters of the modern cocktail culture were London and Australia, whose nationals can happily gain easy work visas into Canada. As Jacob Sweetapple, bar manager for the excellent (and exceedingly popular) bar at the shiny new Farimont Pacific Rim hotel says, “A lot of the top bartenders in town have worked all over the world and have just ended up here at the same time. In fact, we were drawn here by the energy that we could see concentrating.”
Sweetapple, an Australian, has worked in London and Sydney and brings a worldly flair to his menu at the Fairmont Pac Rim’s elegant lobby bar. He says that Vancouver has blossomed right before his very eyes. “A year ago in a place like this I probably couldn’t have gotten away with even putting a classic like a Sazerac on the menu,” he says, gesturing to the vast, light-filled, airy hotel lobby, “but somewhere around three months ago, people started clamoring for things like that.” I was charmed by his negroni made with house barrel-aged vermouth, but his stately Valid Victorian cocktail was the one that won me over. Its pale pink hue makes it look like a ladies’ drink, but it doesn’t pull any punches. The cocktail — a combination of gin, ginger liqueur and peychaud bitters — has a dry sophistication and seriousness (recalling, say, an English grand dame like Helen Mirren) that belies its color, and its femininity is strong and invokes Vancouver itself (a feminine city, in a way, as it’s surrounded by and transected by water in the form of bays, canals, rivers and creeks).
Appropriately, Vancouver has a strong contingent of female bartenders led by Danielle Tatarin, the reigning president of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association and the charismatic presence behind the excellent bar at The Keefer. A hotel and bar, The Keefer resides in rapidly gentrifying Chinatown, which asserts its presence not only outside the bar but in the cocktails themselves, displayed in The Dragon Fly — a creative combination of gin, dragonfruit, pearl sake, lemon, ginger syrup and homemade magnolia bark tincture — and the Opium Sour, which seasons a mixture of grapefruit, Makers Mark and tamarind with poppyseed tincture.
Chinese cuisine and culture is the direct source for the Keefer’s almost-neighbor, Bao Bei, which was perhaps my favorite stop in Vancouver. Owned and run by another young woman, the charming Tannis Ling, formerly a bartender at Chambar, Bao Bei (a Chinese term of endearment like “precious” or “darling” to which Ling was evidently referred when she was young) is a quirky, idiosyncratic establishment that seems to radiate a personality (likely Ling’s), and serves excellent Chinese bistro fare that makes great salty, savory accompaniment to a phenomenal cocktail list that likewise delves into Ling’s native cuisine. The Handsome Benny involves bourbon, maraschino, Punt e Mes and “smoky plum,” a soothing elixir in Chinese culture. The Kai Yuen Sour applied Chinese plum syrup to rye, lemon, bitters and egg whites; and the Scarlet Clue cocktail was a marvel of balance despite blending sizable amounts of Angostura bitters and Cynar.
Food and drinks go hand in hand
Food is a common theme in the Vancouver bar scene. I can’t remember a single establishment I visited for cocktails that didn’t also serve food. L’Abattoir, in Vancouver’s nighttime playground of Gastown, is one of the most acclaimed restaurants in town, but also has a gorgeous, cozy bar run by Shaun Layton. (I loved the Meat Hook: bourbon, maraschino, Punt e Mes, and smoky Ardebg 10.) Across the street, the Diamond throbs with energy and seems to serve as the city’s cocktail hub. Operated by two of the top bartenders in town, Mark Brand (formerly of Boneta) and Josh Pape (Chambar), the Diamond has an extensive menu and pulls in the crowds on weekend nights. Though it serves food, I must say that I didn’t see a plate either of the times I was in there.
And these are but a few of Vancouver’s cocktail beacons. There is amazing stuff to be had at the Refinery, West, Pourhouse, Chambar, Uva and many others. Furthermore, the service I experienced in Vancouver was quite good. I was impressed that the citywide uniform for male bartenders was business casual — shirtsleeves usually accompanied by a swank necktie (no retro curly mustaches and vests), giving an air of capability and professionalism, while inspiring confidence in customers that they’re being well taken care of. If there’s one thing that bartenders suffer from here, it’s the availability of the wide variety of spirits we see in most U.S. states, as the flow of liquor into B.C. is regulated by the government. And, often, what bartenders can get their hands on is extremely expensive relative to its price across the border. “It makes life difficult, for sure,” said L’Abattoir’s Layton, “but I think it’s also inspired us to be more creative, to do more with less.”
