What You Missed in 2012, What You Can Hope You’ll Find Something As Good As in 2013
By Jason Rowan
As we are deep in the middle of rooftop lounges and large scale cocktail party season with The Manhattan Cocktail Classic (www.manhattancocktailclassic.com) and Googa Mooga (www.brooklyngoogamooga.com) behind us and Tales of the Cocktail (wwww.talesofthecocktail.com) dancing immediately ahead on the calendar, it makes sense to sit back and really consider the cocktail.
Plenty of people will proclaim this (insert name here) cocktail they sipped during the MCC Gala or on the lawn of Brooklyn’s park or at (insert bar/rooftop lounge name here) or while wandering the tasting rooms at the Hotel Monteleone the “BEST COCKTAIL EVER!” but can it really be?
What makes a great cocktail? Is it just ingredients? Or, as restaurateurs and chefs have discovered with all the attention they pay to atmosphere and staffing, does it have more to do than with just what’s in the glass? There are definitely standout drinks to be found, but you may find that your reasons for finding them are what makes them the “best.”
Here we take a look back to 2012 to see what impressed. Only time will tell how 2013 stacks up.
Virginia Miller, SF Bay Guardian, The Perfect Spot
There’s the best drink and then there’s the best moment with a drink…
Aviary chocolate cocktail photo courtesy of Virginia Miller
The best drink itself is a toss-up between the entire line-up at The Aviary in Chicago soon after Charles Joly became bar manager (oh, for the “dessert” cocktail, Cold Dark Chocolate, served in an angled glass, one side fitted with menthol ice, the other with Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey and oleo sacchrum, topped with warm marcona almond foam, awakening the mouth alternately with warm and cool notes as the mint subtly dissolves into chocolate-citrus – www.theaviary.com) or in San Francisco, AQ’s unforgettable summer drink, the Maeklong Market Cocktail, with a base of peanut-infused mekhong, a sugar cane/molasses/rice-based Thai spirit, creamy with coconut milk, lime and kaffir lime leaves – nutty, creamy, savory, refreshing (www.aq-sf.com).
Maeklong Market photo by Virginia Miller
The best moment with a drink? My husband and I were in Maui for the first time this November, having slipped mini-bottles of St. George’s fantastic gins (Terroir, Botanivore, Dry Rye – www.stgeorgespirits.com) in our carry-on. We had an unbelievable corner deck over the ocean at Napili Kai Resort tucked in Napili Bay (www.napilikai.com). Each morning there were rainbows (from end-to-end) with the islands of Lanai and Molokai before us. At sunset, we made ourselves simple gin and tonics with St. George gin, cheap Schweppes tonic, and lime. Bathed in golden, rosy sunsets, our humble G&Ts were perfection, both of us relaxed and free from all care, even for those fleeting moments, blissfully lost in beauty.
It was another superb year for cocktails, with the creativity of the industry seeming to know no limits. Happily we are seeing a few less high-octane rye and amaro drinks and a lot more interesting service methods, and generally a better sense of humor too. Every drink I had at London’s Artesian www.artesian-bar.co.uk/artesian.html, Portland’s Clyde Common (www.clydecommon.com) and Melbourne’s Black Pearl showed why they are held in such high regard. But for me there were three standout drinks of 2012.
