Memorable cocktails that rise to the top of the list
Stories curated by and photos by Jason Rowan (except where noted)
Most publications are busy prognosticating; focused on the year ahead, projecting trends and anticipating the future. But at INSIDE F&B we decided to take a moment before rushing pell-mell into 2012 and invite you to join us in relieving some stress that always comes with looking ahead. Instead, stop and smell the proverbial roses as we take a look back at some of the spirit industry’s best drinks tasted around the world.
Simon McGoram, Drinks Editor, Australian Bartender Magazine (boozebraggart.blogspot.com/)
The best drink I had all year had to come from one of the more unlikely places in Australia – Katoomba in the Blue Mountians in NSW. Once upon a time it was known as Sydney’s playground – especially during the roaring twenties with Gatsby-like characters parading around in finery. Now the place attracts only a few weekend tourists with its beautiful art deco cafes and hotels remaining for the large part empty and falling into disrepair.
I was up there with my partner for a Valentine’s Day getaway – with February being the middle of summer down under we were expecting swelter. Instead a cool mist hung eerily over the whole town as we walked up the steps of the Carrington Hotel for a pre-prandial tipple. The hotel by the way looks like something out of The Shinning and sure enough during the middle of the week the place was empty and spooky.
We were sat next to a roaring fire in an anteroom next to the grand 1930s ballroom. I was expecting that they might manage a decent G&T but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the cocktail offering. I ordered an Old Cuban – an Audrey Saunders masterpiece that had somehow found its way to this country town. My partner had a Bramble – a Dick Bradsell modern classic from London. The drinks were good. Not exceptional. bBut it was the more the fact that in rural Australia I could order drinks created by the best bartenders of London and New York whilst being transported to almost untouched art deco setting. I thought truly cocktail culture has come of age and perhaps one of America’s greatest inventions can be enjoyed at all ends of the earth.
Stephen Myers, Illegal Mezcal
Drinking a Negroni at an outdoor cafe with a beautiful girl and a great friend on the Sardinian coast as the sun set over a Phoenician ruin and a lighthouse. Rather than the 1:1:1 ratio of the drink on its own it was all the elements of the time, place, people and the great drink itself that made it my best drink for 2011.
Philip Gandevia, cocktail bartender, Eau De Vie, Sydney
We were having a meeting at Eau De Vie, going over our recipes and making sure that our techniques were uniform. We mentioned a Bijou (equal parts gin, Dolin and Chartreuse, orange twist and discard) and I made a casual statement that of course it was always stirred. One of our team, Taka Shino, demurred, saying that he always shakes his. Not only was this interesting in terms of discovering an inconsistency but it was also something I’d never entertained for this cocktail. “Well, let’s try them,” I said and we made side-by side identical Bijous, mine stirred and his shaken. When we tasted them I was fairly shocked to discover that I preferred the shaken. It was an excellent reminder that the junior bartender can show the senior bartender something he’d not considered, and he can learn how to improve his technique. And now our Bijous are shaken.
Sean Hoard, bartender, Teardrop Lounge & Clyde Common, Portland, OR
It was August and it was hot. My girlfriend Hannah had just gotten in from New York, and we met my buddy Evan at Teardrop. We got a table outside, right in the sun, and drank piña coladas *. I’d made hundreds for guests all summer long but this was the first time I’d sat down and enjoyed one myself. It was perfect: a summer afternoon, not working, laughing with great people and discovering firsthand that this cocktail can be just as appropriate in Northwest Portland as it is in South Beach.
* Lest “piña colada” suggest a hyper sweet Coco Lopo mess, the Teardrop Lounge P.C. Goes something like: White rum, house cream of coconut (fresh coconut water, fresh coconut meat and heavy cream), house pineapple gomme (fresh pineapple juice, gomme arabic, cane sugar),house pimento dram, fresh lime juice, crushed ice. Garnished with house brandies cherries and grated nutmeg.
