wine Features

Bar Chefs Rise From the Ashes

By Jim Clarke

At the end of the 19th century the bartender was a respected figure around America. Many gained national reputations and moved from city to city across the U.S., gracing various bars with their craft while learning and embellishing each region's local cocktails. In some cases their names have actually come down to us: Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson, for example, were rivals: two acknowledged masters in a trade that required an apprenticeship of several years. Bartenders at the time not only knew the differences among various sorts of bourbons, gins, and myriad other liquors, they also mixed their own bitters, sour mixes, and other essential blending ingredients. Some of our classic cocktails come from these artists.

It's hard to say when this sense of craft faded. It survived Prohibition; given the quality of the period's bathtub gin, hiding its rough edges inside a cocktail glass must have demanded some attention and skill. Fancy cocktails were perhaps too bourgeois and snobbish for the socially-active youth of the 60s, making for a period of decline. Only in the late 80s did cocktails and their makers reemerge on the scene. The latter were graced with a new name, as the title "bartender" had become a debased currency: mixologist.

So for the past couple of decades, mixologists have been making drinks for us. And creating new drinks, combining liquors, juices, and garnishes with abandon. Some would argue that their success rate has been mixed, but their enthusiasm can't be denied. Only a few of the newer cocktails are demonstrating much staying-power: some have mistaken the Cosmopolitan for a new invention, but it's actually a resurrection from the 1950s. Nevertheless, the mixologist has brought a new spotlight to the cocktail.

Now a new title - and with it, a new attitude - has appeared: the bar chef. As the chef is to a line cook, so is the bar chef to today's bartender. The bartender learns the recipes and knows the proportions of their drinks, but the bar chef knows why the recipe works. A guest may order a martini made with a number of different gins or vodkas; the bar chef knows the subtle differences between the various brands and, in his or her own cocktails, takes them into account.

Eben Klemm of B.R. Guest in New York feels that a change of venue has opened new doors for cocktails: "Up until the last ten years the tradition of drink invention was driven by bars and saloons; the recent innovations are coming in restaurants. That's a big change because now you have more direct contact between the kitchen and the bar." In fact, the bar chef is raiding the pantry for new or obscure ingredients: lemongrass, maraschino liqueur, truffles - all are fair game to today's cocktail creators. And like a chef, an awareness of balance between different flavors plays an important part in preparing a new cocktail.

What really puts bar chefs on solid ground may be a sense of history. Many are not just creating their new cocktails, they're trying to offer perfect renditions of older cocktails as well. Dylan Prime's Michael Waterhouse sums it up: "We're concentrating on making the cocktails better now." Try a margarita with fresh sour mix and squeezed limes instead of a mix from a soda gun and you'll see how big a difference it can make. Some are gracing their drink menus with revivals of older cocktails: the Singapore Sling, the Aviation, and the Vesper have all been featured around New York of late. This sense of what has come before keeps bar chefs grounded and brings a pride of tradition to their work. Eben says, "There's plenty of old cocktails that deserve to be forgotten, but there's at least 50 cocktails over 50 years old that we're not drinking but should be."

Restaurant guests are responding strongly; Michael says that at least once a night one of his menus goes missing, spirited away by an enthusiastic guest. New York is the cocktail hotbed at the moment; people like Eben, Michael, Audrey Saunders at Bemelman's Bar in The Carlyle Hotel, and Albert Trummer at Town all embody the idea of the bar chef, whatever their official title. Check out some of their cocktails along with drinks from other hot bar chefs around the country in some our features below, including the StarChefs Sylk Rising Stars Brian Kimmet from Dolce Enoteca e Ristorante in Hollywood and Joel Finsel from the bar Astral Plane in Philadelphia:

Brian Kimmet
Dolce Enoteca e Ristorante, Holywood, CA

Joel Finsel
Astral Plane Philadelphia, PA

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Published: October 2004