Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Which Category Do You Fall In?

The New York Times has a lengthy, amusing, occasionally insightful but ultimately rather (ahem) muddled piece about the state of modern mixology in today's Dining Section. The author, Oliver Schwaner-Albright, in attempting to dissect the many and various flourished trends in the drink world, divides mixing philosophies into eight categories: Pre-Repeal Revivalists; Neo-Classicists; Farm-to-Glass Movement; Liquid Locavores; Home Brewers; Minimalists; Molecular Mixologists; and Faux Tropicalists.

As with any of these sort of features that try to impose order on what is essentially chaos (that is to say, "life"), it makes for fun reading, but doesn't quite work. He's right about many of the trends he identifies—they are happening. But it's difficult to classify participants. The bartenders and bar owners I know (including many mentioned in the article) ten to resist labels. They overlap in their interests. (The author, to be fair, admits as much in his introduction.) They're a little of this, a little of that. For instance, Jim Meehan, chief mixologist of PDT, is categorized as a Neo-Classicist, but I'm sure he's also interested in the classic drinks the Pre-Repeal Revivalists focus on, and he's also shown interest in the exotic drinks of the Faux Tropicalists.

I also has a few historical quibbles with the piece. (Forgive the nit-picking, but I know the territory so well, I can't help myself.) The article states that Julie Reiner's Clover Club has revived the punch bowl fad of the 19th century. True, but Death & Co was doing it before that and deserve credits for bringing the concept back, at least in New York. Under Minimalists, I would have listed influential author and historian David Wondrich as a guiding spirit; he's well-known for his preference for classic, five-ingredients-or-less cocktails. Finally, it's impossible to talk of the Faux Tropicalists without mentioning author Jeff "Beachbum" Berry." He is the undisputed leader of the movement to bring back quality, authentic, tiki drinks. The movement frankly wouldn't exist without him.

Nonetheless, as I said, it's entertaining reading. There are also fun pieces on cocktail geekdom (featuring Paul Clarke) and—oog—the comeback of the White Russian. Here it is:

Let 100 (O.K., 8) Bartending Philosophies Bloom


TEN years ago, cocktail seekers would have been hard-pressed to find a bar that used fresh juice in sour mix (never mind adding microplaned zest), and ordering an Aviation would have earned a cold look instead of a refreshing but potentially lethal mixture of gin, lemon juice and maraschino liqueur.
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Stuart Isett for The New York Times

NEO-CLASSICIST Murray Stenson making magic at Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle.
The Pour

Today drinkers don’t need to search far to find bartenders who not only squeeze their own citrus, but make their own bitters, have an encyclopedic knowledge of drinks and stock spirits imported, on the sly, in a suitcase.

But as the number of ambitious bars has proliferated, so have their ways of doing things. Interviews with dozens of bartenders around the country suggest that the cocktail movement is becoming so diverse and sophisticated that it encompasses several distinct approaches and philosophies.

Some bartenders fastidiously devote themselves to resurrecting century-old recipes, while others use chemicals and modern techniques. Seasonal fruits and fresh herbs come to the foreground at certain bars, but play a minor role in other establishments that try instead to wring maximum effect from the bottles on their shelves.

Sometimes, these approaches overlap. A bartender might add in-season blood oranges to a 19th-century-inspired punch, for instance. And there’s some danger to naming distinct schools of thought in an industry whose practitioners can’t even agree whether to call themselves mixologists, bartenders, bar chefs or some other name.

Nevertheless, some of the leading bars in the country may be placed in one of the following categories.


Philosophy: This school is inspired by the late 19th and early 20th century, when bartending was a public and flamboyant art. Commonly if incorrectly called pre-Prohibition (some great drinks were invented during the dry years), the pre-repeal revival represents a complete aesthetic, from dress (arm garters and waistcoats), to décor (mahogany, gaslights), to language (menus that read like broadsheets), to grooming (the waxed mustache).

Guiding spirit: Jerry Thomas, author of “How to Mix Drinks or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion: The Bartender’s Guide,” first published in 1862.

Bars, bartenders and drinks: At the Clover Club in Brooklyn, Julie Reiner (also of the Flatiron Lounge in New York) has revived punch and with it, the punch bowl. Sasha Petraske, of White Star and Milk & Honey in New York, gave the speak-easy ethos an edgy, downtown cool.


Philosophy: Often confused with pre-repeal revivalism, neo-classicism updates long-forgotten cocktail recipes by bringing in such cutting-edge techniques as fat washing (infusing a high-proof spirit with a fatty ingredient, like brown butter). Just as important are the atmospheric decisions: the person making a classic cocktail might be wearing jeans and a T-shirt and playing Talking Heads on the iPod.

Guiding spirit: The online Cocktail Database (, the most complete resource for all manner of mixed drinks, past and present.

