The Cocktail Renaissance
Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
We've forgotten where we came from. The names of many cocktails survive, but what they are sits in a realm of hazy inexactitude. The highly reputable drinks writer of the Wall Street Journal not long ago implied that "fresh orange slices" were essential to an Old-Fashioned, which may have been true during Prohibition with the rotten liquor, but wasn't when the drink was born and isn't today. What makes the confusion in this case almost amusing is that the Old-Fashioned originated in purists' rejection of the fancy concoctions of the 1870s--when the modern cocktail was truly born--by ordering an "old-fashioned whiskey cocktail," that is, one without all the syrups, fruit juices, and wines. But, one of the things that makes this true beauty is that you can vary it in endless ways, not with extra ingredients but with different types of alcohol and different bitters. Old-Fashioneds are splendid with the more aromatic gins and aged rums. I make them with Armagnac and with Calvados, or with Laird's worth-any-search bottled-in-bond Straight Apple Brandy. The basic recipe is just that. And there's the rub. There are only a tiny number of foundational cocktail recipes: the Martini, the Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned, and the Daiquiri. Making these well is just something to master: like the sound of Bessie Smith's voice, how to carve a turkey, and the order of the Triple Crown races.
What's more, even these obey the simplest of principles: One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak. This is a baseline ratio for all cocktails. The weak is, of course, water--most particularly ice. You shake or stir not just to chill your drink, but to improve its balance with a bit of melted ice. Strong is the liquor--in most cocktails at least two ounces of this good stuff, though varied to taste. I base all my cocktails on two ounces of the main spirit, as it keeps me from making mistakes as the accessories go in, but you can do just as well at 1.5 or 2.5. Sweet is sugar, most often diluted in water as simple syrup. (Easily made at home by warming an equal amount of sugar and water until the sugar is dissolved, then storing in the fridge.) Sour is just about anything from citrus juice and aromatic bitters like Angostura to vermouth and the complex bitter liqueurs of Italy. Follow these principles, and you'll likely prepare a decent drink from the ingredients to hand. Just as you can sub parsley for any herb in cooking, you can substitute in cocktail making. Make a Martini with bitters instead of vermouth--it's called a Pink Gin. Make a Daiquiri with grapefruit instead of lime--sometimes called a Hemingway, though that name conjures as many cocktails as there are bars in the world. Make a Manhattan with brandy instead of rye--oft called a Charles Cocktail. Put a single splash of Angostura in a Daiquiri and then try one with orange bitters. It's all to the good. You're rolling your own.
In the cocktail world, the phrase "roll your own" is indelibly associated with David Embury, whose Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948, revised 1952 and 1958) remains the single best book on the subject. Embury (1886-1960) was a successful New York tax attorney, who, according to his daughter Ruth, excelled "at everything he did. Besides being a lawyer and cocktail aficionado, he was a magician and bridge expert, and played both the piano and banjo." He was the classic amateur and in that spirit sought to understand the cocktail's principles. Embury broke a drink down into three constituent parts--the base, the modifying agent, and the special flavoring and coloring agents. The base is our "strong," the alcohol, which to Embury should constitute 75 percent of any drink and never less than 50 percent. (In a drink like a Martini, it will be upwards of 90 percent.) The modifiers are our "weak" and "sour," as well as "smoothing agents" like sugar and egg whites. These will be most of the rest of a drink's volume with only tiny additions of the liqueurs and fruit syrups that constitute "special flavoring and coloring agents." From this simple description, Embury was able to explain all cocktails as a matter of proportion. What is a traditional Daiquiri? Nothing but 8 parts Cuban rum, 2 parts lime juice, and 1 part sugar syrup. Embury took it to heart that you would never be mixing up a single cocktail, but likely four or eight, and proportions gave you the power to make a good cocktail for your guests that, equally important, tastes the same each round.
But Embury was concerned about more than just how to make good cocktails--he sought to define just what one was. He found six key characteristics:
* First: It "must whet the appetite, not dull it." This sounds simple enough but actually disqualifies whole swaths of alcoholic drinks from consideration and leaves us focused on the dry and sour drinks that show off a spirit. Nothing served at a rowdy bar could ever qualify. Nor anything that disguises the taste of the liquor; it would cloy and dull your palate and hardly be the lead in to a decent oyster pan roast and some lamb chops. Embury's focus was on quality not quantity--though he did describe himself as someone who prefers to drink the first too fast and then savor the second. He was, moreover, asserting that the cocktail is a thing of its time and place, holding a key spot in the day's endeavors: after the labor and before the meal. It's a reward, but like a good dinner it takes a bit of effort to prepare.
