If cocktails are just mathematical combinations, you could do a quantitative assessment of the possibilities that exist among, say, three classic drinks. Fair warning: that formula would involve both an “n” and “r” with exclamation points (“n!” = scary, right?), some division, and absolutely no intoxication. Which is one reason why we’re far more fascinated with the qualitative experience of those possibilities, what Barman (and purist to the nth degree) Dean James nightly at Pecadillo in Carrboro, North Carolina.
You might think ingredient-obsessed purism is assumed in modern mixology. You’d be right. But James takes it to another level entirely, paring the miniscule menu he shares with fellow Mixologist Tim Neill (formerly of Employees Only) down to three elder statesmen of modern mixology: the Martini, Manhattan, and Negroni. In that seemingly restricted context, James finds endless variety. “That’s where you find the beauty in the drink. The subtle variances in every one you make. When you’re free-pouring without the jigger to measure everything, you get to paint a slightly different canvas every time, rather than trying to statically copy a painting.”
Not that James came from a cocktail background with such particular focus. In fact, he came up in the figurative and literal budding of San Francisco mixology, helping to open Alembic Bar at a time when serious cocktail spots were just coming into fashion in the area. “People were still looking for the next flavored Mojito,” remembers James, “and there we were, pushing Manhattans and Sazeracs on everyone in sight.” Alembic not only paved the way for other cocktail bars of its level, it helped usher San Francisco into its experiment- and variation-heavy cocktail future. “It had begun to be a bit of an arms race as to who could infuse or barrel-age or smoke the most ingredients in their cocktails,” James says. Ironically—since he helped pave the way—the innovation craze was pretty much why James left. “That didn’t interest me as much when it was at the expense of the simple pleasures of a well-balanced aperitif cocktail.”
But it wasn’t mixological ascetism that had James rejecting San Francisco in all its smoke-infused, farm-to-glass glory. “Don’t get me wrong. I love drinking those cocktails when they’re made for me,” says James (incidentally, hopeless mezcal lover and author of The Long Goodbye. “I just didn’t want to lose the essence of why I fell in love with bartending in the first place.” The reason he fell in love with bartending—and felt the need to decamp from the Bay Area—has been with James for most of his life; it’s a preoccupation with simple perfection. Think of making a swish three-pointer from spots all over the line, all day long. That’s what mixing this holy trinity cocktail trio is like for James. Repeating perfection, with variations inevitable and intentional.
And it’s a habit born in childhood. James remembers hanging out on worn leather barstools at his grandparents’ restaurant as a kid, “watching surly Eastern European barmen try to deal with my curiosity in between waiting on the paying guests.” Given the soda gun and grenadine (a wise distraction from some busy barmen), James was instantly enthralled. “I was on a quest to make the perfect drink with the only [other ingredient] the 10 year-old was allowed to use in that bar—grenadine.” In fact, perfecting his Shirley Temples was James’s first foray into the kind of cocktail perfectionism that currently has him paying attention to the subtle delightful mutations from one Manhattan to the next.
“I think mixology is about pure expression rather than pure creation,” says James. “Where’s that perfect line you cross where you achieve harmony, and when have you gone too far?” It’s a kind of Spartan-meets-Bohemian beauty. But there’s also the shock value. “Placing the focus of our printed cocktail menu on the Maritini, the Negroni, and the Manhattan is part focus on essential classics, and part parlor trick,” says James, who knows patrons will pay more attention to a curtailed, seemingly stark menu than a pages-long list. But really the concept is finding the right templates. “I particularly love the Negroni as a template,” says James. “For one, lots of people disagree on the correct way to make one!” Finding his way to the “correct” version is less the goal than continually rediscovering the id of a drink like the Negroni—one of it James’s favorites. (Check out Gaz Regan’s book on the subject for James’s Tequila Negroni, a smoky celebration of singular focus.)
In fact if James can be compared to an artistic technique (we’ve already covered math and basketball), he’s like an artist who knows how to use negative space. He thrives on what isn’t included, and pays obsessive attention to what is included. Case in point, vermouth (they go through a lot at Peccadillo). “We’ve taken the stance at Peccadillo that we will only use one type of dry and sweet vermouth,” says James. The firmer stance: “We open a fresh bottle of vermouth at every service, and we discard the rest.” Not only does James chuck the old stuff, which tastes fine, but flatter, he makes a habit of tasting fresh and old side by side with his staff. “The disparity between them would surprise you, even shock you.”
It’s a close kind of attention you get to pay when you’ve pruned a cocktail menu down to just three selections. You get to nitpick, creatively. And sometimes, if you’re not too lost in minutiae, you learn something. “If you know your ingredients so intimately that you’ll be able to tell in an instant if one of the flavors is off, if the temperature is wrong, if something is off balance, then you’re going to be making better drinks.” Three of them, to be exact. With more than a few variations.