Indeed, you wouldn’t know they had less — the overarching mood at the city’s bars is one of joyful plenitude.
Valid Victorian From the Fairmont Pacific Rim
- Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass.
The Scarlet Clue From Bao Bei
- Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass.
Jordan Mackay is the wine and spirits editor for San Francisco’s metropolitan magazine 7×7 and writes The Juice column for Chow. In addition, he’s a contributing writer for Wine and Spirits magazine and a regular contributor to Decanter and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photo: The “A Spot of Tea” cocktail from Vancouver’s L’Abattoir. Credit: Jordan Mackay
Everyone loves reading and drinking, right? Or maybe it’s drinking and reading. So these great books about cocktails would be perfect presents for just about anyone. You might even want to snag a few for yourself, and snuggle up to read them with a drink in hand.
This book by Wine Enthusiast Magazine spirits editor Kara Newman is a must-have resource for making punches, pitcher drinks and party-size batches of tiki and tropical beverages. Newman also spells out the way to go on ice, garnishes and other equipment to keep the drinks flowing at your next gathering. Additionally included are classics along the lines of the Bobby Burns (see recipe below), a strong, burly drink invented for Robert Burns Night, celebrating the Scottish poet, on Jan. 25. Newman even explains how to make a bottled version, ideal for serving to a large group. $18.95, Chronicle Books
Alex Ott, an organic chemist and mixologist, has created cocktail menus for restaurants and bars around the world. Ott was inspired by his own brush with death in an airplane crash to write this book, which centers on the power of spirited concoctions to combat stress, boost energy, stay young, improve memory, cure hangovers, relax one’s nerves and, of course, act as aphrodisiacs and magic tinctures. Many of the drinks call for fresh fruits, vegetables, botanicals and herbs as well as chamomile, garlic, lemongrass and cinnamon to work their power. $17, Running Press
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Written by New York Times best-selling author Amy Stewart, this is the book to get for the gardeners and cocktail historians in your life. A detailed exploration of the garnishes and flavorings that can naturally accent a good drink, from herbs and spices to berries, flowers and other botanicals, Stewart helps guide both how to grow all these accoutrements as well as how to use them in a range of flavorful cocktails, from The Aviation, made with violet liqueur, to a Negroni with fresh orange peel. $19.95, Algonquin Books
Written by Greg Henry, author of “Savory Pies,” this is for those who prefer their drinks herbaceous, smoky and strong — his chapters are broken down by Sour, Spicy, Herbal, Umami, Bitter, Smoky, Rich and Strong categories. Within the inspiring recipes are notes on techniques and primers on how to make your own syrups, bitters, shrubs and infusions. $16.95, Ulysses Press
Katie Loeb, a Philadelphia-based sommelier, restaurant consultant and bartender, believes that anyone who can shop, boil water, measure ingredients and operate basic kitchen equipment can make homegrown cocktails. But just in case, her book includes step-by-step photos of some of the more complicated procedures for those shaky around a shaker. Expect tips on how to make infusions of base spirits, bitters and your own limoncello. $24.99, Quarry Books
Northern California-based bartender Jeff Burkhart likens bartending to both marathon running and psychology. In this book, he takes a look at life from both sides of the bar, providing anecdotes on encounters with George Lucas, Robert Redford and Andre Agassi, as well as useful tips on drinking and making drinks. $15, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Renowned mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim’s book is part history, part philosophy, with plenty of recipes for the world’s most widespread — if sometimes maligned — spirit, vodka. Abou-Ganim defends vodka’s complexity and versatility with detailed ideas for cocktails, a primer on pairing with such delicacies as caviar and a list of 58 vodkas with tasting notes and character scores for each. $22.95, Surrey Books
Courtesy Kara Newman, “Cocktails for a Crowd”
Serves 8 (about 4 cups)
12 ounces Scotch
12 ounces sweet vermouth, such as Carpano Antica
5 ounces water
2 ounces Benedictine
8 lemon twists, for garnish
1. In a pitcher that holds at least 5 cups, combine Scotch, vermouth, water and Benedictine and stir well.
2. Using a funnel, decant into a 1-liter liquor bottle or two 750-milliliter bottles. Cap tightly and refrigerate for at least two hours, until chilled.
