BY NANCY BACKAS
m any of us grew up watching classic movies with stars sipping cocktails in sophisticated settings, wearing elegant clothes and saying witty things. It was the day of the Martini, the Old-Fashioned, the Manhattan, the Whiskey Sour, the Gimlet and the Fizz. It was a time when being a bartender was a respected position requiring skill and decorum.
Between then and not so long ago, cocktails lost their authenticity and freshness and the bartending profession suffered. And then came the likes of Joe Baum and Dale DeGroff who thought cocktails could be grand again and tending the bar an art. The revival of the cocktail began in the late eighties and today, we’ve hit a whole new level of sophistication, creativity and artfulness.
Many, though not all, of today’s most popular cocktails are reminiscent of the classics, but are cleaner tasting, fresher and not as sweet. The classics are back, but in new garb and new features. They may be served in the same elegant Martini glass, but what’s inside is something altogether new and exciting.
“Cocktails today are at about the same point that food was at when the Food Network started out,” says Gary Regan, Cheers columnist, author and cocktail expert. “There are lots of very serious cocktailians out there making wonderful innovative drinks. They are getting noticed at last, but there’s still a long way to go before bartenders are accepted as well as are the chefs of today. Remember, for every Emeril Lagasse, there are 50 cooks at Denny’s. Same goes for bartenders for every Dale there are 100 guys at shot-and-beer joints.”
Nacional 27 Margarita,
Nacional 27, Chicago
The Mojito Martini,
Nacional 27, Chicago
Kathy Casey Food Studios,
Nacional 27, Chicago
THE NEW COCKTAIL REVIVAL
Regan notes that many of the new cocktails are based on old classics. Just as chefs take classic techniques and use new ingredients to create the cuisine of today, mixologists are also innovating. “Take for instance the Cosmopolitan. Whoever came up with it (maybe unwittingly) based it on the same formula as a Sidecar: base spirit, triple sec, and citrus juice. Cranberry juice was just added for color,” Regan explains. “However, there are also many new formulas employing herbs and exotic flavorings, such as elderflower syrup. Also, some bartenders (Audrey Saunders, for example) think outside the box and manage to come up with drinks with weird and wonderful formulas.”
Kathy Casey, owner of culinary consultancy Kathy Casey Food Studios, Seattle, WA, and her senior beverage associate, Ryan Magarian, are raising cocktail development to an art form, using classics as the base. They work with restaurant clients to develop cocktail menus to complement an operation’s cuisine and cache.
“There’s a new cocktail resurgence and I want to explore how the cocktails today both reflect the classic era and are something entirely new,” says Magarian. For example, to a classic Sidecar recipe, he adds tangerine juice and bitters. He recently came up with new cocktails for Jaegger restaurant in Kirkland, WA. The Kentucky, for example, was the reinvention of the Whiskey Sour. “I twisted it around to create a more interesting flavor profile. I hand-pressed one-eighth of an orange and added Angostura bitters and egg white. The egg white gives it body, rich texture and a lot of froth. I find inspiration from classic cocktails which used a lot of bitters, fresh juices and egg whites,” he says.
Dabney McKinley, head bartender at the Blue Bar, New York, was working at the city’s Pravda when the new cocktail culture was beginning and he was there to witness the introduction of the Apple Martini and the Cosmo. “Today, the cocktails are much more complex. Most places have some Asian and Latin influences on the cocktail menu. Not too long ago the multi-cultural influence on cocktails was unusual, but today they are the favorites,” McKinley says.
He observes that using fresh juices and natural ingredients lends more robust flavor to drinks. “That alone makes a big difference, as opposed to using a sour mix. The quality of the drink is raised. I think there’s a whole generation that had never tasted real cocktails before, the ones who grew up drinking rum and Coke, Jack and Coke and the like. All of the sudden the cocktail was there and it’s expanded their palate.”
Bartenders, McKinley says, have more license to be more creative, to have some fun, especially since many of his patrons are willing to try new flavors such as his Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Sauce made with Stoli Raspberi and Kahlua. Another favorite of his is the French Martini made with Ciroc Vodka (derived from frozen grapes), Chambord, and a slight splash of pineapple juice garnished with a frozen green grape.
“What’s so great about drinks like this is that you don’t taste the alcohol. In a good Martini, you shouldn’t taste the alcohol,” he says. “In the old days you frowned when you had a drink. Now it’s about going out and really having fun.”
Still, some venues cater to a 60-plus clientele that still desires the old cocktails prepared in the classic way. At Lovell’s in Lake Forest, IL, beverage manager Leo Zak tries to please his older patronage with the best classic cocktails he can serve. “The older drinks like the Old-Fashioned, Martini and Manhattan are cocktails that have an acquired taste. Brand loyalty is prominent, and making them properly is important,” Zak says.
The restaurant does have a Martini menu with astronaut-themed monikers since it is co-owned by Jim Lovell, an astronaut, and his son Jay. The menu offers a dazzling array of creative Martinis, some newer drinks like the Apple Martini renamed The Big Dipper and the Cosmo called The Constellation. Zak believes that no matter what the drink, using the best quality ingredients and testing and retesting a cocktail until you find the exact flavor you want, is key. “If you start with top notch ingredients to begin with, the final product will be better.”