Attracting barfiles

There is only one place to take the temperature of the great cocktail makers, New Orleans. Liza Weisstuch went to see what's shaking
By Liza Weisstuch
The past, they say, is precedent. The cocktail’s Golden Age is firmly entrenched in the hallowed halls of history. After recent decades, when drinks bearing less than debonair names, like Sex on the Beach and Red Headed Slut, dominated the popular palate, then flavored vodkas did a coup d’etat on the market, it seemed like the craft of the cocktail – the advanced style practised by sporty, artful barmen at the turn of the 20th century had surely gone the way of transistor radios. And then, inevitably, it happened: a renaissance, one that goes down easy. “New Golden Age” was a term bandied about with merry abandon at Tales of the Cocktail, an annual festival that draws cocktail aficionados, scholars and geeks and committed barflies to New Orleans for five days in July, much like the World Economic Forum in Davos unites socially conscious politicos, kingpins, and millionaires. There’s as much Power Point as there is pre-dawn partying, and if you thought whiskey cocktails started and ended with Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Mint Juleps, smashes, flips and the occasional Rob Roy, think again. A few hours amid the cocktail cognoscenti would have even staunch traditionalists reaching for a bar spoon. Against a soundtrack of brassy Big Easy jazz and the jangle and clatter of ice cubes in shakers, the new direction in which modern cocktail wizards are taking the cocktail came into sharp focus.

Suffice it to say: the water of life lives large in their hands.

But before looking forward, the event launched with a reverent look back, as Ann Tuennerman, who founded the event six years ago, announced that the Louisiana House of Representatives passed a bill in June that declared the Sazerac New Orleans’s signature tipple, a first for a U.S. city. Louisiana Senator Edwin Murray officially announced the legislation, a tribute to the city’s rich drink legacy, as the rye-based concoction was born in the French Quarter about 150 years ago thanks to the introduction of a distinct style of bitters created by Antoine Amedee Peychaud, a Creole gent who ran a local apothecary. What began as a Cognac toddy with a few dashes of his bitters, water and sugar evolved: Rye replaced Cognac (it was easier to get), then one experimental barman worked in a few dashes of absinthe for a botanical kick. The heady quaff was the talk of the town, and today it’s fixed as such.

The cocktails and concepts kept flowing. On Friday afternoon, several hundred people packed into a high ceilinged room in the historic Hotel Monteleone, conference HQ, for an American whiskey tasting session led by the sassy LeNell Smothers, owner of the highly decorated eponymous Brooklyn liquor shop, and noted spirits author, Gary Regan. While running through the family of Heaven Hill whiskies, Gary, a cunning instigator as usual, posed the challenge to the bartender-heavy crowd: What would you mix this with? With that, things got a little gospel. “Lillet!” was one reply, a suggested companion to Old Fitzgerald. Seeming intrigued, Gary approved, noting the echoes of orange in both. Someone blurted, “Yellow Chartruese,” as a playmate for Bernheim Original. LeNell waxed enthusiastic about the surprising results she’s been having tinkering with peaches – particularly peach bitters — and the wheated whiskey.

But for the most part, these were off-the-cuff inspirations, intuitive reactions of masters, improvisational bebop. Throughout the week, I caught up with some of the PhD-caliber mixologists from around the country to learn what’s on their cocktail menus. Some would call this the New Golden Age, but I call it modernism. If the barman who composed the Manhattan is Rembrandt, this elite order of mixologists are Pablo Picassos and Edvard Munches, taking classic values and philosophies and employing radical techniques to achieve a thing of balance and captivation. Methods for mixing now take their cues from world-class kitchens – if not science labs. Fat-washing, gelatin clarification and infusing are just a few techniques that may seem subversive, but are actually exercises of virtuosity, ways to take a whiskey’s subtler notes and magnify them to riveting effect.

