Food & Drinks

The 21st-Century Cocktail Is Born | PUNCH

By 2000, the cocktail renaissance was beginning to come into its own—London was going full steam with the introduction of flashy cocktail forums like the Atlantic Bar & Grill, the Met Bar and LAB, while New York and San Francisco produced a smattering of celebrated drinking destinations like the Rainbow Room, Angel’s Share and Absinthe—but still had a ways to go until it was a full-fledged, undeniable force. The few scattered leaders of the movement, people who had relearned mixology from old, pre-Prohibition books, began to publish compendiums of their own. These books were read by a new generation of bartenders, who continued to re-examine the building blocks that made up every cocktail, questioning assumptions about ice and sweeteners and all the minutiae between. Big liquor brands began to take notice and responded by sending into the field an army of reconnaissance agents called brand ambassadors. Meanwhile, a man in suspenders toiled away in a hidden drinking den on a dark street in Lower Manhattan. He paid no attention to anything the others were doing, but ending up making the biggest waves of all.

This is the second in a four-part series that explores the major drinking trends that defined each five-year period of the cocktail revival, beginning with 1995. This edition covers the years from 2000 to 2005.

It may seem strange to single out one bar as a trend unto itself. But such was the vast, global impact of the tiny Lower East Side cocktail cove opened by first-time bar owner Sasha Petraske on New Year’s Eve 1999. Every other cocktail bar that came after seemed to take something from its model, be it the hushed atmosphere, the jazz soundtrack, the natty retro apparel of Petraske and his fellow bartenders, the infamous “House Rules” posted in the bathroom, the attention to every detail that went into every drink, the quality of the ice (more on this later), the devotion to the original recipes of old and often forgotten cocktails, and the utter esteem in which cocktails were held by the bar, its staff and its patrons.

Perhaps its most enduring legacy—much to Petraske’s chagrin—was introducing the concept of the modern speakeasy: the secret, unmarked drinking den whose allure was wrapped up in how hard it was to find. (The bar’s unmarked entrance and low profile was by design—not to generate intrigue, but rather to please Petraske’s landlord, who was reluctant to host a bar.) Some bars adopted the Milk & Honey formula wholesale, such as Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, Violet Hour in Chicago, Bon Vivant in Prague, Attaboy (the bar that took over the original Milk & Honey’s location on Eldridge Street), and, of course, the Milk & Honey that opened in London in 2002. Petraske himself proliferated his blueprint by opening further bars with his protégés, including Little Branch, Dutch Kills and Middle Branch, all in New York; The Varnish in Los Angeles; and The Everleigh in Melbourne, Australia. In 2020, the final bar that bore the Milk & Honey name closed. But the original’s legacy will be felt for decades to come.

In the 20th century, you had liquor salespeople. In the 21st century, you have Brand Ambassadors. Brutish brand reps offering a color TV in exchange for a place on the backbar weren’t going to cut it among the new breed of discerning and, frankly, snobbish mixologists. A different sort of front man with a fresh philosophy was needed. The new brand ambassador didn’t just sell liquor; they sold the idea of liquor. They embodied their brand and imbued it with history, romance and excitement. Brand ambassadors made themselves both friend and mentor to budding mixologists. They conducted tastings and seminars, invited bartenders to distilleries around the world, held cocktail competitions. Along the way, they helped to create a global cocktail community where none had previously existed. Most of the early, influential brand ambassadors (Simon Ford, Jacob Briars, Charlotte Voisey, Colin Asare-Appiah) were former bartenders, and in time, the jump from bartender to ambassador became a common and sought-after career path. It still is. The result, for better or worse, is an inextricably tangled relationship between the cocktail and corporate cultures.

A significant part of the cocktail revolution involved bartenders simply taking apart drinks, examining and improving each ingredient, and then putting the whole back together again. Spirits were upgraded, juice was freshly squeezed, sweeteners reimagined (see below), garnishes improved. And then there was the forgotten ingredient, found in every cocktail but seldom considered: ice. Most drinks from World War II on were made with the thin, weak, watery cubes spat out by industrial ice machines. The ice melted fast, ruining drinks, and did nothing for the drink’s visual appeal.

The first step in modern ice evolution was the industrywide embrace of Kold-Draft, a legacy maker of fine ice from Erie, Pennsylvania. The company’s machines made clear, hard, handsome cubes. Dale DeGroff, godfather of the cocktail revival in the United States, stood by Kold-Draft early on, and his disciples followed suit. During the aughts, no serious cocktail bar opened without one. Milk & Honey, however, didn’t have room for a Kold-Draft machine, so owner Sasha Petraske made his own ice, fashioning handmade jumbo cubes and spears from trays of frozen water. As with DeGroff, Petraske’s acolytes followed his lead. Some of them opened their own ice-making outfits, selling perfect spheres and blocks to bars that couldn’t make them themselves. “On the rocks” never sounded the same again.

For most of the two-century history of the cocktail, the sweet component in a drink (when it didn’t derive from a liqueur) came from sugar, either in granular form, the liquid version known as simple syrup (a solution of equal parts sugar and water), or as a factor in the ubiquitous sour mix used by most bars. One of the central eureka moments of the cocktail revolution was the simple notion that the world of sweeteners was much wider than once thought. There were a few isolated sparks of genius in the ’90s: San Franciscan Julio Bermejo sweetened his Tommy’s Margarita with agave syrup; London bartender Salvatore Calabrese softened his Breakfast Martini with orange marmalade; Marco Dionysos turned to ginger syrup for the Ginger Rogers, the best seller at Absinthe in San Francisco. With the turn of 2000, such departures became more common. The Gold Rush, an early hit at Milk & Honey, was a Whiskey Sour made with honey syrup. The Penicillin, created at the same bar, used honey-ginger syrup. The Pornstar Martini, one of the biggest drinks in London, required vanilla syrup. Even simple syrup itself wasn’t simple anymore. There was rich simple syrup (two parts sugar to one part water), demerara syrup, turbinado syrup, brown sugar syrup. The sweet spot that balanced each cocktail was no longer so easy to find, and that was a good thing.

Not every young bartender in the early aughts had the time or wherewithal to collect old, out-of-print cocktail manuals, as had the early leaders of the cocktail revival when relearning their profession. But, with the dawn of the new century, there was another, easier option. New cocktail books were being published for the first time in years. Straight Up or On the Rocks, a concise and thorough history of the cocktail written by New York Times reporter William Grimes—the man who first cast a spotlight on the art of Rainbow Room barman Dale DeGroff—was reissued in 2002. (The original release, in 1993, had barely been noticed.) That same year, DeGroff himself released The Craft of the Cocktail, a broad compendium of old and new drink recipes. Also in 2002, Gary Regan took a more scholarly approach with The Joy of Mixology, which attempted to impose structure upon the various and sundry cocktail categories. A new generation of bartenders would cull their knowledge not from pre-Prohibition barmen like Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson, but these fresh takes on the trade.

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