* Second: A cocktail "should stimulate the mind as well as the appetite." Embury understood that cocktails are part of a civilized and contemplative life. You should be able to anticipate your first drink after the day's work and use it to refresh your spirit and relax your mind. It should awaken senses dulled at the office and by the speed and distances of contemporary life. It should move you from the determined needs of a workday to a thoughtful consideration of the better and more charming aspects of living and talking and reading. Anticipation should not be underrated as an aspect of any aesthetic experience. It is as essential to a cocktail as it is to a good production of Cymbeline or Don Carlos or a cassoulet.
* Third: A cocktail "must be pleasing to the palate." By this, Embury meant a drink that is dry with all of the flavors balanced. You should be able to sense every ingredient in a well-made cocktail. Some of it might be elusive, but it is there in some definable sense. When you add one or two drops of absinthe to a Corpse Reviver No. 2, you are adding a defining flavor. You cannot leave it out without changing the drink into something else.
* Fourth: A cocktail "must be pleasing to the eye." This is an underrated virtue. At a many-starred hotel, I was recently brought a rather good Negroni in a brown-tinted old-fashioned glass. It came close to ruining the moment. The bright red color is one of the pleasures of this masterpiece, shining out from an up glass close to one's right hand. Bringing a tray of four Pegu Clubs to your coffee table will liven up your guests, setting everyone to considering the drinks and their color. Like wrapped packages and Christmas crackers, well-presented cocktails add festivity to an occasion. One trouble is that old saw about shaken versus stirred. James Bond has no idea what he is talking about. Nobody wants a shaken Martini, which is a cloudy drink when a Martini should be absolutely clear. Stir it with a long spoon until it is rabidly cold. Shaken or stirred is a debate about how a drink should look, not how it should taste. Any drink with fruit juice in it will be cloudy, so shake away--shaking being the most efficient method of chilling. If your drink has any hope of being clear: stir. And anyone who mentions the concept of bruising alcohol should be offered a beer to drink.
* Fifth: A cocktail "must have sufficient alcoholic flavor." Even the simplest of cocktails like a vermouth cassis must taste of alcohol. If you don't like the taste of the stuff, drink soda water. There's nothing else to say. Drinks that don't taste of alcohol were developed for coeds and the saps who try to get them drunk. There are cocktails for every palate, and every cocktail is adjustable. If you don't like bitter herbs, make a Negroni with simple syrup substituted for a quarter of the Campari. A cocktail tailored to your palate will still taste wonderfully of the alcohol. A cocktail that does not taste of its alcohol is likely something disreputable.
* Finally: A cocktail "must be well-iced." This rules out most of the drinks you can get in American restaurants, as they are too large. A cocktail is about four ounces, and today's Martini is six, maybe even eight. It's warm before you can contemplate its measure. The chill is essential. Cocktails do not open up like wine, they just get warm. Plan on more than one round and consider steps like chilling your shaker and making ice cubes from distilled water. (Better ice is an overlooked way to improve cocktails--it's a lot like making your own stock and pie crusts.) But regardless, serving smaller drinks at colder temperatures is as essential as not overcooking the trout.
There isn't any part of the cocktail process that Embury didn't examine in Fine Art, from glassware and the strength of drinks to whether you should mix liquors and the "Social Effects of Overindulgence." His belief that you should cut the amount of water in a cocktail to the bone meant that his simple syrup is three parts sugar to one part water--a thick additive that experimentation showed him had the maximum sugar he could get into water without its returning later to crystal form. His assured manner left plenty to argue about: the ratio of his Sours (far too much brandy in the Embury Sidecar, for instance), the base of the French 75 (he favors cognac rather than gin), even the number of foundational cocktails. He presented six, adding the Sidecar and the Jack Rose. Now, I love both those drinks, but what are they other than a Brandy Sour and an Applejack Sour in exactly the way a Daiquiri is a Rum Sour: the foundational Sour? They are brilliant variations, not pillars. Embury is our one true philosopher of the cocktail, and the conversation never flags.
Fine Art of Mixing Drinks is not just the best modern book on cocktails. For years it has also been the grail of aficionados. When found, copies were in the hundreds of dollars. (A book dealer of my acquaintance paid $200 for one a year ago.) For close to a decade I had only a photocopy until chance and increased income came together. Into this breach has stepped Greg Boehm. While many of us wanted Embury to be in print, Boehm went to the trouble of tracking down Embury's daughter Ruth and acquiring the copyright. (She was hard to find he told me and "had no idea that her father was a legend.") Boehm comes from a successful publishing family and is proprietor of the small Mud Puddle Books, which he wants to make the "major publisher of cocktail books in the world." Ten years ago at Salvatore Calabrese's legendary Library Bar in the Lanesborough Hotel in London he discovered how good a cocktail can be. Wanting to learn more, he began buying old cocktail books and ended up with so many that he started selling duplicates on eBay. (He has the largest collection of cocktail books in the United States, though he points out this is mainly because the one larger collection was sold to a guy in Germany.) One day, a woman named Audrey Saunders bought one, and he emailed her to say he had other cocktail books if she had any interest. She did. So was a friendship born and the path to Mud Puddle struck out upon.