So for me the best drink is not necessarily perfect, rather the drink that sticks out in my memory due to the quirkiness or odd preparation method.
When I was up in Auckland for the Portishead gig, my friends and I headed to Mea Culpa on Ponsonby Road, which I rate as the best cocktail bar in New Zealand, and by far my favorite. If I do ever go out for cocktails I usually stick to Sazeracs as a way of both testing the bar and having a drink that I personally love drinking and making. Cam, one of the bartenders, had made 8:1 rich sugar syrup for some reason and it seemed like the perfect excuse to try it in a Sazerac. A baby Sazerac with 8:1 rich sugar syrup is pretty insane, as the viscosity changes both the palate weight and texture. To me that was definitely a stand-out for the year.
Besides Sazeracs, I do love my champagne on occasion, just so happened that on the same night my friend Chris was celebrating his birthday. Glasses got distributed and it got me thinking, Chris McMillan created the Sazerac Royale as a wedding drink I believe and rather than double fisting my drinks I thought why not add the two things I love together? A baby Sazerac with 8:1 sugar syrup topped with Perrier Jouet Brut NV, that’s something special. I did felt a bit bad by potentially destroying my friend’s drink but Sazerac Royales are amazing and that drink was something that hasn’t left my memory.
Virginia Miller, SF Bay Guardian, The Perfect Spot
One of the best drinks I’ve had all year, oddly enough, was the Charlie Chan cocktail at Wilson & Wilson (http://thewilsonbar.com/), the bar-within-a-bar inside Bourbon & Branch. Why odd? As a spirits/cocktail writer and whisk(e)y girl, the only spirit I tend to be less excited about is vodka, due to its often flavorless neutrality. But nuanced Karlsson’s is among the best, and Wilson & Wilson’s Ian Scalzo puts it to fine use infusing it with black tea, then mixing with ginger syrup, lemon juice, house tinctures of black pepper and clove, and their own coconut marmalade. It’s savory with pepper, spicy with clove and ginger, silky with coconut. As the layers unfold, Scalzo’s drink gives vodka cocktails delicious respectability. I’ve had more than one night lost in conversation at this peaceful, elegant respite with dear friends lingering over the Chan.
In July I was in India helping judge the 2011 finals of Diageo Reserve’s World Class Bartender Competition, and each of the 30+ finalists had to make two drinks for me. One was supposed to be a “Gentleman’s Drink,” and the other was a “Fancy Tipple.” I tasted lots of really good cocktails over the few days it took to run all of the finalists through the mill, and the drink that amazed me most was created by Mark Huang, the finalist from Taiwan.
Mark made a variation on the Negroni for his Gentleman’s drink, using Zacapa 23 as a base, and adding Dubonnet Rouge and Campari to make his variation. It worked very well indeed, but his “Fancy Tipple” was the cocktail that blew my socks off.
Mark’s Asian Fantasy involved many fancy moves, and I admit to watching him thinking that his efforts couldn’t possibly pay off. First he burned sandalwood just so the aroma would be in the room—the smoke wasn’t used in the drink, but nevertheless it was a part of the experience.
Next he added Zacapa 23 rum , cloves, coriander seeds , nutmeg, and star anise to a small saucepan and heated the mixture for about one minute. After the rum and spices cooled off a little he added it to a mixing glass with ice and some sweet vermouth, chilled it, strained it into a cocktail glass, and finished the drink off with spritzes of rose water and jasmine water from atomizers.
Too many ingredients, I thought. Too much fussing, I thought. But when I brought that drink to my lips I was really taken aback. The balance was perfect, and every single aspect of the drink came through. This, then, was the very best drink I had this year, followed closely by my nightly Manhattan on the rocks with too much Angostura, of course.
