Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Beard Awards Find Room for the Bar

From Diner's Journal, news of a needed change at the James Beard Awards:
James Beard Awards Are Late (but Welcome) to the Bar
The outstanding-wine-program category of the James Beard Awards was born the same year the food-world prizes were first given out: 1991. Now, 21 years later, the Beard Foundation has finally gotten around to honoring the other half of every restaurant’s liquor regimen.
The five inaugural nominees for outstanding bar program were announced on Monday. They include two bars from New York (Pegu Club, PDT), two from Chicago (Aviary, The Violet Hour) and one from San Francisco (Bar Agricole).
For many professionals in the spirits and cocktail world, the reaction to the advent of the category wasn’t so much “Great!” as “What took them so long?”
“It was an acknowledgment that as much time, if not more, is being spent on the bar programs these days as the wine program,” said Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation. “We’re in the midst of a cocktail frenzy.”
(The food part of the program, of course, went on as usual: The finalists,announced Monday, included several New York names: David Chang and Daniel Humm for outstanding chef; Balthazar and Blue Hill for outstanding restaurant: and Isa and Tertulia for best new restaurant.)
Mr. Davis, who is a cocktail enthusiast himself — martinis, gimlets and Manhattans are his go-to drinks — does not think the foundation is necessarily arriving late to the party. “The foundation is always criticized for being too late,” he said. “But I think there’s a benefit to not jumping on trends too fast. I certainly don’t think we’ve missed the moment. The bar revival hasn’t peaked.”
“This is a collaborative process,” he added. “We have committees and judges that make decisions. You have to get a lot of people to agree” on the creation of a new category.
The folks behind the honored bars think the award will only do the industry good. “The craft bartending industry has made enormous strides in the last number of years, investing great amounts of time an effort into both education and refinement of technique,” said Audrey Saunders, of Pegu Club. “Now we’re witnessing the fruits of our labor with a true ‘raising of the bar,’ and it’s extremely gratifying to see the change in public perception that’s taken place along with it.” She added that she believed the new award “will inspire many more bars to excellence, and thus encourage further fortification of our industry.”
Jim Meehan of PDT observed that the Beard foundation was merely acknowledging what chefs have for years. “I’ve persuaded chefs, culinary schools and amateur cooks to consider the similarities between the bar and the kitchen for years,” he said. “Linton Hopkins in Atlanta, Barbara Lynch in Boston, José Andrés in D.C., Wylie Dufresne in New York and Charles Phan in San Francisco have nurtured sophisticated bar programs for years, and now we have chefs such as Daniel Humm and Grant Achatz taking it to the next level.”
A ballot listing the five nominees will be submitted to a panel of roughly 400 judges, who will vote in the bar program awards. All the winners will be announced on May 7 at a ceremony at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center..
Now that the bar program hurdle has been cleared, might the foundation created an outstanding mixologist category sometime in the future? “I would not be surprised,” Mr. Davis said.

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