Saunders is the proprietor of the Pegu Club in New York and one of the catalysts behind the city's serious cocktail culture. Boehm fell in with her merry group of classic drink revivalists and soon opened his library of 2,000 books to the city's bartenders and aficionados. Bringing them back into print was the next step. Last summer, Mud Puddle published facsimile editions of six of the most important books in cocktail history: How to Mix Drinks; A Bon Vivant's Companion by Jerry Thomas (1862), Modern Bartender's Guide by O.H. Byron (1884), The Mixicologist by C.F. Lawlor (1895), American and Other Iced Drinks by Charlie Paul (1895), Bartenders' Manual by Harry Johnson (1900), and Barflies and Cocktails by Harry McElhone (1927). Then in October came the long-awaited Embury reprint. For $29.95 you can now acquire Fine Art at the click of a button day or night. Boehm has 22 more titles in the pipeline--this summer's releases are six delectable gems: Modern American Drinks by George J. Kappelar (1895), The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them by William Boothby (1908), Drinks by Jacques Straub (1914), Recipes for Mixed Drinks by Hugo R. Ensslin (1917), Cocktails: How to Mix Them by Robert Vermeire (1922), and The Artistry of Mixing Drinks by Frank Meier (1936)--and the folks he is working with read like a who's who of the better bartenders and cocktail writers in contemporary America: Saunders, Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, Ted Haigh.
It is with them that we pick up the thread of our story. For things started changing for the cocktail about five years ago. It wasn't a fad or some new cocktail craze but something I think might be better termed a "renaissance," for it is a rediscovery of antique knowledge. It began in our high-end restaurants, particularly venues like the Gramercy Tavern and Chez Panisse. A large percentage of profits in such restaurants comes not from the food but from the beverages that accompany it. (It used to be joked that McDonald's sold hamburgers to get you to buy Coke. Well, our better restaurants sell braised porkbelly in the hopes that you will buy first-rate Pinot Noir.) Just as these restaurants were educating an urban audience to eat frisée and sweetbreads and to drink Argentine Malbec and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, so they eventually began to encourage some chef-like flourishes behind their bars.
The "Swingers" craze, too, had beneficial side effects. Restaurateurs discovered that people would drink anything called a "Martini," and various classic cocktails reappeared under that name--you could suddenly get Manhattans made properly with rye whiskey under the campy name of a Wry Martini, and the heavily marketed Hennessey Martini was nothing but a Sidecar in disguise. Equally important was the irresistible rise of the Cosmopolitan, which convinced a couple of generations of young women to drink cocktails. The much-debated origins of this drink are irrelevant; what matters is that a combination of vodka--most often citrus-flavored--orange liqueur, cranberry juice, and lime juice in the tall, clear architecture of the Martini glass became immensely popular. And then it did something much more unusual: It became a standard. This hadn't happened in decades. (That its name already sounded like a classic may have helped.) It was a gateway drug, and, as women are the ever hoped-for, prayed-for, marketed-to-at-any-cost growth market of liquor companies, the news was spread rapidly by the vodka reps. While women were busy splashing pink liquid on their dates--very hard to drink eight ounces or more of booze out of a Martini glass while standing in a crowded bar--men had been busy discovering the greatness of single-malt Scotch. This in turn led our makers of Kentucky's finest spirit to point out that all straight bourbon was essentially single malt and bring to market some stunning new brown liquors.
Out of this sudden interest in serious booze--and backed by restaurateurs who saw a good source of profit--sprang a generation of bartenders who cared about the history of their profession and the quality of their ingredients. As with chefs in the 1970s and 1980s taking a stage at the restaurants of the Brothers Troisgros, Alain Chapel, or Frédy Girardet, bartenders were collecting the old cocktail manuals and banding together at spots like the Rainbow Room and Firebird in New York, where they worked under the tutelage of the godfather of the cocktail renaissance: Dale DeGroff. In the late 1980s, DeGroff had been charged with creating a classic cocktail menu at Joe Baum's Aurora (and again at the fabled Rainbow Room). A skilled professional bartender, DeGroff was suddenly an archivist and inventor as well. He had to track down old recipes and create modern equivalents for long-defunct ingredients.
