The NRN 50: Another round

The NRN 50: Another round

This history of cocktails is a Darwinian tale of how those things that don’t kill you make you stronger, and how the people who work hard to make the craft better are keeping cocktails on menus in increasingly varied venues as consumers seek more from their beverage dollars. The story of cocktail survival is a story of an escape from mediocrity.

First emerging in the 18th century as a mixture of bitters with sugar and water, the cocktail soon joined hands with alcohol and flourished in the middle of the 19th century, with bartenders creating a lot of the best-known cocktails categories, such as the martini, the fizz, the sour and the flip during that time.

Dale DeGroff, the celebrated “King of Cocktail,” who was part of the movement to bring back old techniques and fresh ingredients to cocktails in the 1980s, calls the cocktail a “true American invention.” DeGroff, author of “The Craft [3] of the Cocktail,” regards the cocktail shaker as a melting pot in which different spirits and ingredients from around the world were melded together to create a new way of drinking.

From the beginning, the cocktail was an agent sensitive to change. For example, what DeGroff calls the “heart and soul” of the cocktail—ice—became an important addition to mixed drinks when the Industrial Revolution made ice more readily available.

History also dealt a harsh blow to cocktail culture in 1920 with Prohibition. The obvious consequence was the lack of alcohol and, more important, good-quality alcohol. DeGroff explains that cocktails were available, but it was a hard to get exotic or well-made spirits. Once Prohibition was repealed in 1933, a lot of the “brown” spirits such as bourbon or whisky were not the best quality since they did not get a chance to age.

The truly devastating consequence of Prohibition was the drying of the pool of skilled bartenders.

“The master bartender in hotels in the 1880s was on the level of maître d’,” DeGroff says. “They were special, skilled people.”

Without a legal arena in which to perform their craft, many bartenders simply hung up their shakers and jiggers during Prohibition, or packed up and moved abroad.

David Wondrich, author of “Imbibe!” and Esquire magazine’s drinks correspondent, says that after the brief spurt of re-emergence after Prohibition, another decline set in. Then in the 1980s, a few visionaries took their cue from the kitchen and went back to rediscover the work of old-school master bartenders.

“It was a conscious thing; the people behind the bar, like Dale DeGroff, were pioneers,” Wondrich says. “They looked around and saw that the kitchen was getting rid of the artificial crap. Wine lists were improving, so they fixed the bar.”

“That was the turning point,” DeGroff says. He explained how people like the late New York restaurateur Joseph Baum, who charged DeGroff with the task of improving the bar at the Rainbow Room, were looking to revolutionize foodservice when they saw changes in what was happening with food and wine and wanted to carry that over into cocktails.

The pedigree of classic cocktails appealed to the rising expectations of consumers and certain operators. Some bartenders took to squeezing their own juices and learned the recipes and techniques of the old masters as well as taking the crafting of drinks seriously.

“It’s at the best places now, and the art of cocktail making is being practiced as well as it ever was before Prohibition.” Wondrich says.

It’s not just that the art of cocktail is being practiced well once again, it’s being practiced in a wider variety of venues as operators are finding that a good cocktail menu helps attract free-spending imbibers. For example, in New York there are sleek and upscale lounges such the Pegu Club or Little Branch. And recently the gourmet hot dog joint Crif Dogs opened its own secret bar, Please Don’t Tell, right next door. Mixologists like Eben Freeman of Tailor [4] twist and bend the rules regarding liquids with such kitchen techniques as smoking.

“Like celebrity chefs over the last 10 years making these amazing culinary experiences, the same thing is happening in the drink industry,” says Tylor Field III, vice president of wine and spirits for the high-end Morton’s steakhouse chain. Morton’s made an effort in the past few years to make its bars more of a destination with signature drinks and new decor. Morton’s went as far as to introduce a concept called Bar 12*21 in some locations.

When Morton’s first opened, Field says, “there wasn’t a lot going. I don’t believe you can operate successfully that way anymore with the newer and younger generation.”

Operators also are finding that the adaptability that helped cocktails duck and weave to dodge what history threw at them also makes them an attractive investment.

Mary Melton, director of beverages for the P.F. Chang’s China Bistro [5] chain, says: “It’s so easy to change…whether it’s in the trends, the style or the weather, you can make it. It’s like food, where you can make it go with whatever is happening right then and there. What we’re seeing is people really wanting to be adventurous and trying stuff they’ve never tried before, and it’s a relatively low investment. It’s kind of fun to try, and it costs $7 or something, as opposed to wine.”

“Spirits don’t go bad,” she adds. “They don’t have the shelf life that the kitchen does or even wine or beer. Spirits have a longer life to them.”

The final proof that cocktails are survivors is the fact that so many classic cocktails are still on so many menus. And while some mixologists are looking to recapture the perfect balance in the old drinks, others are adding a twist of their own.

“Martinis and the Manhattan? You can’t lose with those,” Melton says, also pointing to such drinks as the Tom Collins, the margarita, and the daiquiri. P.F. Chang’s recently had a tasting to test some new recipes, such as a version of a Tom Collins made with plum vodka. “We’re looking for twists on some old classics.”

Joaquin Simo, bartender at New York’s Death & Co., likes to call the technique “Mr. Potato-heading,” where a classic drink can be used as a template to feature a new or different spirit. “You play with the proportions,” he explains. “Sometimes you can tell right off the bat how something is going to work, so you scale certain things or you add an ingredient.”

“The true survivor is the martini or Manhattan,” says Jacques Bezuidenhout, mixologist for the San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels. “There are fancy cocktail lists around the country, but a couple of the standards stand true.

Bezuidenhout attributes the popularity of those classic cocktails to the fact that they’re good tasting, they are very simplistic in their own ways and can be recreated with an economy of ingredients that play well together.

At Frisson in San Francisco, popular drinks like the Pomegranate Manhattan are consistent sellers, says wine and beverage manager William Bishop. “It’s a bit of a different twist on a Manhattan for people who don’t like the heavy, harsh feel of a Manhattan. It’s a bit softer.”

“Making something original is sometimes hard,” Bishop says. “And what people want might be different from what I like.” He adds that “with restaurant crowds you really have to keep up to impress them…like using fresh ingredients. A lot more continue to look for that. About two years ago, sage in a cocktail was something big, and you wouldn’t have seen that 10 years ago.”

Even the casual-dining chain T.G.I. Friday’s [6] has been innovative with its drink program, focusing recently on the mojito and classic drinks, with a new martini platform and a line of premium margaritas served in a shaker. Such offerings “deliver great flavor and value to our guests in a high-quality packaging,” says Matt Durbin, director of beverage for T.G.I. Friday’s [7]. “In essence, it’s all about a great product, made properly, that will compel you to return.”

In travels around the country for Kimpton’s hotels and restaurants, Bezuidenhout has seen more and more places outside of large cities offering sophisticated cocktail menus.

Esquire’s Wondrich says, “It’s definitely trendy right now, and some of the heat could go out, but I don’t think we’ll go back to where we were. Too many good bartenders have been trained.”