3. To serve, set out a bowl or wine bucket filled with ice.
4. Shake the bottle to ensure the cocktail is well mixed, then set it in the ice so it stays chilled.
5. Pour into coupe or martini glasses and garnish each drink with a lemon twist.
Top photo: Bobby Burns cocktail. Credit: Teri Lyn Fisher
Wine may reign supreme in California’s Napa Valley, but there’s also a surprising talent pool of mixologists, who come out for the annual Wine Country Cocktail Competition.
“We are seeing an unprecedented growth in Napa Valley cocktail competitions as bar programs continue to grow and develop in wine country,” said Ashley Teplin, a partner at local public relations firm, who attended the event. “Napa Valley is now home to some serious world-class bartenders at Goose & Gander, French Blue, The Thomas at Fagianni’s, Meadowood, La Condesa, Bouchon and Terra, to name a few.”
“Iron Chef” style, some of the region’s world-class bartenders faced off in the summer competition to outdo each other in creating the best cocktail. Each received an arsenal of base products plus a surprise ingredient: seasonal berries.
The contestants had to start with Perfect Purée’s frozen fruit purees, concentrates and zests; and Charbay’s artisanal fresh fruit vodkas, rums, whiskeys and tequila. They also had fresh fruit, garnishes, herbs, edible flowers, mixers and bitters at their disposal.
The winning cocktail was the Sage Canyon Flip, from Michael Jack Pazdon of Goose & Gander in St. Helena. It was the second year in a row that Pazdon had won. Pazdon originally made the drink when he was at Solbar at Solage Resort in Calistoga.
“It stood out for its unique use of ingredients both sweet and savory, the use of sage and Doppelt Kümmel Extra, which is the most amazing stuff ever,” said one of the judges, radio personality Ziggy Eschliman.
Teplin was struck by how well-balanced the competing cocktails were.
“They were complex with great structure and overall acidity,” she said. “Napa Valley is definitely starting to make name for itself in the cocktail world.”
Second prize went to Kelly Dallas of Solbar for the Gravitas Garantum Flip, a drink made with pomegranate vodka, pear purée and a rosemary-infused simple syrup. Third went to Cappy Sorentino of Spoon Bar in Healdsburg, who made a roasted red pepper cocktail.
“What struck me most about Michael Jack Pazdon, Kelly Dallas and Cappy Sorentino’s cocktails — the top three cocktails — were the depth of flavors, complexity and balance,” noted Brian Kropf, editor in chief of Mutineer Magazine and a judge at the competition. “They were all somewhat similar in style, but each had a different and unique presentation and back story.”
Gravitas Garantum Flip
Created by Kelly Dallas of Solbar at Solage Resort
1½ ounces pomegranate vodka
1 ounce pear purée
¾ ounce lemon juice
¾ ounce rosemary-infused simple syrup
3-4 mint leaves
½ ounce egg white
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Sprig of rosemary and edible flowers to garnish.
1. Shake all ingredients and serve over ice.
2. Garnish with rosemary and flower petals.
Cal Norske Flip
Created by Michael Jack Pazdon of Goose & Gander
Two handfuls of cranberries
¾ ounce vodka
¾ ounce lemon vodka
3 sage leaves
¾ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup
¼ ounce Kümmel (a liqueur made from caraway seed, cumin and fennel)
1 ounce pear purée
½ ounce egg white
1. Gently crush a handful of cranberries in a mixing glass.
2. Transfer to an iSi whip charger and fill charger half full with a mixture of 1:1 regular and Meyer lemon vodkas. Cap charger and charge with nitrogen dioxide (NO2); set aside.