DeGroff's progeny went off to create bar programs at restaurants around the country and to found lovely little lounges of their own. In most of the major American cities today, you will find a place that specializes in good drinks and a cozy atmosphere: places like Saunders's Pegu Club or Death & Co. in New York, Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, the Violet Hour in Chicago, Alembic in San Francisco, and The Gibson and PX in Washington, D.C. Here the bartenders do things like make their own ginger beer and vermouth; macerate sour cherries and infuse spirits with ginger; distill their own celery and kumquat bitters; and of course flame lemon peels before your eyes. The results show in every glass. And just like the chefs of the 1970s who, needing good goat cheese and baby arugula and squab, found courageous foodies to build purveying businesses, we now have a number of boutique producers of cocktail ingredients, a new generation of distillers getting going, and a wild cocktail subculture. (There's also been a sudden uptick of molecular mixology--bacon-infused bourbon, a Sazerac gummy bear, Red Bull foam, and the much-discussed Pisco Sour Marshmallow--but I assure you, despite the fascination newspaper editors seem to have with these antics, they are as much a fad as they are foolish.)
Charles Rolls, who revived the classic Plymouth gin brand in the late 1990s--he was bought out by Absolut in 2001--started up Fever-Tree to bring you a decent tonic water, one not dominated by high-fructose corn syrup like Schweppes or Canada Dry. Why buy a premium spirit, he wondered, if you're going to add mediocre sugarwater? His stuff is magic. Made from cane sugar, Sicilian lemons, African marigolds, and hand-pressed Tanzanian orange oil, it tastes deeply of quinine. Yet an equally good tonic is made by Jordan Silbert at Q Tonic, and it lacks almost any quinine bite. Silbert uses agave nectar instead of sugar, and Q Tonic is notably sharp. With two other artisanal tonics now on the market--Stirrings and Fentimans--it's like the days when D'Artagnan suddenly made Magret duck available in every big city in America. And then there's the Internet, which Greg Boehm points out turned his cocktail books from a novelty into a working library. Online you could track down missing ingredients and order all sorts of odd products. Want to make your own tonic? You can order citric acid and cinchona bark online. Need Kina Lillet, Bols, or real grenadine? Pull out your credit card and watch for the UPS man. The Internet proved there was a market for such things, and businesses responded.
Eric Seed is the owner of a Minnesota-based importer--Haus Alpenz--that is devoted to tracking down the lost ingredients of the classic cocktails: things like Pimento Dram, Velvet Falernum, and Batavian Arrack. His business is connecting boutique producers with top restaurants. He finds the unusual ingredients that serious bartenders need to feed their fancies and guarantees the steady supply that makes educating consumers worthwhile. The wonder of last winter was the Dolin Vermouths de Chambéry that he's brought back to America. Made according to the same recipe since 1821, they have a wondrous freshness that simply banishes any thought of using Cinzano or Noilly-Prat. All three--a dry, a blanc, and a rouge--are worth drinking on their own. For years we have been merrily adding something we wouldn't drink straight to our favorite gin or whiskey. The mind reels.
In 2007, Seed tracked down a source for crème de violette--a pale blue liquor made by macerating violets in brandy--which put the long-lost Aviation (8 parts gin, 2 parts lemon juice, 1 part crème de violette, 1 part maraschino liqueur) on cocktail menus around the country. (It's been so successful that spirits entrepreneur Rob Cooper has revived Crème Yvette, another long-defunct violet-based liqueur.) Last summer, Seed began importing an Old Tom gin from Hayman's, the oldest family-owned gin distillery in England. (It was thanks to interest from the cocktail revivalists that Hayman's again began producing it from the old family recipe.)
Old Tom is the missing link of the gin world. When the first great cocktails were being created in the middle of the 19th century, gin was a range of spirits, not just the London Dry that we know and love today. At the other end of the spectrum is Holland gin, or genever, a much sweeter spirit than London Dry. Old Tom sits squarely in between. The original Martini--the Martinez--called for Old Tom, as did a Tom Collins. (The John Collins wants genever.) The fine Silver Cocktail is best with no sugar and Old Tom--4 parts gin, 4 parts dry vermouth, 1 part maraschino liqueur, two dashes orange bitters, shaken and served with a lemon peel.
