BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
All avenues of fandom and fanaticism have their holy temples. As aficionados geeks of al kinds need to make at least one pilgrimage to their own respective Meccas. It is that fundamental human need for joining a greater collective or cause.
Hobbyists and the self proclaimed fan boys of any interest whether it is film or football seek the freedom to express themselves without fear or judgment that is why trekkies have their conventions and every man who dresses like Dr. Frankenfurter has his midnight Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Until recently, the culture of cocktilians, mixologists, and drink nerds has purely been a virtual one with blogs acting as vibrant forums of interaction and discussion. The blogosphere spearheaded the modern cocktail revolution demanding a return to fresh flavors, well balanced compositions, and time honored techniques. The virtual community of mixed drink fanboys lifted the cocktail back to a place of culinary status in our society.
If sites like Robert Hess’s Drinkboy.com and Gary Regan’s Ardentspirits.com hadn’t channeled the passions of thousands of other cocktail enthusiasts we may never have seen long lost classics like the Last Word and the Aviation cocktail returning to bar menus. [Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh dedicates a great section in his book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails to the impact of the blogosphere on the drinking culture. It even comes with some great profiles of many of those writers].
It looked like mixology would remain a purely digital culture, outside the barroom, until one event in New Orleans started to dramatically rise in popularity. Tales of the Cocktail was the first and only cocktilian convention. In 2009 a hundred thousand people descended onto the French Quarter according to the Liquid Muse.com. The event each year in July holds seminars, parties, competitions, concerts, tastings, and even an awards show.
Dale Degroff author of The Essential Cocktail and founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail stated at Tales that he sees the future of mixology as not just bartenders putting avocados and basil into their drinks but bartenders fostering a sense of a greater bartending community. What would be the next step in fostering this community? Why not create an event like Tales of the Cocktail in the cradle of the whole bartending scene, New York City?
NEXT STOP: MANHATTAN
Gotham was the city with the first famous bars and mixologists hosting legendary hotels and even larger the life figures such as Jerry Thomas (the man who wrote the very first bartenders guide in 1862. New York led the golden age during the late 19th century and early 20th century sharing sours, slings, flips, and fixes with travelers from around the world. The city’s speakeasies during prohibition kept the craft alive and in the artificially flavored wasteland of the 70s and 80s venues like the Rainbow Room squeezed fresh juices and kept flavors honest.
Today, the new mixology renaissance’s capitol is New York. Gotham bars such as PDT with its bacon infused old fashioned, Pegu Club with its champagne take on the Mojito known as the Old Cuban, and Death & Company with is next generation gin zombie known as the Winchester have all changed the face of contemporary bartending. New York would be a natural fit for a new cocktail congregation and for me the perfect opportunity to dive head first into the cocktail culture.
READY, STEADY, GO?
The event would be in May 2010 over a period of five days with a preview weekend in October 2-4 2009. The preview week would take place at Astor Center and be composed of seminars taught by the world’s leading mixologists, lectures in New York’s greatest bars, and a final party at the New York Public library in midtown Sunday night.
I first picked David Wondrich’s class “History of the Cocktail in New York, 1810-1920.” I had read his book Imbibe! over the summer and his expertise as a cocktail historian is unmatched.I then went with Audrey Sanders and Gary Regan’s “Unparalleled Gin Palaver.” I had a running challenge with my girlfriend that I could not make a gin drink she would like. I was hoping the gin queen herself, Audrey Sanders, could give me some new weapons in my arsenal to tackle that challenge.
PERIOD I: PROFESSOR WONDRICH
I entered the doors of “History of the Cocktail, 1810-1920” and I was immediately seated at a table with connoisseurs and journalists while getting handed a Holland Gin Cocktail in what was a beautiful lecture hall overlooking St. Mark’s place. I took one sip and one look around and I knew I had found my church. Wondrich’s sermon was a wonderful and fanciful affair with anecdotes about the how Gotham shaped not only American drinking habits but the world.