3. Separately, crush another handful of cranberries in a sealable container and cover with angostura bitters. Cap and shake vigorously, set aside.
4. After a few moments, uncap the vodka and bitters and strain both. Transfer the bitters to an eyedropper.
5. To build the drink, muddle three sage leaves in the bottom of a mixing glass. Add lemon, simple syrup, Kümmel, pear purée, egg white and 1 ½ ounces of strained infused vodka.
6. Dry shake, add ice and shake vigorously.
7. Double strain into a rocks glass over a glace ice sphere. Drop bitters on top of foam and drag a toothpick through them to make a design.
Photo: Cal Norske Flip cocktail created by Michael Jack Pazdon of Goose & Gander. Credit: Ashley Teplin
I used to tell people that I got interested in cocktails because my parents were into wine and it was my way of being a rebel. In comparison with cork-sniffing and vintage-cataloguing, quaffing cocktails seemed a lot more fun — and a whole lot less like work.
That was 10 years ago, an era when cranberry juice reigned behind the bar, insisting on fresh citrus was considered crazy and the shaken martini was still de rigeur. Almost nobody considered the importance of ice, how different sized and shaped cubes affected a cocktail.
Flash forward to the present when managers and bartenders at even indifferent chains stock 31 different flavors of bitters (two of them mole-based!). Now cocktail enthusiasts write dissertation-level explanations on the evolution of old recipes, and even mid-sized cities report a surfeit of faux-speakeasy bars (aka speak-cheesy). A night out can dock a couple $72 (before the tip) for two drinks each, and thanks to the bartender’s showmanship, a single libation can take 20 minutes to make.
The rise of the craft cocktail
Just how did we get to this era of refined drinking? New York was a pioneer of the craft cocktail — drinks carefully conjured from pre-Prohibition recipes and house-made ingredients. Bars like Milk and Honey, Please Don’t Tell and Flatiron Lounge promised better drinks and a less boisterous atmosphere. Dedicated craftsmen, like bartenders Katie Stipe and Jim Meehan weren’t actors waiting to be discovered (and feeling secretly better than those they served). They were — and are — passionate bartenders sharing their enthusiasm with customers.
Stipe and Meehan are among the pioneers who helped establish an interesting subculture. Marked by sideburns, mustaches, fedoras and tattoos, today’s professional craft cocktail makers create syrups from scratch and hand-carve ice to achieve specific levels of coldness suited to the level of dilution required. In the late 19th century, the American cocktail was a culinary innovation and cultural export — one of our great contributions to world epicurean excellence.
Prohibition and the collapse of the ‘drinkway’
The corpse reviver family of cocktails (traditionally morning drinks intended to revive the hungover corpse) was widely celebrated at the Paris Exposition in 1889. But Prohibition, that noble experiment, lasted for a long, thirsty stretch and resulted in what is called a lost “foodway,” or, in this case, “drinkway.” Recipes and methods stopped being passed down from one bartender to the next through hands-on training and apprenticeship. By the time bars reopened in the 1930s, the ranks of professional barmen had long moved on to other careers or retired.
Prohibition-era drinks were often overly sweet and creamy to mask the substandard booze. Post-Prohibition drinks grew out of that tradition, but became bigger, as the game became “How much liquor can you get into a glass?” Nobody would deny the virtues of midcentury American classics like daiquiris and gimlets, but over the next few decades artificial-tasting and looking bar mixes replaced fresh lime. In the 1980s, candy-flavored drinks brightly colored with grenadine, like the Tequila Sunrise, “fruit” daiquiris and margaritas, and bright red Royal Rickeys emerged.
The end of the 20th century and early millennial years are often viewed as the nadir of the cocktail timeline, until Sasha Petraske of Milk and Honey, rightly viewed as America’s first “craft cocktail” bar, took the reins and taught people to just say no to cranberry and vodka. He didn’t stock either ingredient. Instead, he proffered gin- and brown liquor-based classics made with fresh-squeezed juices and house-made syrups. “bartender’s choice” drinks, reflecting the omakase trend in sushi restaurants, took hold.
