Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Aughts in Cocktails

Confronted regularly with so many new cocktail creations, as I have been over the past few years, I've often fell to musing, "Which of these libations are for the ages?" It's easy enough to decide if something is a good-tasting cocktail or not; that can be ascertained on the spot. But that doesn't necessarily equal staying power. Are we currently sipping, unknowingly, what will be considered by future generations to be our Martini, our Manhattan, our great contribution to the bar?

I had the opportunity to dwell on this matter in a very public way recently, writing a list of lasting libations for the Dec. 30 edition of the New York Times. Some of the entries—Audrey Saunders' Gin-Gin Mule, Don Lee's Benton's Old Fashioned, Phil Ward's Oaxaca Old Fashioned—were easy choices. I had long regarded them as modern classics which will have their place in coming histories of 21st-century drinking, not only because they are great drink in and of themselves, but because the embodied and/or kicked off significant mixology trends. Others I had originally thought to included—Salvatore Calabrese's Breakfast Martini and Julio Barmejo's Tommy's Margarita—I was forced to nix when I discovered from their authors that they were, in fact, created in the '90s, not the '00s. To back up my conclusions, I consulted with a couple dozen cocktails authorities on the East and West Coasts, as well as London.

Here's the article:

A Decade of Invention, and Reinvention


WHEN you hoist a leg over a barstool these days, you’re as likely to find Tom Edison as a Tom Collins. Light bulbs have been popping up behind the bar, with more cocktails developed in the last 10 years than probably any decade since Prohibition. Some of them have emerged as modern classics, standing out not only as culinary creations, but also as signposts of the decade’s most significant mixology trends.

GIN-GIN MULE This Audrey Saunders invention is often the first thing that cocktail pros mention when asked about new classics. “Bartenders all over the world tend to know the Gin-Gin Mule,” said Gary Regan, author of several cocktail books, including the recent “Bartender’s Gin Compendium.” Ms. Saunders — a leading light in darkened bars — created it before founding her SoHo bar, Pegu Club. Essentially a gin-based version of the ginger-minty Moscow Mule — one of the few vodka cocktails still granted respect by the avant-garde — the drink was a symbol both of the cocktail crowd’s enthusiastic reclamation of gin and its curled-lip repudiation of vodka. (Gin is also the base of Ms. Sauders’s Earl Grey MarTEAni, an early and influential example of the tea-infusion trend.) By decade’s end, the Gin-Gin Mule could be found on cocktail menus across the country — as could gin.

BENTON’S OLD-FASHIONED Don Lee, formerly of PDT in the East Village, credits Eben Freeman, the mad-scientist mixologist of the recently demised Tailor, with opening his eyes to “fat washing” liquor. But it was this instantly cultish concoction, which infuses bourbon with Allan Benton’s Tennessee bacon, that revved up interest in that technique, which melds flesh and firewater. Created by Mr. Lee in 2007 at PDT, it perhaps best epitomizes the advent of savory cocktails, which draw herbs, spices and vegetables, including chilies, into the world within the glass.

OAXACA OLD-FASHIONED Tequila didn’t play much of a role in the early years of the cocktail renaissance. And mezcal, tequila’s rough-hewn relation, had none at all. Both are used instead of bourbon or rye in this south-of-the-border twist on the Old-Fashioned, with terroir-specific agave syrup instead of sugar. Invented in 2007 by the tequila specialist Philip Ward at Death & Co. in the East Village, this drink quickly appeared on menus across the country and became a harbinger of the Mexican spirits’ ascendancy. It’s now just one of many tequila- and mezcal-based drinks at Mr. Ward’s bar Mayahuel.

RED HOOK COCKTAIL Rye whiskey roared back in the last decade after decades in eclipse. With it came new homages to pre-Prohibition rye-based cocktails like the Manhattan and the Brooklyn. This mix of rye, sweet vermouth and maraschino liqueur, created by the former Milk & Honey bartender Enzo Errico, inspired at least a dozen more sub-riffs by other ardent cocktail classicists, with almost all the drinks named after Brooklyn neighborhoods, including the Greenpoint (which uses Chartreuse), the Cobble Hill (Amaro Montenegro and cucumber slices) and the Bensonhurst (maraschino liqueur and Cynar). New spins on the Old-Fashioned (see above) were nearly as common.

ST-GERMAIN COCKTAIL If you didn’t notice that, starting in 2007, St-Germain was in about half of the new drinks you were cradling, you just weren’t paying attention. The elderflower-based elixir with the sui generis floral flavor almost single-handedly invigorated the moribund liqueur category. Suddenly semi-forgotten potions like Drambuie, Cherry Heering and Chartreuse (the current mixer of the moment) were being dusted off and tarted up. And every new liqueur wanted to be as big as St-Germain when it grew up. A list of new St-Germain cocktails could fill a few columns, but the mix of the liqueur, Champagne and sparkling water known as the St-Germain cocktail was perhaps the most common, mixed by high-end watering holes like Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco and the Zig Zag Café in Seattle. Unusually, the recipe came not from a bartender’s brain, but the company’s marketing department. “It doesn’t happen that often that a drink that comes from a manufacturer gets so well received,” said Ann R. Tuennerman, founder of the Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans.

ABSINTHE DRIP When a liquor that has been unavailable for nine decades hits the shelves again, it creates a stir. For many cocktail mavens, absinthe, the Victorians’ embalmer of choice, was the missing piece to so many liquid puzzles. Bottles began reappearing on our shores in 2007, after it was realized that a nearly century-old ban had actually been overturned decades ago. By the end of the Bush administration, absinthe was even being made in America, like St. George from California and Trillium from Oregon. Soon, it was not unusual to find an absinthe water drip at the end of the bar, slowly clouding a glass of the green liquid with dissolved sugar, the classic way to drink absinthe. It would only be old hat if you happened to be Degas.

BARTENDER’S CHOICE Ten years ago, the suggestion that a barkeep name your poison would have been greeted with a withering fisheye. But “Bartender’s Choice” is an option seen on cocktail menus from the Varnish in Los Angeles to the Violet Hour in Chicago to any of Sasha Petraske’s joints in New York. Bartenders nationwide have raised their level of skill and scholarship. Customers have followed them with an increased sense of adventure and a willingness to swallow whatever they dish up.

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