Seed believes that the revival of such cocktails is not part of some fad, but just the next step in our culinary revolution. Beverages represent the largest share of a restaurant's profits, and crafted cocktails and a serious bar program are the natural extension. "Diners want something exciting at each and every step of the meal," notes Seed, and the cocktail renaissance is being driven by restaurants' evolving to provide a full dining experience. The best parallel is again with what happened in the kitchens of America in the 1970s and 1980s. The businesses that sprang up to meet the needs of adventurous chefs soon turned to the home market. So it is that a product like the Rothman and Winter crème de violette Seed found for his restaurant and bar clients, soon went into the specialized liquor stores that cater to us cocktail geeks.
There is an amazing array of new products in America's liquor stores. For decades, there were only two brands of rye on the market--Old Overholt and Jim Beam rye. Both were a perfectly acceptable base for a Manhattan, yet at this present moment I have four bottles of rye on my shelves and nary a Beam or Overholt in sight. There are remarkable new spirits like the Anchor Steam brewery's Old Junípero gin and Portland's Aviation gin, and you'd have a hard time convincing me that George T. Stagg--part of the Buffalo Trace Antique collection of bourbons--isn't simply the greatest spirit ever crafted by American hands. And this is to say nothing of the bitters revolution that began with Gary Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6. Where once was just Angostura, you will now see a dozen little bottles.
Restaurants taking a chance on a cocktail program, moreover, restored the profession of tending bar. As Seed points out, for restaurants, "Cash flow is everything. You need to turn your inventory, which means you need people to educate your clientele." Restaurateurs are suddenly keen for their cocktail-interested staffers to spend time encouraging the customers to try a Clover Club or a Blood and Sand. As more cocktail revivalists followed their inclination to the other side of the bar, more good lounges opened and more people had a great cocktail. Like the rock Sisyphus pushed up the hill, the cocktail revival is suddenly rolling. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post both hired first-rate cocktail columnists. Websites have sprung up compiling information on every facet of cocktail history and every kind of spirit. (Ted Haigh and Martin Doudoroff's Internet Cocktail Database is a particularly notable compendium of drinks and ingredients lost and found, and includes a random cocktail generator based on Embury's theories.) There's even an annual New Orleans drinkathon that passes as a convention, called Tales of the Cocktail, where the likeminded gather to drink, er, attend sessions on "The Scented Trail: Techniques on How to Develop Aroma in Your Cocktails" and "Making Your Own Spirits: A Look into Modern Nano-Distilling." Cocktails are a viable business in 2009.
There's no better case in point of the new bar professionalism than D.C.'s Derek Brown--the man who first pushed Eric Seed to seek out the Dolin vermouths. He grew fascinated by the drinks trade early and worked as the sommelier in some of D.C.'s best restaurants. Yet his heart remained more behind the bar than in the -cellar. The beautiful revival speakeasy The Gibson is now his stage, and its owners have faith their investment will pay off--they spent about $200,000 renovating a ground-floor space into a dark, wood-paneled dream. There are only 48 seats and, if one isn't open, you won't be welcome to loiter until one is. The new cocktail lounges are all about preserving a comfortable atmosphere for drinks and conversation. (Milk & Honey in New York, one of the best spots in America for the classic cocktail drinker, has a famous set of rules, including the wonderful instruction to its female patrons, "If a man you don't know speaks to you, please lift your chin slightly and ignore him." My favorite: "Do not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home.")
To watch Brown at work behind the bar is to see an artist among his elements. There's showmanship--the double old-fashioned glass spun four feet in the air to spread the absinthe for each Sazerac--and a glorious preference for flaming lemon peels to finish a drink. (Brown wonders what would be the point of coming to work if you can't light things on fire.) The ease of action almost belies how much prep work is behind each of the cocktails and how much experimentation went into honing each recipe. The Gibson is the perfect place to give thanks for the cocktail renaissance. Begin with a Sazerac or a Martini in a nod to where we came from. Then try a classic variation. If you went brown, I'd suggest the Vieux Carré (rye, brandy, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, Peychauds and Angostura bitters) or a Boothby, the great San Francisco barman William "Cocktail" Boothby's 1908 idea of a Manhattan--rye, Carpano Antica, bitters, and champagne. If you started out with clear, order up one of the cousins of the modern Martini: the Fifty-Fifty (equal parts gin and dry vermouth: the clearest, cleanest drink I've ever been served) or Brown's version of the Improved Gin Cocktail (gin, maraschino liqueur, and ale bitters).
Better yet, stop back by for an after-dinner treat like Brown's reinvention of the Pisco Sour, the Salad Days Sour (celery-infused pisco, lemon juice, celery bitters, and burnt cinnamon), or his Rhum Manhattan (Neisson Rhum Agricole Réserve Spéciale, Carpano Antica, and orange bitters). As Brown likes to quote Hemingway: "Dessert is for people who don't drink enough."