That said, the relationship between drinker and pourer is not always amiable. The last time I went to a bar, one I won’t name (but let’s just say it was a New York speakeasy-style spot known for some of the best drinks in the country on East 6th Street somewhere between 1st and A avenues), I received a 30-minute penalty before being served because I failed to give enough direction on my bartender’s choice. The conversation went roughly like this:
ME: “I’d like a Bartender’s Choice — anything with rum.”
BARTENDER: “That doesn’t help me at all, since I don’t know what kind of drink you like.”
The bartender proceeded to serve every person at the bar before coming back with a Swizzle, a tall rum, fruit juice, falernum and bitters drink served over finely crushed ice. Admittedly, it was a very good Swizzle, but at that point a Bud Light Lime would have tasted pretty good, too.
At that moment, I felt like we’d lost the plot. My first book was about cocktails, but I am far more interested in bar culture than in specific ingredients. As bartenders are downright fetishized for their ability to combine specific spirits, I feel we’re losing some of the spirit of the bar. People are there to have a good time and meet people, not to pray at the altar of the cocktail.
There are other aspects of fine drinking (as opposed to fine dining) that are less than democratic. Craft cocktail bars aren’t your drop-by-after-work-and-chat-with-Norm kind of places. More often than not, they take reservations and enforce rules about speaking to people (especially women) you don’t know. Initially, that was such a welcome rule – and there’s still a place for it – but it begs the question: Why are we trying to de-socialize the emblem of sociability? And then there’s the price. It’s not unusual for a cocktail to run between $12 and $16 these days.
Is cocktail snobbery the problem? Probably not the biggest one, since gentrification, healthism and car culture are all probably bigger threats to traditional bar culture. But just in case elitism is even a small component, I’m doing my part to fight it — I’m switching back to wine.
And the occasional vodka.
This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor Christine Sismondo is a Toronto-based author and barfly. She wrote “Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History” in 2005 and, more recently, “America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Grog Shops and Speakeasies.“
Photo: Christine Sismondo.
Credit: Steve Edgar
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ENTER NOW to win a contest for Christine Sismondo’s “America Walks Into a Bar” and William Yeoward’s “American Bar.” Ten entries will be selected to receive both books!
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Forget the sweetness of rum and the vanilla-honey nuances of bourbon. Sometimes we just want to soak our winter woes in a bitter spirit: Campari.
Created in Italy 153 years ago by Gaspare Campari and brought to America at the beginning of the 20th century, the bright-red liqueur is now sold in almost 200 countries. Italy and the U.S. are still the major consumers, with Germany and Brazil not far behind.
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Some say Campari contains 20 different ingredients. Others say 80, but only those intimately involved in the production process really know. Although the recipe remains a closely guarded secret, we know that it combines herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water. Campari is enjoyed as an apéritif, stirred with soda and a slice of orange, and is the basis of two influential cocktails, the Americano and the Negroni.
The traditional Americano is sweet vermouth, Campari and water, with a flamed orange peel for garnish, once sold as a bottled cocktail by Martini & Rossi; the Negroni is typically Campari, sweet vermouth and gin (though vodka can be substituted), again with a flamed orange peel for garnish. Both drinks are served cold.
The colorful, fashionable and avant-garde artwork that historically has been used to promote the spirit around the world has become famous in its own right. The first Campari ad ran in January 1889 in Milan’s biggest newspaper, followed the following year by the first Campari advertising posters. In 1900, the company created its first calendar, with contributions from Italian painters, illustrators and poster artists.
Many of those calendar prints became famous posters, including the 1920-era “Red Passion” poster of two people kissing in a red room and the “Bitter Campari” ad of the company-created character Spiritello emerging from an orange peel.
Halted during World War II, Campari’s visually arresting advertising resumed in 1940 and as consumption grew and spread internationally, the spirits maker became involved in sponsoring international sporting events.
By the 1970s, the likes of David Niven and Humphrey Bogart were doing Campari ads, and even the great Italian director Federico Fellini directed a short film commercial for the spirit. This collaboration with famous actors and directors continues. Salma Hayek has shot Campari commercials and starred in the calendar photographed by Mario Testino. The 2013 calendar features Penelope Cruz.
