THE COCKTAIL RENAISSANCE
Recalling certain gentlemen of other days, who made of drinking one of the pleasures of life — not one of its evils; and who, whatever they drank, proved able to carry it, keep their heads, and remain gentlemen, even in their cups. Their example is commended to their posterity.
— A framed sign in the bathroom at Milk and Honey, excerpted from The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, by A. S. Crockett, from 1935
In 1919 the Volstead Act brought a swift end to nightlife, and the refined craft of the American bartender was outlawed. It was thought that to drink alcohol was to live a life shadowed by death. It was thought that these were death and company. It's taken us nearly a century to restore flavor to the drink and class to specialty cocktails. In our time, a night to celebrate life's simple pleasures with fine wine, exquisitely crafted cocktails, beautifully prepared food, and impeccable sipping spirits is a rare gift. To those who shun the night, we tip our hat. To those who shine after dusk, we offer a warm embrace. Welcome to the new golden age. Welcome to Death & Co.
— A framed sign in the bathroom at Death & Co.
The July air in New Orleans is like thick soup. Every year at this time the extended world of craft cocktails descends on the French Quarter for the annual Tales of the Cocktail festival. They are bartenders and bar owners, people in the liquor industry like brand owners and ambassadors, drinks writers and bloggers, lifestyle media members, restaurateurs, hoteliers, people who sell highly specialized products like vintage barware, ice machines, and bottled ingredients for tiki drinks, and the PR reps for each of these groups. Many members of the lay public, such as cocktail enthusiasts and casual consumers, attend (and pay the full price), but the real festival — the networking, the hotel room parties, the secret stashes of homemade hooch — is for community members only. Tales is the global craft cocktail community's largest event. At it they rejoice the cocktail renaissance, see old friends and make new ones, share drink ideas, consider business plans, and regale themselves with awards and praise. The people in New York who do not attend joke that the city's cocktail bars may as well shut down during Tales, due to lack of staff. Some do.
A nocturnal bunch, cocktail people huddle inside the historic (and air-conditioned) Hotel Monteleone with its rooftop pool and rotating Carousel Bar (where the classic Vieux Carré cocktail was invented) during the day. They attend and host panel talks and demonstrations, tastings and seminars, book signings, broadcasts and podcasts, until the sun goes down. Then they hit the city, and stay out all night. They repeat this same day five times in a row.
I spend a Friday afternoon in the Monteleone, at seminars. In one, named "Twenty-first Century Gin," four brand ambassadors for different gin companies discuss the history and current state of the spirit. Audience members in the packed room sit in rows behind tables with plastic cups filled with clear liquids. Charlotte, a former bartender from London who works for Hendrick's Gin, introduces the panel and the topic. She tells the audience about the seven different types of gin on the tables in front of them, each representing a particular style. The panelists will refer to them in their talks, and audience members can taste each one as they go along. Charlotte then provides a brief history of gin, from its roots in Holland as genever in the 1500s to its migration to London, where the Old Tom and London dry styles took shape. While gin remained a popular spirit in the twentieth century, she explains, not many producers innovated within the category, until recently.
"Five years ago we couldn't have done this seminar and had this many gins on the table," says Charlotte. "I certainly couldn't have named four or five gin brands ten years ago. So things are definitely changing. And with that in mind, with all these new gins that we have, we're very pleased to have them, what do we call them? Do we need to call them anything? Is it appropriate to call these new gins new? Or do we need to find some way to distinguish them from the London dry and the Old Tom that we heard about before? Ryan, would you possibly have any thoughts on this matter?"
A bartender and consultant from Portland, Oregon, Ryan Magarian co-founded Aviation American Gin in 2006. The audience, knowing Ryan has strong opinions on classifying gin, laughs at Charlotte's lead-in.
When me and my partners developed [Aviation] three and a half years ago, I thought, "Let's just be obnoxious. Let's take it right to the edge of the gin universe." And we were really excited. We thought we could make a gin that didn't fall within any of the acknowledged designations that were around today. And gin, when we looked at the definition, it seemed to me that there was a lot of room for artistic freedom. And when we looked at the gin category, it seemed relatively monochromatic. People weren't, in our opinion, getting far enough away from the traditional London dry. And when I talk about London dry gin, I talk about any neutral spirit-based gin where the juniper is without a doubt the first thing that you get. It's like somebody puts a steak dish in front of you and it's a forty-eight ounce porterhouse, a little bit of broccoli, and a touch of au gratin, but it's the steak that defines that spirit.
Ryan then explains how he and his partners wanted Aviation to represent the region (specifically Oregon) well, such as by using organic products and having a savory and rich flavors and a "damp" taste. Since his partners were whiskey makers, they wanted a gin people could sip neat, which is uncommon for London dry styles. They also had cocktails in mind. Since Aviation has a different flavor profile from London dry gins, it doesn't always work with classic recipes, and Ryan has had to train bartenders how to use it in drinks. He concludes by proposing a new name for his style of gin.