Lance Mayhew, Restaurant Management Instructor, Oregon Culinary Institute
I live for Thanksgiving. It’s the one time of year I can show my friends and family just how much they really mean to me by cooking a big Thanksgiving spread (I do Thanksgiving big, I think there were 18 people at the house this year), popping a few bottles and mixing up a few cocktails. There is always a lot of kitchen prep to do a few days ahead, and by the time the actual day rolls around I’m pretty exhausted from all the cooking.
The absolute highlight of the day for me is when I know everything is going to come out alright (I’ll admit, I burned the turkey a few years back) and I can sit back and have a drink for a few minutes and visit with my friends and family before I have to carve the bird. I want something tasty, easy to make and appropriate for the occasion, so I serve Stone Fence cocktails. Just nice bourbon (I used Woodford Reserve this year), nonalcoholic apple cider and a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters. Easy enough and if things get crazy in the kitchen I can always give one of my guests a battlefield promotion to bartender and not worry about them screwing up the drink. Apple and bourbon is an amazing combination, and when that first hit of Woodford hits my bloodstream, my aching back stops hurting, the cuts and blisters on my hands don’t matter, and I can finally relax and enjoy my friends and family.
It’s the reward for a job well done, the checkered flag at the finish line, the start to my Thanksgiving celebration. And if something got screwed up at Thanksgiving, well, enough Stone Fences and I probably won’t notice, or care.
Though I’m tempted to elect the three gin Martini at London’s Viajante, the 2am Trinidad Sour at Ruby in Copenhagen or the Shady Pines Negroni and Coke (guaranteed to cure any hangover, and create a new one in the process) in downtown Sydney, it’s gotta be the Vieux Carréat Melbourne’s Bar Americano. In ten seats, they manage razor-sharp precision and pitch perfect deliciousness at every turn.
2011 was a year blessed with stunning drinks, from the perfectly balanced ‘Jack Rose’ at Emeryville’s Prizefighter to the delightful ‘Lower East Cider’ at Saxon and Parole in NYC, almost every drink at Chicago’s Aviary, and Zdenek Kastanek’s ‘La Hermosa’ in London, that was as tasty as anything I’ve had all year.
However for me the standout drink was the ‘Cuidad Deus’ at 41 Degrees in Barcelona, the cocktail bar attached to the city’s newest hotspot Tickets. It helps to create buzz when the restaurant chef is called Adria, but to my mind the drinks at 41 were even better than the food next door. Molecular drinks get a bad rap in the current craze to turn back the clock to 1895, but the ‘Ciudad Deus’ showed how to use ‘molecular’ techniques to create new and exciting flavours. Leblon Cachaça was infused with fresh carob nibs in a sous vide bath, then blended with a little fresh lime juice, cardamom tincture, Angostura bitters, brown sugar and a house syrup that tasted like orgeat but wasn’t quite.
The cocktail was swizzled for 90 seconds using crushed ice made from frozen cold brew coffee, and dusted with carob and nutmeg. Normally this drink would be too heavy for me, but the balance was perfect and each sip revealed new and surprising flavours as the flavoured ice melted and the intensity of the drink mellowed, becoming satisfyingly bittersweet by the final sips. It’s usual to finish some gushing travel/cocktail paragraph by gushing ‘worth getting on a plane for’ but no one needs another reason to visit Barcelona. But it’s great to see a bar where they look to the future as much as the past, and the technique and inventiveness which went into crafting the ‘Ciudad Deus’ as well as its sheer luscious drinkability, made it my favourite drink of the year.
When drinking is part of your job it’s hard to pick out just one best drink of the year, but for me it comes back to an evening in Amsterdam this spring with my colleagues from Bols. We were at a small tasting room called Des Drie Fleschjes that’s been operating since 1650. We all toasted with a kopstootje, a small glass of genever paired with a good beer. It’s a simple drink that I could make any time at home, but having one there surrounded by new friends in a place that has been serving them for more than 300 years was truly amazing.