Art and beauty aside, bartenders love playing with Campari and creating variations on the Negroni as well as designing their own modern-day drinks. H. Joseph Erhmann in San Francisco, the owner of Elixir in the Mission District (one of Food and Wine magazine’s top 100 bars in America) and a founding member of San Francisco Cocktail Week provides this week’s Campari-inspired drink.
Created by H. Joseph Ehrmann in San Francisco
2 inches fresh rosemary
1½ ounce Meyer lemon juice
1 ounce egg white
1 ounce Campari
1½ ounce clover honey syrup (made by blending honey with water in a 1:1 ratio, and heating to dissolve)
1. In a mixing glass, strip the leaves from the rosemary sprig and muddle lightly.
2. Add the Meyer lemon juice and egg white and dry shake for 5 seconds.
3. Add the Campari and honey syrup and fill with ice.
4. Shake well for 10 seconds and strain up.
Top photo: Winter sour cocktail. Credit: Courtesy of Campari America
We tend to overindulge during the holidays. “The more the merrier” is the prevailing theme, after all. So wouldn’t it be great if a cocktail could cure what ails the holiday partygoer?
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Alex Ott thinks so. An organic chemist and master mixologist who has created cocktail menus for restaurants and bars around the world, Ott’s new book, “Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind & Body,” offers entire sections devoted to hangover cures, healing juices, anti-stress cocktails and health elixirs.
He learned a lot about natural flavors and scents native to India, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and the South Pacific as a child, traveling the world with his parents (she a nutritionist, he a musician), soaking up obscure ingredients.
After earning a degree in organic chemistry, he launched the cocktail menu at Buddha Bar in Paris and has since served as the brand ambassador for Svedka Vodka, New Amsterdam Gin and Moët Hennessy. He later made a name for himself in New York City, his current home, at Sushi Samba (even appearing in the TV show “Sex and the City”).
His goal in the book is to focus less on the alcohol and more on the natural spices, herbs and flavor compounds used in the cocktails. He considers his chapter on anti-stress drinks to be the most important one of all.
After surviving a plane crash in Thailand in 1998, he says, “I was left with extreme post-traumatic stress. For the next three years, I tried everything physicians told me to take to relieve my anxiety of flying, heights and the recurring nightmares I began having.”
He spent the next 10 years experimenting with alternatives to strong medication. The result is a dozen anti-anxiety elixirs included in his book, including Tranquili-Tea, a drink that blends chamomile and Armagnac, a brandy from the region of the same name in southwest France.
“Chamomile relaxes the muscles in the body, particularly muscle spasms caused by stress,” Ott explains. “A main compound in chamomile is apigenin. In the central nervous system, apigenin reacts the same way a pharmaceutical tranquilizer such as Valium would, thus relaxing the mind and body without the side effects or risk of addiction. It also works as an excellent sleep aid.”
Chamomile flowers also contain an important compound called azulene, a blue crystalline substance used since early Roman times as a calming aid. Ott adds that chamomile also stimulates digestion.
“My grandmother suffered from severe migraines and stress — raising a ton of children, dealing with the war, and generally looking after everybody,” Ott explains. “My mother took after my grandmother and also suffered from migraines and stress from running her own business. Whenever they needed to calm down, they drank chamomile tea. I can still smell the scent and it calms me down today just thinking about it. This drink is dedicated to the strong women of my family.”
Courtesy of Alex Ott
8 ounces water
1 bag chamomile tea
3 teaspoons sugar
2 ounces Armagnac or Cognac
2 ounces apple cider (or apple juice)
Splash of fresh lemon juice
Slice of apple
- Boil the water in a small saucepan.
- Once the water boils, add the chamomile tea bag and sugar.
- Reduce heat and stir. Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat and let cool.
- Combine 3½ ounces of the cooled tea and remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
- Shake vigorously and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass.
- Garnish with an apple slice.
Note: This cocktail can also be served hot. Instead of shaking, combine all ingredients in a small saucepan with a lid and heat slowly. Serve in a tea glass.
Photo: Tranquili-tea. Credit: Reprinted with permission from Dr. Cocktail ©2012 by Alex Ott, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.