Mixologists have long been standing on the shoulders of their cocktail forebearers, faithfully recreating the classic cocktails of yore with a purist’s scrupulosity. But as mixology has come into its own, especially in New York, we’re beginning to see more play and experimentation in place of hyper-serious reverence to tradition. Classic structures are still there—and we have them to thank for the consistent balance of spirits, acids, bitters, and house-made products we’re seeing across the board—but in place of meticulously accurate homage there’s more creative, confident boundary-pushing.
Yes, it may well be the twilight of Prohibition-era behind the bar—after worshipping for so long at the speakeasy altar of cocktail history, mixologists are stepping into the light of day with renewed creative license (and only a mild hangover). The kind of drinks we’re seeing in place of the oldies but goodies are nothing short of re-imagined classics, drinks that have the infrastructure of tradition to support the innovation of modern mixology. A few barkeeps may still be dressing like the old-timers, but beyond the occasional trappings of mixology’s yesteryear, we can safely say this generation is maturing into something entirely its own.
And it’s not just a matter of mixology maturing. The fact is, mixologists are dealing with the realities of a recession, meaning even the most dedicated purists are forced to reconsider working strictly within the bounds of, say, an esoteric spirits den, with its self-selecting clientele and narrow marketability. That doesn’t mean the city can’t support spirit-specific places like the recently opened Casa Mezcal, but the fact that it’s a three-story restaurant and cultural center in addition to being a “mezcaleria” makes it accessible to a much larger customer base.
Of course, spirits-forward mixology is very much alive and well in this town. Casa Mezcal is proof that even a more marginalized spirit—the smoky, notoriously hard to mix step-cousin of tequila—can generate interest. Even if this town has seen its fair share of mezcal, this year we’ve seen mezcal appreciation graduate from a very specific few (Mayahuel regulars and smoke-loving imbibers) to a much larger audience, as mixologists are incorporating it into their wider bar programs with unprecedented success.
Variety—mezcal included—is really the name of the game this year, in terms of concept and execution. Mixologists have flown the proverbial coop and their menus and attitudes are reflecting it. Raines Law Room is still a speakeasy from the outside—as evidenced by the dour looking guy in the suit who answers the door—but inside, the traditional bar model is abandoned in favor of a home kitchen atmosphere where mixologist Meaghan Dorman works her way through a variety of spirits with unleashed creative license. Sean Hoard is working with the same feverish creativity at PDT, a speakeasy by design but really a crucible of cocktail creativity. And at Flatiron Lounge, even with its classically suave lounge aesthetic, mixologist Ryan McGrale is creating fresh cocktails for a modern palate, drinks that divide their focus between spirits and sweet-savory flavor profiles.
Of course, even in this era of newfound maturity, we’re glad to say mixologists aren’t taking themselves too seriously. In fact, part of what we consider maturity is the ability to own up to immaturity, to let your hair down—or at least unbuckle your suspenders or fluff your mutton chops—and indulge your guilty drinking pleasure, whether in a low-key pub after service or in the comfort (and anonymity) of your own home. Fearless of consequences to their reputations, New York mixologists are owning up to their guilty pleasures, from super-sweet liqueurs to PBRs and more—and we’ve got it all on film.
For some of us, especially during the clothes-shedding months of summer, artisanal cocktails themselves are a “guilty pleasure.” Even with the farm-to-table ethic bringing fresh ingredients to the bar menu, cocktails can pack a lot of calories even into the tiniest coupe glass. So for those among us counting calories and portion size, the recent move towards slimmer (but alas, not slimming) cocktails is a welcome treat. And even if the trend is currently more prevalent in large, multi-unit restaurant chains, a few talented mixologists are taking it seriously.
We’ve also seen an increasing number of serious cocktail programs operating within restaurants. Both for the financial aspect—cocktails yield a healthy profit margin and are slowly encroaching on territory formerly enjoyed by the wine list—and for the creative aspect (as kitchen and bar share and swap ingredients and techniques), this union has proven more than mutually beneficial to front and back of house. When the mixology program is as respected as the cuisine, neither the drink nor the dish will taste like an afterthought.
Uptown at Daniel or Bar Pleiades, mixologists Xavier Herit and Cameron Bogue are working with the kitchens to maintain a constant supply of fresh juices, fruits, and savory ingredients like curry leaves, celery, chorizo, and chipotle. Downtown at The Rye House, Lynnette Marrero’s cocktail menu is accompanied by a mouthwatering gastropub menu. Wherever we are in the city, we know we can get a high quality cocktail alongside high quality cuisine. Likewise, Leo Rotischek is mixing up drinks to equal the four-star cuisine at Eleven Madison Park while Gen Yamamoto of EN Japanese Brasserie brings a clean Asian flavor profile that unites ultra fresh seasonality and exquisite balance, the ideal beverage accompaniment to Chef Abe Hiroki’s rustic, home style Japanese cuisine.
As if we hadn’t already done enough drinking, we got an even closer look at modern mixology at the 2010 Manhattan Cocktail Classic. With presenters from Dave Wondrich to Dale DeGroff and topics ranging from glassware to Sherry to hotel bars and beyond, we learned—and sipped—our way through a variety of in-depth sessions.
StarChefs has its own mixology conference coming up, MIX@ICC, at the StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress September 20-23, 2010. Mixo godfather Dale DeGroff will be presenting Peruvian-Influenced Cocktail Pairings on the mainstage, while an array of mixology heavy-hitters will present intimate, interactive workshops for industry professionals. Join former El Bulli sommelier and current mixologist at The Bazaar by Jose Andres, Lucas Paya, or sit front and center for Jim Meehan of PDT’s presentation. Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini of Jean Georges is making an unexpected appearance in the mixology program this year, teaming up with Richard Boccato and Giuseueppe Gonzales of newly opened tiki bar, Painkiller. This is one ticket worth its weight in top-shelf spirits.
And because it fills up every year—and fast—be sure to get your tickets now for the 2010 StarChefs.com New York Rising Stars Revue, this September 22nd, 2010.