The seminar was what the event was all about- highlighting the contributions New York had made to the bartending scene. As Wondrich said, “the Cocktail stands as first among equals. If there’s something about a quick jolt of ice-cold, mixed up boozy deliciousness that’s essentially American, then its quintessentially New York.”
No amount of reporting can do the seminar justice but its fair to say that Wondrich has great enthusiasm and class about him. He really takes you back to an era that seems so removed from our time and yet shows it to us in a down to earth manner. During the seminar he mixed up five drinks and as I disclosed earlier, I did not have any breakfast, so I was, unlike most of the attendees, drinking accurately in the nineteenth century style.
Wondrich stated in his class that drinking started out as a breakfast activity (I did not want to be this historically accurate however). At fist I thought that perhaps we were expected to imbibe of all five drinks – an avenue that surely would have killed me – but luckily I started to notice that everyone was relatively moderate on their consumption.
The drinks were passed out as Wondrich described them, although at first the audience was humorously a drink ahead of him. It was quite special to sip while he explained the history and nuance of these concoctions, many of which were quite simple by design but with its lush history and bold flavors took on a whole new dimension. Reproduced are the five cocktails that he made for the class:
Willard’s Gin Cock-tail (ca. 1820)
Muddle 1 lump Demerara sugar and a shade of Stoughan’s Bitters in ½ oz water
Add 2 oz of Bols Genever and stir
Add a large lump of ice and stir again
Grate a little nutmeg over the top
[This one was a slow sipper and a close favorite of the whole. This is basically a primitive Genever old fashioned but it’s in that simplicity that this drink really shines. This will probably be the only time I get to try a batch of Stoughan’s Bitters and at the end of this cocktail I was very grateful to try them]
Jerry Thomas’s Fancy Brandy Cocktail (ca. 1850)
Stir with cracked ice:
2 oz Martell VSOP cognac
1 teaspoon rich simple syrup
½ teaspoon Grand Marnier
2 dashes of Fee’s Whiskey-Barrel bitters
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, twist swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top, rub it around the rim of the glass and drop it in
[This cocktail, in the traditional sense of the word, was such a happy contradiction. It was the first time I had actually had cognac, a big ticket item for a poor college student, but it was served in what looked like a plastic container for salad dressing. I loved this Jerry Thomas composition so much though that it was the only cocktail I completely finished. Try this with Bols Genever or finely aged Demerara of Martinique rum – the beauty in the Jerry Thomas cocktails was the interchangeability of spirits and experimenting with this can be quite fun. Make sure to use a small glass that holds no more than 4 oz]
Manhattan Club Manhattan (ca. 1870)
Stir with cracked ice
1 ½ oz Rittenhouse rye
1 ½ oz Martini and Rossi red vermouth
1 dash orange bitters
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and twist a swatch of thin cut lemon peel over the top.
[I never received this one but I did observe other audience members imbibe of this Gotham classic. The general consensus was that this was a wet Manhattan, perhaps too wet for many people's tastes. I personally like wetter martini style cocktails so I'm still disappointed I didn't get to weigh in on this drink]
Weeper’s Joy (ca. 1890).
Stir with cracked ice:
1 oz absinthe
1 oz Martini & Rossi red vermouth
1 oz Kummel
1 barspoon Grand Marnier
Strain into chilled cocktail glass and twist swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top.
[This drink was what Dave called the "weird one." It certainly was an eye opener! As one can see from the recipe, the absinthe lead the drink but it did not overpower the other players in this drink. The Kummel and sweet vermouth balance out the green fairy's bite with the Grand Marnier adding a lovely boozy sweetness to the bunch. Wondrich stated that this cocktail would have been a lot drier if the absinthe sponsor of the night made a drier product - no doubt a shot at the sweetness of Pernod's products. ]
Modern Cocktail (ca. 1910)
Stir with cracked ice
1 oz Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch
1 1/2 oz Plymouth Sloe Gin
1/4 oz lemon twist
1/4 oz 1:1 simple syrup
1 dash absinthe
1 dash orange bitters
Strain into chilled cocktail glass and add a cherry.