Bars, Bartenders and Drinks: Audrey Saunders infuses gin with tea for the Earl Grey MarTEAni at Pegu Club in New York. Other practitioners include Jim Meehan at PDT in New York, Charles Joly at the Drawing Room in Chicago, Daniel Hyatt at the Alembic Bar in San Francisco and Murray Stenson at Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle.


Philosophy: Rather than being structured around a primary spirit, like whiskey or bourbon, farm-to-glass drinks are driven by produce, usually seasonal fruit or herbs: persimmons in fall, anise hyssop leaves in spring. The movement is at its fullest flower on the West Coast, with its 12-month growing season, and in restaurants, where there’s a daily bounty of produce and other ingredients not normally seen in bars.

Guiding spirit: Scott Beattie, whose “Artisanal Cocktails: Drinks Inspired by the Seasons from the Bar at Cyrus” (Ten Speed, 2008) is shaping up to become the indispensable cookbook of farm-to-glass cocktails. (Interestingly, Mr. Beattie identifies more with the liquid locavore movement.)

Bars, bartenders and drinks: At the two Hungry Cat restaurants, in Hollywood and Santa Barbara, Calif., the Rhumpkin is made from rum and kabocha squash syrup. Other locations include Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va., and T’afia in Houston.


Philosophy: Nine craft distilleries operate within the city limits of Portland, Ore., and it’s a point of pride for some bartenders there to fashion a drink around local spirits. Northern California also has a surfeit of craft distilleries, and Chicagoans craft drinks with the gins made by the city’s North Shore Distillery.

Guiding spirits: Craft distillers like Miles Karakasevic of Charbay in St. Helena, Calif., and Lee Medoff and Christian Krogstad of House Spirits in Portland, Ore.

Bars, bartenders and drinks: At Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif., Scott Beattie’s Meyer Beautiful incorporates Charbay Meyer lemon vodka. At Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., Kevin Ludwig rebuilt the Negroni around Krogstad aquavit from House Spirits.


Philosophy: It’s no longer uncommon for bars to make their own bitters, but some take the craft to the next level, devising their own recipes for fortified wines and other infusions.

Guiding spirit: Tenzing Momo, a store in Seattle that has rare and exotic dried herbs, spices and mixers.

Bars, bartenders and drinks: At the Bel Ami Lounge in Eugene, Ore., Jeffrey Morgenthaler serves a gin and tonic made with his own recipe for agave-sweetened quinine syrup. Daniel Shoemaker at the Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Ore., crafts his own vermouth, falernum, blueberry shrub (a kind of cordial) and 15 bitters.


Philosophy: A minimalist cocktail typically contains no more than five ingredients, and changing any one of them (rather than adding a different flavor) results in a new cocktail. It’s a firm but respectful pushback against the sometimes baroque concoctions inspired by classic drinks recipes.

Guiding spirit: Ice. The proper ice is to the minimalists what a ripe white peach is to the farm-to-glass movement. The Violet Hour, in Chicago, uses eight kinds, depending on the drink.

Bars, bartenders and drinks: Toby Maloney of the Violet Hour prepares three iterations of the martini: “wet” (two parts gin to one part dry vermouth), “lopsidedly perfect” (gin with more dry than sweet vermouth) and “double reverse perfect” (more sweet vermouth than dry). Greg Best at Holeman & Finch Public House in Atlanta tries never to use more than four ingredients. Other exponents include Jamie Boudreau at Tini Bigs in Seattle and John Gertsen at Drink in Boston.


Philosophy: Strictly speaking, molecular mixology refers to the application of science to the bar, and the use of stabilizers and other compounds for surprising effects. Some prefer the term “progressive cocktails,” pointing out that many of their techniques are old-fashioned, such as smoking or infusing. Still, most drinks pack a gee-whiz punch, as seen in the current fascination with solid, edible cocktails.

Guiding spirits: Modernist chefs like Ferran Adrià, Wylie Dufresne and Heston Blumenthal.

Bars, bartenders and drinks: Eben Freeman at Tailor in New York tops his variation on the Blood and Sand with foamy orange juice stabilized by Versa Whip and xanthum gum. The Manhattan at José Andrés’s Bar Centro in Los Angeles is garnished with a solidified sphere of cherry juice.


Philosophy: Faux tropical bars start with the proposition that the Mai Tai and Singapore Sling were once respectable cocktails. Mixing fresh juices, homemade syrups and a dozen or more other ingredients, these bars seek to restore the reputation of tiki drinks.

Guiding spirits: Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic.

Bars, Bartenders and Drinks: Martin Cate’s Forbidden Island in Alameda, Calif., offers a Don the Beachcomber formula called the Nui Nui, with fresh citrus, pimento liqueur, cinnamon and vanilla syrups, and aged Barbados rum. Luau, which opened in Beverly Hills in October, revives recipes from a bar of the same name opened in 1953 by one of Lana Turner’s seven husbands.

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