This is something new, I think "new Western" style is fun and sexy. I don't know if it's going to stick, but by gosh, I'm going to use it until someone comes up with something better — perhaps "twenty-first century" gin — we'll find out. I would also use [this] key word in new Westerns: balance. You're finding a lot more balance. Like I talked about the forty-eight ounce porterhouse steak dish? Well, think about an equal steak dish, but the new Western is an eight-ounce filet, a large mound of orange-scented couscous, some sautéed kale with rendered bacon fat and chopped bacon, and maybe a little bit of scallions or something funky on the side. It's still a steak dish, but it's not this steak dish. Having this kind of style protects gin, by separating these new gins from old gins. We don't do this, next thing you know vodka and gin are going to meld, and the whole gin category is going to be a total debacle.
A former bartender originally from England, today Angus Winchester is a consultant and the global brand ambassador for Tanqueray. Quiet and looking smug for most of the panel, he chimes in on Ryan's argument.
"Well, I find it interesting. Everybody talks about 'Let's have less rules and regulations from the government' and things like that, and here's Ryan saying we should have some more. I mean, we have a knowledgeable group of people here, how many styles — legally — of American whiskey are there?"
He pauses as the room mumbles.
"Twenty-six. There are twenty-six legal styles of American whiskey. So these all exist, but we all talk about there just being five styles. You see that with a lot of things. And we're seeing now gins that don't really taste like gin, which is why you have to start adapting the recipes to be able to use them in classic gin drinks. And I feel some of these are multiflavored vodkas. If the juniper is not immediately discernable, which I think, if you try Tanqueray Ten, put your nose on that, there is juniper there, front and center. There is refreshing citrus, things like that as well, but it is obviously juniper.
"I'm conflicted with it. Sometimes I think, yes, we should perhaps recategorize. But I think on the whole they've worked quite well for us, and the bartender should be the one explaining both. Miller's and Hendrick's are not your typical style of gin. And as we start to make gin that doesn't taste like gin to get people into gin, we're not doing the right thing, are we? It's obviously so radically different to what our customers expect from gin. We don't need everything to be called gin. If everybody drank the same thing life would be rather boring. You don't like gin? Well, sorry. I'm not going to make a wrong gin so you could now say to your friends you do like gin."
"To call Aviation a London dry gin or even put it in the same category is wrong," replies Ryan. "Think about genever, I mean, genever isn't anything like London dry. Gin is a story of evolution. So to me, stopping at just dry gin and not being able to articulate more succinct styles to people doesn't make sense to me."
Ryan and Angus both speak on behalf of their brands: the newcomer and the old standard. An audience member, Simon Difford, then speaks up. Simon owns a bar in London and writes a series of drinks guides both online and in print. Others in the room who know his guides get excited to hear him speak in person. He directs his comment at Ryan.
"We went from genever to gin, but they didn't call gin genever, they came up with another name for it, because it's different. It was a progression. What you've created is not a gin. It's a flavored other spirit."
"But you call it a gin in your book," says Ryan. "And you gave us four-and-a-half stars!"
Enjoying the start of a duel, the audience approves Ryan's zinger with applause.
"And I commented under that that it's not a gin. What's happened is that we haven't got a gin police. There's no one testing gin saying that there's not so many milligrams per liter of juniper to be classified gin. So that's the trouble. You can call whatever you like gin. Yours is still a dry style. It hasn't got juniper, but it is a dry style of spirit. It's a delicate spirit. I'd like it if you called it 'new Western spirit.' The reason it's called gin in my book is because you put 'gin' on the label. That's what you've branded it."
"Would you like 'new Western botanical spirits'?"
"Fine, that's a great term."
"But this is gin," says Ryan, pointing at his own bottle.
"Gin is predominantly juniper. It's not predominantly juniper, it's not gin."
"My point about using the steak dish example, they're both steak dishes, whether it's a forty-eight ounce porterhouse or the eight-ounce filet."
"That's like calling a burger a steak. It's a different product."
Tales seminars and the public sides of the festival and cocktail community in general are remarkably harmonious. Critical comments and back-and-forth debates barely exist out in the open. The traditional London dry style (like the heavy pine flavor of Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Gordon's) dominated the spirit category for decades and shaped the general public's idea of what gin tastes like. But along with demonstrating the significance of history and an expanding palate of flavors for cocktail bartenders, the lengthy discussion in this seminar reveals the tensions that sometimes arise between the community members over definitions and categories. Since new gin products reach the market and do not conform to convention, the gin category has become turf for wars of taste, and marketing. People in the craft cocktail community constantly discuss such questions as what is and what is not "proper" gin, or the merits of any new product, or the influence of big brands on the public's taste. These debates and contestations are part of a common discourse for the cocktail community.