‘Six Cylinder Cocktail’ at The Last Word Saloon, Edinburgh
The Last Word is the new-ish project from the talented team behind Auld Reekie favorite Bramble www.bramblebar.co.uk. The vibe is less saloon than cozy house, but the drinks are superb. At Bramble Jason Scott, Mike Aikman and team had led the charge for barrel-aged and bottled cocktails, and at Last Word they have taken it one step further, with the ‘Six Cylinder Cocktail’ which is ‘married in steel’. It’s an ironic nod to both the aging craze and the resurrection of forgotten classics. The original ‘Six Cylinder’ is found in Harry MacElhone’s ‘ABC’ and was probably invented to commemorate a racing car in the late Twenties. I’m sure nearly every bartender has skimmed over the recipe, which looks very odd indeed, with 6 ingredients of equal parts, more like a gimmick than a classic. The Last Word team took both the drink and the name at face value, with equal measures of Bombay Sapphire (www.bombaysapphire.com), Campari (www.campari.com), Martini sweet and dry vermouths, Cherry Heering (www.cherryheering.com) and Dubonnet (www.doyoudobonnet.com). Then it’s aged in steel vats for 4 months, and decanted into small 100ml containers that are labeled like something you’d find in a garage workshop, and served on a bed of crushed ice. A strangely pleasant metallic taste is the initial sensation, and no one ingredient dominates. Unlike barrel aging, which tends to smooth a drink by adding vanilla and other woody notes, this Six Cylinder is perfectly blended and integrated yet it’s all a harmonious whole. Married in steel, indeed. I look forward to ‘steel aging cocktail programs’ popping up all over America soon…
‘Bumblebee’ at Public, New York City
Antipodean-inspired restaurant Public has always been one of my favorite spots, and since Naren Young took over the ‘cocktail program’ the drinks have been a superb blend of the food friendly and the forward thinking. My favorite cocktail at Public this year was as much for its lineage as its flavor, though it was also incredibly delicious (www.public-nyc.com). Naren’s ‘Bumblebee’ was a snappy blend of Bacardi 8, lime juice, egg white (free range of course) and 5-spice-infused honey syrup. I was wowed and ordered another before I’d made much of dent in my first ‘Bumblebee’ as it was that delicious. I later discovered through the all knowing power of Facebook that Naren had ‘lifted’ the drink, with a few tweaks, from Clyde Common’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who in turn had purloined it from Erik Adkins at the Slanted Door where it was thought to be a San Francisco classic, and a San Francisco original too, according to a few SF ‘tenders who thought Naren and/or Jeff had taken credit for the drink. Well, I was later recently reading Charles H Baker’s ‘South American Gentleman’s Companion’ and once of the first drinks in there is a ‘Bumble-Bee’ from a bar in Georgetown, Guyana. Picasso once said ‘Great artists steal’ and that’s certainly true in the cocktail world, and we’re much better off for it!
‘Penicillin’ by Sam Ross, closing night of Milk and Honey
Finally not really a drink from 2012, but perhaps my most memorable cocktail experience was having Sam Ross make me a Penicillin on the last day that Milk and Honey was open for business. There is no bar that has had a bigger impact on the global cocktail industry in the last decade, few bartenders who have worked as hard at their craft as Sammy, and few drinks that deserve the title modern classic as much as the Penicillin. I know Milk and Honey is only moving house (www.mlkhny.com), and luckily I can get a Penicillin in good bars from New York to New Zealand. Having a Penicillin here made by a favorite bartender in a favorite bar surrounded by friends bidding Milk and Honey a fond farewell was a very special moment indeed, and appropriately it was my last (and thus, most memorable) cocktail of 2012.
Jonny Almario, 1885 Britomart, Auckland
Photo courtesy of Collecting Melbourne
The year of 2012 for me was stripping back to basics, trying as many classics as possible and reshaping my perspective. I have an undying love for Sazeracs and this year my drink of 2012 would have to be the George T. Stagg Sazerac (or Staggerac) I had at The Everleigh (www.theeverleigh.com) for a knock-off after a shift at Bar Americano. I’m still not sure why to this day I still consider over-proof or booze-heavy cocktails as knock-offs but I’ll leave that for another story.
I believe the first time I had heard about Staggeracs was reading the 28 Sazeracs in 28 Days that was posted over the month of February in 2010 on Savoy Stomp. I was intrigued to try it but with the hefty price tag in Australia I had to find a good excuse to try one.
Mid to late last year I found the excuse, I had just been accepted into a dance program (which has brought me back to New Zealand this year) and one night after work I convinced my workmate Matt to join me for a quick knock-off. We sat at the bar and ordered from proprietor and friend Michael Madrusan. The first sip was definitely a “holy s**t” moment, the experience of tasting something so well-crafted, so deliciously complex and let me tell you they pack a punch (made the mistake of not eating dinner after my shift). I usually have the tendency to either eat or drink something quite fast as soon as it I deem it delicious, at the dismay of my parents and friends but this drink was one of the few I actually sat there and took my time. However the high alcohol content probably added to that fact.