Bill Norris, Beverage Director, Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas & The Highball (Austin, TX)
Easily the best drink I had this year was a neat pour of 7 Leguas Reposado, lying in the grass of the distillery hacienda after a long lunch with friends old and new. It was part of a Tequila Interchange Project trip that paired a bunch of Texans with the Bon Vivants of San Francisco, a crazy Aussie, Tomas Estes of Tequila Ocho, David Suro of Siembra Azul and TIP, and our generous hosts from 7 Leguas.
It was a group of people that represent the best of our industry–passionate, generous, and kind–and lying in that courtyard, staring at the sky, was a moment of pure confirmation: I have a great job; it lets me know and work with great people, it takes me to unbelievable places, and I’m lucky to do what I do.
Rhiannon Enlil – Cure, New Orleans
This drink was on our menu at Cure over the summer 2011, and fared pretty well with the cocktail nerds.
This is a bright, refreshing, but ridiculously boozy cocktail. I named it after Mount Pelée, the volcano on Martinique where the rum is made (of course the ‘bees’ part is a nod to the honey)… The brief Angostura swirling on top the surface of the drink makes me think lava swirling in a volcano.
The name doubles as a joke to the boys I work with at Cure, since it’s also an homage to Tori Amos’ album ‘Boys for Pele.’ I thank each and every one of them for introducing me to hip and underground music over the years, and I’m pretty sure those dudes did NOT listen to endless Tori Amos in high school like I did. Ha!
Bees for Pele
1.5oz La Favorite Habitation Agricole Blanc
1oz lemon juice
.75oz Yellow Chartreuse
.5oz honey syrup (1:1)
2 dashes spice bitters (I love Bittermen’s Peppercake)
Shaken, double strain, serve up, garnish with several drops of Angostura bitters on top which should naturally create a fun swirl of color
Jason Rowan – Cocktail and travel writer, and partner in Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters(www.brooklynbitters.com)
For me it was a rhubarb gimlet made at Tony Conigliaro’s Drink Factory (www.drinkfactory.blogspot.com).
I was there with Beefeater’s Master Distiller Desmond Payne, and we’d both previously admitted to a certain reluctance to embrace the “molecular mixology” movement.
My hesitation was likely based a cranky aversion to molecular anything, and some feeling that this hyperscience was stripping some of the magic and alchemy and human touch out of cocktails and spirits.
I can’t speak for Desmond, but I imagine that as a distiller there could be a proprietary, even territorial response—these guys were treading on distiller territory, reverse-engineering cocktails and retrofitting carefully crafted spirits like Desmond’s own Beefeater 24, defying all real or perceived rules and re-inventing them, on a molecular level. Playing god, from a distiller’s perspective. Some wariness would only be natural.
After observing the centrifuge that extracted the rhubarb essence, and listening to detailed notes on carefully maintained temperatures and space age infusion techniques, a rhubarb gimlet was made and passed around. I’ve worked a lot with rhubarb in the past couple years and tasted lots of different approaches but this martini gently kissed by rhubarb’s distinct mineral-y, vegetal sweetness got everything about rhubarb right. And got everything about gin right, too. Assorted futuristic cocktails were passed around but Desmond & I kept hijacking the rhubarb gimlets. “It’s quite good,” Desmond murmured, over and over, and I think we were both happily disarmed/disabused of any preconceived notions about hi-tech techniques by the sheer beauty of the cocktail.
*Editor’s note- For me, the best drink of 2011 was one I actually didn’t ingest myself. It was a generous pour of Ilegal Mezcal’s Anejo that my (not frequent spirit drinking) husband ordered at a client dinner. With just one glass of this still often misunderstood spirit he was able to enlighten a whole new group of people about the joys of Mezcal, dispel some awful clinging myths about the worm, and convince some whisky drinkers to expand their horizons.
2011 was a year of exploration for the spirits industry and 2012 promises to be an even stronger platform for creating better imbibing experiences for the general drinking public. Here’s to the past. And the future!