[The last drink of the class was not entirely memorable. The Modern Cocktail was announced as a combination of scotch and Plymouth sloe gin so, when I received it, I was expecting some pretty bold flavors. The sloe gin came through immediately but I did not pick up any of the smokiness I thought I would get from the scotch. I didn't really get much of the Johnnie Walker on my palate even after several sips. The whisky was a blended product so a more toned down flavor should be expected but I still fell as if I was robbed of an exciting scotch cocktail. You may want to play with the ratios on this one or just think of it as a nice sloe gin drink]
PERIOD II: PROFESSORS SANDERS AND REGAN
This is where the Cocktail Classic started feeling less like a university lecture hall and more like a party. As the audience entered the room Gary and Audrey were dancing merrily about the room and the feeling from everyone, even after a day of boozing was pure electricity. I got a great table up front and before the lecture even started tables were laughing and chatting about how great the days festivities had been so far.
I think the room had such a fun feeling to it because it was the last lecture of the event and everyone had realized what a big hit the preview week had been. We were all so excited for what would come next and in many ways this class had the sense of accomplishment and celebration – we really did it, we just had the greatest cocktail event in Manhattan so, before you head home let’s have one last good time.
This seminar really was a good time. It was the biggest congregation of personal icons I had ever been too. In one room I was with Robert Hess, Charlotte Voissey, Audrey Sanders, and Gary Regan. It was a veritable pantheon of mix masters.
I introduced myself to Mr. Hess before the lecture started and he was very friendly. I thanked him for his series “The Cocktail Spirit” and everything I had learned from him. I also urged him to do more episodes on tiki drinks and Audrey loudly proclaimed “Yes! He should.” –This was going to be awesome
Audrey Sander’s section of the lecture was clear and simple: certain gins work better in certain cocktails. Her point was an extremely valuable one and demonstrated quite well with the cocktails she selected. She even provided two types of Maraschino liqueurs to compare in the delicate Aviation cocktail.
She prepared us three gin cocktails: the Aviation, the Last Word, and the Jasmine advocating for a soft gin (Plymouth), strong gin (Tanqueray), and citrusy gin (Beefeater) in each of the respective cocktails.
Gary or, as he is now known, “Gaz” Reagan covered the new western gins that don’t necessarily follow the juniper lead, London dry style. He praised Aviation gin and G’vine gin saying that if its not technically a gin “to hell with it.” His new book the Bartender’s Gin Compendium contains many recipes with these new western gins.
Hendrick’s was also mentioned and Charlotte Voisey, brand champion for Hendrick’s, was kind enough to come on stage and talk about a Hendrick’s cocktail that was featured at the end of the lecture.
Gaz was quite a gas and his British bulldog persona was charming and funny. He played well of off Audrey and he didn’t hesitate butting heads with her and audience members. When I asked a question he even called me a lady! I assured him that it was ok, and that after an event like this anyone will start to look good.
Presented are my top three favorites from this lecture along with their recipes (This was such a hard decision as so many of the drinks served during this seminar were absolutely stunning):
G, G & G
Adapted from a recipe by Ago Perrone, Connaught Hotel, London
1 oz G’Vine Nouaison
1 oz Galliano L’Autentico
1 oz pink grapefruit juice
2 dashes Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6
1 grapefruit twist, as garnish
Stir over ice and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Add the garnish.
1 1/2 oz Beefeater Gin
1/4 oz Cointreau
1/4 oz Campari
3/4 oz lemon juice
Shake with cracked ice and strain into a cocktail glass
2 oz Plymouth Gin
1/2 oz Maraska Maraschino Liqueur
1/2 oz lemon juice
Till We Meet Again…
I absolutely loved this event and I cannot wait to attend the full event in May 2010. I’m hoping I will get to meet even more of my personal bartending idols such as Beachbum Berry, come on you know that New York is in store for a tiki revival and I think the bum is just the man for the job. Dale Degroff was at the preview event but I missed his class by a couple of hours. I hope that he comes back in May as he is probably the best teacher for mixology out there. The sky is the limit for this new event and I hope that I can get involved with it in the future.
Here’s to seeing you in May 2010 -CHEERS!