The combination of being in my favorite bar, in the company of friends and having well-crafted cocktails definitely made this occasion and drink my pick of 2012.
Liam Donegan – Master Distiller, Jameson
Photo courtesy of Irish Whiskey Blog
I wasn’t a virgin going to NOLA in July. 2012 was my second successive visit to Tales, but somehow again I managed to completely underestimate the impact that this special place, combined with some of the world’s best spirit minds, would have on me.
Thursday was a busy day; myself and Ger (a good friend and our Jameson Master Cooper) held a fun whiskey making session in One Eyed Jacks, followed by a Spirited Dinner at Sylvain – both very cool venues and both very relaxed sessions (www.sylvainnola.com www.oneeyedjacks.net). At One Eyed Jacks we talked through the triple distillation process with nothing more than a blackboard, a barrel and a few glasses of Jameson. Later on at Sylvain we enjoyed a great dinner, tasted different Whiskey expressions from the Jameson family matched with some of the States’ best craft beers. Combine that with good company (from Boston and NYC) over dinner and it was shaping up to be a very good day.
We finished the night in a bar called Alibi where the party continued and most of the bar got stuck into Jameson shots and various cocktails. I was probably tired, coupled with feeling a bit overwhelmed with the city, and I found myself sitting at the end of the bar alone for a while. I ordered a Jameson Black Barrel on the rocks. It was poured in one of those American oversized shot glasses (we don’t see those at home) with plenty of ice and I sat back, looked on and savoured my favourite whiskey. The day, the dinner, the bar, the glass, the commotion and the Whiskey made it, for me, the most memorable drink in 2012 without a doubt (www.jamesonwhiskey.com).
MELLO OCHO, NEW ORLEANS
Not all gatherings at Tales are in the service of promoting a brand, or a competition between bartenders or brand ambassadors. Scott Baird and Josh Harris, the well-liked enfants terrible of the San Francisco cocktail scene, are the men behind the Bon Vivants cocktail consulting team and the recently opened Trick Dog (www.trickdogbar.com) and “pop up bar” The Rio Grande, Comal in Berkeley. For the past 3 years they’d organized a Volunteer Day on the Tuesday before Tales gets under way, inviting attendees to join them in working on local schools affected by Hurricane Katrina. This year some 85 plus bartenders, brand ambassadors and journalists took a couple yellow school buses to East New Orleans and spent a day repainting classrooms at Ruby H. Lee High School. After a full day of painting fueled by coffee, altruism and Pandora emanating from propped up iPhones (I think Black Keys were the album radio of choice) and finishing the entire second floor of the school (31 rooms!) many volunteers retired to the Bon Vivants’ rented digs near the French Quarter, where they’d taken the second floor of a house and stocked it to the brim for all their events of the week. The long entrance hallway was lined with boxes of spirits, mixers and tools, and spread across a table were dozen of mini bottles of Tequila Ocho, a brand the B.V.s were working with for Tales (www.ochotequila.com). The volunteers set down on the deck overlooking the street, where they drank beers from cans and a serious game of dominoes was quickly underway. In the kitchen I spotted a traditional Volunteer Day cocktail being made, ice (paramount), Tequila Ocho, Mello Yello, the juice of half a lime and some sea salt tossed on top, then the whole thing is stirred with a knife (a key part of the tradition). Ruby Wilson was making one for herself and was kind enough to fix one up me in the proper manner, knife-stirring included. The original had been made based on what was found in the fridge on an equally sweltering day years earlier, after the first Volunteer Day, and being part of this ad hoc tradition was immensely gratifying. Salty, citrus, balls-out boozy and hella refreshing & rewarding, the drink was effortlessly perfect after the long, hot day of good work. A reminder that context, one’s company, the moment and the story are as important to what makes a drink come to life as a thousand baroque twists and turns behind the bar. And that being of service is, in fact, the bartender’s chief mandate.
Photo by Jason Rowan