By Heather Sperling
While mainstream drinkers still lean towards sweet, simple drinks — the saccharine cosmopolitans and artificially flavored appletinis that refuse to die —the modern mixology movement is spreading, and in New Orleans from July 18–22, it was a force to be reckoned with. The 5th annual gathering brought together mixologists, historians, journalists and liquor enthusiasts; the subject was the cocktail: its past, present, and promising future.
A discussion of current cocktails, held by mixologists Jim Meehan (PDT and Pegu Club, New York, NY), Todd Thrasher (The PX, Restaurant Eve and The Majestic, Alexandria, VA) and John Kinder (MK, Chicago, IL) in a panel moderated by StarChefs’ CEO Antoinette Bruno, focused on two trends: so–called culinary cocktails, and the resurgence of classic drinks, styles and techniques. Culinary are seasonal and ingredient– and technique–driven, sourced from the farmers market, and often making use of Vita–Preps and iSi foamers. Kinder is working on a cucumber cocktail with a garnish of cucumber “seeds” made of gelled lychee puree. Thrasher uses techniques from his days with Jose Andres at Café Atlantico — foams, airs, and gels. He’s using a different kind of cherry at each of his three restaurants: bing at Restaurant Eve, white at The Majestic, and sour at The PX.
Classic are historically–minded drinks, often made with esoteric ingredients. Across the board, there’s nostalgia for bathtub gin and an affinity for obscurity. Meehan cites the popularity of small–batch mixers, like Q Tonic, Gus, and Izze natural sodas, and bitterer, more savory drinks. He cites 19th Century spirits as the next big thing in this category — Crème Yvette, Dutch Genever, Arrack, and so on. Thrasher makes his own tonic and bitters, and Kinder experiments with infusions and tinctures — alcoholic extracts usually made from herbs, which he adds to cocktails with an eye dropper.
As with fashion, what goes around comes around, and Meehan thinks the popularity of classic cocktails will continue in cycles: “maybe well follow up a resurgence of 1920s drinks with a resurgence of 1940s drinks.” Inevitably they’ll be retro, but modernized — with the addition of the culinary savvy and artisan liquors that are increasingly becoming status quo.
In a growing number of markets, more complex flavor profiles are met with enthusiasm, and cocktails are viewed with a reverence usually reserved for wine. Bartending is once again becoming a well–respected profession — and a culinary profession, at that. Mixology is finding its way into higher–level dining outlets, often with the help and inspiration of the chef. There are notable duos across the country: Todd Thrasher and Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve in Arlington; Adam Seeger and Randy Zweiban at Nacional 27 in Chicago; John Kinder and Michael Kornick in Chicago; and until recently, Jim Meehan and Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern in New York, and Vincenzo Marianella and Michael Cimarusti at Providence in LA.
The trend is spreading to smaller markets, as well. In Boise, Idaho, Kevin Kelpe is revolutionizing the city’s opinion of the cocktail with a few good books, artisan liquors, and occasional trips to cocktail centers on both coasts. Says Kelpe, “I found my passion behind the bar of The Red Feather when I was 22. I really wanted to take the restaurant’s bar out of the Lemon Drop Martini Phase of development, where every drink on the menu is basically a variation of the Lemon Drop…” His menu reads like a New York or San Fran mixologist’s stash: Herbsaint Pastis, Laird’s Applejack, Fee Brother's and Peychaud’s, and a drink called “My Herbal Idaho” with Teton Glacier Idaho Potato Vodka and Fee Brother’s Orange Flower Hydrosol. All his drinks are priced at $7, but still, for now, the revolution is small: “We still have bar managers in Boise at pretty good restaurants whose programs are marinating in a bath of lemon vodka…I wish we were the rule and not the exception, but I’m afraid it isn’t so. That said, our city will grow up, and we will start to see more conscientious bars and restaurants.”
It’s an exciting time for spirits — and the craftsmen behind the bar who are being celebrated as such.