The Magazine

The Cocktail Renaissance


Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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The cocktail is a lovely simple thing: a mixture of spirits and flavorings that whets the appetite, pleases the eye, and stimulates the mind. It is one of our conspicuous contributions to cultured living, up there with the Great American Songbook and the tuxedo. Yet, like almost everything else to do with culture in this country, the cocktail fell on hard times in the 1960s. A generation preferred other intoxicants and, when they drank, took their alcohol in sickly sweet concoctions that defied any idea of sophistication. As time passed, the places one could order a decent cocktail grew farther in between. By the 1990s, few establishments outside of the fustiest hotels could produce a passable Martini or Manhattan. Fewer still a Negroni, a Jack Rose, or a Sazerac.

Some of it is the ignorance of the folks behind the bar, who not only have a limited mastery of the ratios that make such cocktails refreshing but also fail to measure--every drink should be meted out accurately with jiggers and spoons. It is a profession after all dominated by disabused actors and women comfortable in brief attire. But it is just as much the lack of audience. For a Negroni, your sweet vermouth and your Campari must be fresh, used and replaced regularly. For a Jack Rose, you not only need bottled-in-bond applejack or high-grade Calvados, but also real grenadine, which at this point you must make yourself as the product sold domestically has no pomegranates in it. And a Sazerac? To make the signature drink of New Orleans, you need not only good rye and an absinthe substitute, but a bottle of Antoine Amedie Peychaud's anise-dominated bitters. You need, in other words, fresh ingredients, a fair amount of knowledge, and practiced skills.

These are the things that we have come to expect when ordering the braised veal shank in a better restaurant. The kitchen will be run by a professional--these days likely a well-educated and well-trained one. But at the bar, there is no guarantor of equal excellence. People often get bartending jobs because they once had bartending jobs. There is no comprehensive training, and you just don't know what you are going to get at a lot of places when you order a pre-prandial knockback. This magazine is published out of Washington, D.C., which has a characteristic cocktail: the Gin Rickey--named, yes, for a lobbyist. It's just lime juice, gin, and grenadine, topped off by club soda. It's one of the finest of the tall, cool drinks and as close as D.C. comes to having a notable food item. Yet when I've ordered one against the summer heat, bartenders have threatened me with concoctions including fruit juices and syrups, sugar, and all too little fresh carbonated water. Don't make the mistake of ordering one without quizzing the mixmaster on what he thinks goes in a Rickey.

There was a revival of the Martini in the middle 1990s, brought on by a craze for swing dancing and ring-a-ding-ding bachelor culture. But the best cocktails were not the product of the 1950s when the Rat Pack set the standard, but the 1920s when piano bars and hot jazz ruled and people changed their clothes for the evening. Our most elegant cocktails were part of the great modern revolution in design and had the same sleek lines as that era's airplanes and motorcars. The drink names of this era celebrate just what the plane, train, and liner meant to travel and horizons--the Aviation, the Bijou, the Metropolitan, and the Sidecar; the Havana, the Bombay, the Honolulu. And these drinks were wondrous balances of fresh ingredients. During the "Swingers" era of the 1990s, what you could get were very large Martinis that were often just chilled gin--six ounces or more in a single glass. It wasn't uncommon to see one made by spraying the tiniest amount of vermouth into a frozen glass and adding the gin on top. Bartenders would proclaim the benefits of not diluting the alcohol by shaking or stirring it over ice.