After the gin panel I attend a seminar called "Sugar," on the science of sweetness in cocktails, and another called "The Fine Art of Tending Bar," led by Stanislav Vadrna, a Polish bartender who trained for a time with Kazuo Ueda, a renowned veteran bartender in Tokyo. With the sun setting I walk over to the W Hotel, a few blocks outside the Quarter, for the Bar Chef Competition, an annual Tales event. Modeled on the television show Iron Chef, bartender contestants from around the country have to make two cocktails, one for before dinner and one for during. They must use the sponsor's product and a secret ingredient, revealed only seconds before the competition starts, in both. Grand Marnier and Navan — an orange and a vanilla liqueur, respectively — sponsor the event, and a cocktail called The Perfect Storm (a variation on the classic Dark and Stormy, with the sponsored ingredients) gets passed around to the crowd. An elevated stage in the large ballroom features eight identical bar stations with full backbars, bar equipment, and a stovetop for sautéing (recommended for culinary cocktails). The contestants come from New York, Miami, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Virginia, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. The panel of seven judges consists of more experienced bartenders, chefs, and people in food and wine media. The host is none other than Dale DeGroff, the "King of the Cocktail," a living legend, and the man people in the United States consider the founder of today's cocktail renaissance.
After explaining the rules (45 minutes to make two original cocktails) Dale reveals the secret ingredient: ginger marmalade. The timer starts and the bartenders get to work. One takes advantage of the stovetop and sautés some rosemary while smelling and tasting a bottle of sherry. People in the crowd cheer them on while Dale offers commentary on what each contestant seems to be trying. Mickey and Sammy, the famed bartending pair at Milk and Honey — considered the first of New York City's new craft cocktail bars — shout teases at their friends Giuseppe and Eric, two contestants from New York (though Eric moved and opened a bar in LA the previous year). It's their way of supporting them. I spot Steve Olson, a veteran in the industry as a bartender and consultant, and a founder and director of the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) Program, an education and training course in the craft cocktail community. He is elated.
"Look at all the people on stage right now! One is Dave, but all but one has been through the BAR course, and that person is enrolled to do it in the fall. Few of us who have been doing this for twenty-five, thirty years would have ever believed that this time would come, but now it has happened and it has expanded the way we could only have dreamed. It used to be so insular, and it still is, but it's much larger and is starting to have impacts outside of the community. I love it that people come up to me and say that they want to become bartenders."
The urgency picks up on stage as the clock ticks down. The bartenders abandon any early experiments in favor of well-established flavor combinations from their taste memories. Only the judges will try the drinks they come up with, and the corporate sponsors will likely use the winning recipes in their promotional materials. There is no bar for these bartenders tonight — no service or conversation with customers — just drinks and the act of making them, on display, in front of a knowing audience.
As the buzzer sounds, Dale, with a tremendous grin on his face and his eyes closed, tilts his head back, holds a fist to the sky, and screams into the mike, "The craft is back!"
The past looms large for people in today's cocktail world. Of the four occupations in this book, cocktail bartenders are most likely to respect, discuss, and debate the history of their craft and its culture, and recognize its importance in the work they do. (The gin discussants at Tales, for instance, referenced genever's transition into gin, and considered whether it represented an evolution of gin or the creation of a new spirit category.) Classic cocktail culture appears in their recipes and personal style, the motifs of their bars, and their professional identity. To them, the spread of craft cocktails throughout the nightlife industry and the rise of bartending to what they see as its rightful place as a respected trade are true revivals and rebirths. Cocktail bartenders build on and reshape the past, for their own livelihood and for a drinking public who want special bar experiences and crave a story behind their drink. As bars, cocktail bars have become more like restaurants, behind the bar more like a kitchen, and cocktail bartenders more like a combination of chefs and servers. Bringing their cocktail knowledge to bear on their service helps to elevate their work to an elite level.
The New Golden Age
People have been mixing alcoholic drinks together with other ingredients for thousands of years and for many reasons. At various times and in different places, some groups have done so for medicinal or religious purposes. The English mixed citrus and quinine (an ingredient in tonic water) in gin to ward off scurvy and malaria, respectively, and many aromatic bitters, which became the salt and pepper of cocktail making, began as healthful elixirs. Others have done so to preserve products. Fortified wines like vermouths, for instance, last longer than their base beverage on its own, which suits long-distance travel. And some groups have mixed ingredients in spirits to mask the harsh taste of poorly made distillates. In each case, people used local products and resources, while customs shaped their drinking habits.