Regionalism is integral for many. Alexandria, Virginia is the domain of Todd Thrasher, a mixologist dedicated to using only house-made ingredients (18 bitters, two tonics, vermouth) and freshly harvested, seasonal fruits and herbs at PX Lounge, his speakeasy-esque bar. There he serves up the Smoker’s Delight, a concoction of tobacco, honey syrup and Basil Hayden’s. “If someone’s jonsing for a smoke, they can have a cocktail instead,” he said. Yes, in part it was a reaction to the smoking ban, but his precise method of formulating a fragrant tea with fermented tobacco is also a radical way of showcasing the state’s bounty.

Toby Maloney, a veteran of Manhattan’s renowned Milk & Honey who opened The Violet Hour in Chicago in June 2007, says he takes a “traditional approach” to his whiskey drinks. Sort of. Indeed, you’ll find no contemporary accessories, like lemongrass, lychees or cilantro, behind his bar. What he does have is more than a dozen different house-made bitters in varieties he refers to as, say, Summer (grapefruit and lavender) and Spring (tangerine, violet.) “Because of all those bitters, there’s room to play with Old Fashioneds and Sazeracs,” says the seersucker-sporting Maloney. He, like Thrasher, is of a culinary class of barmen who change drink lists with each new season. For a recent spring menu, he formulated a Sazerac with apricot liqueur instead of sugar. A winter menu featured a version with brown sugar syrup cold-infused with espresso beans. “It was still close to classic. Everyone knows they’re drinking a classic with just a little more.”

There’s a lot “more” in the drinks in Eben Freeman’s repertoire at Tailor in Manhattan, like his surprisingly stunning infusions, results of diligent trials of obsessive NASA scientist-like proportions. Among the constants are Root Beer Rye, with sassafras, sarsaparilla and licorice roots, Pumpernickel-Raisin Scotch, and Cedar Bourbon, which he’s not afraid to admit evokes the most grievance among whisky drinkers. They’re commonly served as shots, but Freeman does fiddle with them in a classically inspired way, making flips with eggs and nutmeg, for instance, using Scotch.

“They’re stronger flavour profiles, so you can make mistakes more easily,” said Freeman. “The idea is not to be infusing a spirit so you don’t taste the spirit at all. The idea is that you want part of that quality that’s inherent in the whiskey to come through. If I wanted to work with a blank canvass, I would’ve used vodka. Some flavours are too delicate, but with strong flavours like cedar or tobacco, the whiskey is still going to be a presence.“

Taking cues from the small scale fat-washing method Freeman perfected, Don Lee of the East Village gin joint, PDT (that’s: Please Don’t Tell), created a bacon-infused bourbon upon which he builds the Benton’s Old Fashioned. It was inspired by salty strips cured by one Allan Benton at his boutique operation in Tennessee.

“I never tasted bacon that flavourful, I had to make a drink,” said Lee. “What pairs with smoky bacon? You get a little maple on your pancakes. Bourbon and bacon go together. Bacon and maple go together. And there’s orange in there to mask the smokiness. I want you to taste the bourbon. The bacon and smoke are more in the finish.”

That’s not to say nobody’s mixing ‘em like they used to. The talented Philip Ward, bar manager of Death and Company, also in the East Village, uses Laphroaig as an accent, using it to rinse the glass before the Cooper Union Red Breast Irish Whiskey, the elderflower liqueur St. Germain, and orange bitters is poured in.

“A peaty Scotch like Laphroaig is like Irish whiskey when it grows up. Putting it in there with a good Irish is like putting Irish whiskey on steroids. The key note in that drink is the St. Germain. It’s such a beautiful liqueur,” said Ward. “If you think about it, really just about everything with rye and gin has been done. I like Scotch because it’s pretty challenging. It’s not used in that many classic cocktails, so there’s room for originality, and it’s complex and intense. When you actually temper its aggression, you have one of more rewarding flavor profiles. It’s a bit of a tyrant. And Irish whiskey has its own character – it’s like adolescent. Irish whiskey drinkers are always drinking Jameson neat, so it’s nice to get them to drink cocktails.”

And so the tales in the cocktail’s epic history continue.