Food & Drinks

The 21st-Century Cocktail Is Made | PUNCH

Every new drinks discovery up until 2005, from forgotten formulas to revived techniques, was merely prelude. In the latter half of the aughts, the cocktail revival kicked into high gear. With the opening of bars like Pegu Club, Little Branch, Violet Hour and Bourbon & Branch—establishments that presented a complete and confident picture of what a modern cocktail bar could be—there was no turning back. Very quickly, all the pieces needed to recreate the pre-Prohibition drinking world—the return of various bitters and the resurrection of lost spirits and liqueurs, among them—were pulled into place. To this, young bartenders added their own touches, such as the science-inspired approach to drink-making known as “molecular mixology” and a mix-and-match cocktail-inventing strategy called Mr. Potato Head, both of which led to the first boom of noteworthy new cocktails in generations. It was a heady time brimming with creativity, discovery and reinvention, one that hasn’t been matched since.

If chefs like Ferran Adrià and Wylie Dufresne could bring science into the kitchen, what was stopping mixologists from bringing it behind the bar? A handful of bartenders saw no reason not to turn the liquid in your glass into solids, jellies, foams or gases. They looked to make a better, purer, more intense cocktail through nitrogen and rotovaps. None of the practice’s proponents—Eben Freeman, Linden Pride, Grant Achatz, Dave Arnold, Tony Conigliaro, Eben Klemm—called what they were doing “molecular mixology”; the media weighted them with that label, and it caught the eye of the public, who loved it, or at least was briefly fascinated. Not all of the movement’s tricks stuck; universal adoption of such techniques was too costly and complicated a proposition. But it yielded a few world-class bars, including New York’s Tailor and Booker and Dax and Chicago’s The Aviary. And certain applications, such as fat-washing spirits and using liquid nitrogen to theatrically chill glasses, were broadly embraced, proving there was more than an atom of worth to the trend.

Once mixologists had mastered all the Golden Age cocktails, their next ambition was to create original formulas. But how to do that? A fledgling bartender named Phil Ward—who in five short years jumped from Flatiron Lounge to Pegu Club to Death & Co., three of New York’s most important renaissance cocktail bars—happened upon the most straightforward method. It required simply subtracting an ingredient from a proven cocktail recipe and plugging in a similar item in its place. Same structure, but one or two new components, and voilà! A new cocktail was born. The practice quickly became known as the Mr. Potato Head method, and it led (and continues to lead) to hundreds of new drinks. Riffs and spins on Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans, Last Words and Negronis were particularly prevalent, only now they were known as Elder Fashioneds, Black Manhattans, Final Wards and Kingston Negronis. It was a boom time for cocktails that we now consider modern classics.

You didn’t need even one hand to count all the bitters on the market in the early aughts. There were Angostura bitters and, if you lived in New Orleans, Peychaud’s bitters, used primarily in Sazeracs. End of list. There was tell of a company in Rochester, New York—Fee Brothers—that made other flavors, including the elusive and critical orange bitters, but almost nobody knew that Fee’s, a nearly 150-year-old enterprise, was still in business. Since many old cocktail recipes called for all sorts of bitters, this lack of product was a problem. As with many other problems bartenders faced in the early days of the revival, they fixed it themselves. Many bars began creating their own in-house bitters by infusing liquors or neutral grain spirits with fruits, herbs and botanicals. Writer Gary Regan struck the first big blow for the commercial return of bitters, with the introduction of Regans’ Orange Bitters in 2005. Soon he had competition. Dozens of bitters companies, producing every flavor imaginable (bay leaf, yuzu, lavender, cherry bark), were born seemingly overnight: The Bitter Truth in Germany; Bittermens in San Francisco; Bittercube in Milwaukee; Scrappy’s in Seattle; Hella Bitters in Brooklyn; Miracle Mile in Los Angeles. Instead of a dearth of choices, there was now an embarrassment of riches.

Imagine a world with no absinthe, no Old Tom gin, no pimento dram, no crème de violette, no Swedish punsch, and very little rye and mezcal. Well, that was the world American bartenders occupied in 2005. Now, imagine a world where those spirits were available in abundance. That was 2010. In those five intervening years, a school of demanding young bartenders was clamoring to make the many forgotten cocktails from historic bar manuals, and a new breed of distillers, distributors and importers (including, critically, Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz) staked their business on answering the call. Suddenly, in the course of a few short years, it was all back on the shelf. The Aviation and the Martinez, which require crème de violette and Old Tom gin, respectively, were again doable drinks. Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds could be made with rye once more. Absinthe, returned to life through the efforts of a chemist named Ted Breaux, was the biggest victory. It provided the missing puzzle piece for dozens of classic drinks, from the Sazerac to the Monkey Gland. The band was back together again.

Prior to the cocktail renaissance, the very word “cocktail” evoked certain ideas in the public imagination, and they weren’t particularly serious ideas. Cocktails spelled fun—they were frothy, icy things like the ubiquitous frozen Daiquiri and Margarita; disco drinks with cheeky names (Slow Scream, Screaming Orgasm); multilayered, comical shots to get you quickly hammered (Kamikaze, B-52). Even during the early years of the revival, craft cocktails in London and San Francisco were vibrant mixtures of crushed ice and colorful produce. New York wasn’t like that. The bartenders there preferred drinks to taste like the booze that was in them: Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans and Sazeracs. Cocktails composed of nothing but alcohol were their go-to calls and what they often served to guests. Soon, a subgenre of these classics emerged, and all of its exemplars were as dark as night, with their base spirits of bourbon, Scotch, brandy or rum. Typical of this school were Death & Co.’s Conference, made of equal parts rye, bourbon, Calvados and Cognac; and PDT’s Staggerac, a knock-out Sazerac twist built on overproof George T. Stagg bourbon. Some bartenders in other, sunnier time zones scoffed, but resistance was futile. By the end of the decade, brown, bitter and stirred was the global zeitgeist.

The 21st-Century Cocktail Is Born

In the second installment of a four-part series, Robert Simonson examines the early aughts, a period influenced by Milk & Honey’s trailblazing bartenders and a wave of contemporary cocktail books.

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