Cocktails enjoy a spirited comeback!
Welcome to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, where 3,000 beverage enthusiasts sampled 44,000 cocktail concoctions. “We had to deplete the entire tri-state inventory of glassware in order to make this event happen,” said Lesley Townsend. “Cocktail caterers” Christy Pope and Chad Solomon were serving up their twist on a mint julep – made with apple brandy. “It contains a couple of unique ingredients, like tincture of coriander, fresh mint,” explained Solomon. “A little malic acid to point it up, and then a date molasses as a sweetener.” All these garnishes and aromatics, as they’re called, almost upstage the alcohol. Sage, peppers, basil – it’s almost like a little salad bar. “Cocktails today incorporate all kinds of fresh ingredients,” said Pope: “Herbal, fruit, spices, you name it.”
Chad and Christy reject the trendy title “mixologists,” but they do represent the next generation of bartenders – while folks like Dale Degroff (who is called the grandfather of the cocktail revolution) are considered masters of the craft. Degroff says the cocktail is America’s first culinary art form: “We took the European traditions of punch and everything, and we extrapolated back into a single glass, a single composite ingredient called a cocktail.” Degroff marvels at how long it’s taken Americans to demand more from their drinks, considering the foodie revolution is two decades old. “You can have a piece of fish from Australia cooked in butter from France with some sea salt from Hawaii and a little yuzu juice from Japan – and you’re telling me that we can’t have fresh lime in our margarita? I think we can!” Degroff laughed.
Recognizing a growing demand for “craft” cocktails, Chad Solomon and Christy Pope started a business called Cuffs and Buttons to develop new drinks for restaurants and hotels. So we presented them with a unique challenge: Could they concoct a signature drink for something as abstract as a TV broadcast? Say, “Sunday Morning”? They began brewing up ideas for the “Sunday Morning” cocktail in the duo’s “laboratory” (their Brooklyn apartment), which houses more than a thousand spirits. Possible ingredients: citrus juice – grapefruit, orange – are classic breakfast flavors. Maple syrup, honey, eggs. They use not just spirits, but essential oils like black pepper, bitter orange and ginger. Creating a cocktail, they say, is equal parts taste, aroma and appearance. And it can take dozens of hours to develop. So, we left them to it . . .
Historian Dave Wondrich knows his cocktails: “Bartenders are making all kinds of hand-made ingredients. They’re infusing their own vermouth, they’re making their own bitters.” We first met Wondrich in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail, a sort of world’s fair of the spirits world. He says cocktail culture has come a long way: “Prohibition really almost killed the cocktail. In the 30 years before prohibition, the cocktail had reached this high state of art with highly-skilled bartenders using ingredients from all over the world mixed in careful proportion, making these artisanal lovely drinks.” Prohibition, when alcohol was outlawed, made it not only difficult to get liquor, but the art of tending bar was “diluted.” At Rayuela restaurant in New York City, Wondrich grudgingly gives credit for this cocktail revival to, well, the yuppie.”I want my drink to be better than your drink. I want a vodka martini straight up in a martini glass because, you know, I’m not a hippie or anything like that.”
From the New York bar Little Branch, Chad and Christy assembled the finalists for the “Sunday Morning” cocktail. They couldn’t decide on one, liking all three. The contenders include: “The Trumpet’s Call,” a champagne cocktail with fresh-squeezed grapefruit and orange juice mixed with Campari and a little elderflower liqueur.
They liked all three contenders: The “Trumpet’s Call,” a champagne cocktail with fresh-squeezed grapefruit and orange juice mixed with Campari and a little elderflower liqueur. “You always end your show with a nature segment. We thought that the elderflower really brought that to life,” said Pope. The next, called “Morning Mojo,” used coffee as a base and added in rum and apple brandy.
And finally they presented what they call the “Bright Eye”: “What we have here is an egg white with freshly squeezed lemon, freshly squeezed grapefruit, Campari – which is fantastic, you know, complex aperitif – with that kind of bitter orange note,” said Solomon. “And then the nature element, we took Earl Grey tea and we infused that into a gin.” “Put a little orange marmalade in there as well,” added Pope. After (several!) taste tests, the “Bright Eye” got the nod.
Solomon had advice for the cocktail novice: “Trust your palate. If it tastes good to you, you know, great. If you want to learn more about the tinctures and aromatics and bitters and the various minutia that we get into, great. But if you don’t, you don’t have to, you know? Trust your palate.”