This Guy Walks Into A Bar…

26 May

Mixologist. Bartender. Barman. Barmaid. Barkeep. It’s all relative, right? According to my 1997 print edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one definition is as follows:

bar•ten•der \ˈbär-ˌten-dər\ n : one that serves liquor at a bar

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Google it. But (a) I like books and (b) it’s important to note that Merriam-Webster’s website now defines it as “a person who serves drinks at a bar.” In a mere 15 years we’ve progressed from ‘liquor’ to ‘drinks.’ Nothing is safe from progress. Given its blatant simplicity, this should pretty much end the discussion. But it doesn’t. I can’t tell you how many people ask me “Are you a mixologist?” Or rather, “Do you consider yourself” as such. My response is always the same, “No. I tend bar. I’m a bartender.” The term ‘mixologist’ conjures up all sorts of images. Mostly images like that one douche bag bartender that replaced Sam in Cheers when he left to sail around the world. Upon Sam’s return, he meets this dour, condescending tool in a cheaply tailored vest who claims to boast an encyclopedic bevy of drink recipes. According to MW’s website, the first known use of the term was back in 1948. That’s interesting. This would hardly, then, make the term a modern dialectical flourish. It should be noted, however, that neither ‘mixologist’ nor ‘mixology’ is to be found in my trusty 1997 print edition. No, to me mixology is a justifiable, however overly technical reference of method or craft or, hell, even a philosophy. But to refer to oneself as a mixologist begs a flogging.

To make my point, I simply find its use a bit silly. The etymology negates what a bartender actually does. He or she tends patrons at a bar. Everything else follows suit–the mixing of ingredients to create a delicious cocktail in a creative way by whatever means of convention are at hand. Any word that insinuates a scientist’s grasp of altering molecules or an architect’s power of design in building a concoction is absurd.

I firmly believe that much of today’s drinking culture has looked past the bartender’s primary function: to serve the person in front of them. Not simply hospitality but preempting their needs and wit. As a good friend and fellow bartender once said, “your job is to make people feel better about their lives.” This might come across as horrifically simplistic but it contains a pearl of wisdom. Now, I don’t subscribe to the grandiose notion that we, as bartenders, should act as psychiatrists. We’re not. And I don’t claim to have answers to all your fucking problems. But at the end of the day, what exactly is it that draws people to a bar? Forget all the ghastly trimmings of promotional fervor and happy hours. Why do people want to be served a drink by someone else? It’s for the social interaction. Sometimes this interaction is therapeutic. More often than not, it’s medicinal. But it’s always for the social element. If not to engage directly with another human being, to sit back and watch the social sludge bubble up around you. I personally sit at a bar to engage. Either with friends next to me or with the person pouring on the other side. Don’t get me wrong I, too, take a certain creative satisfaction in mixing amazing drinks that bring a smile to otherwise downtrodden faces. And there are definitely some customers I can’t stand interacting with. But one of the true marks of any bartender worth his margarita salt is the ability to engage with all sorts of people on all sorts of levels. I often fall short. But I’ve seen other bartenders with this skill in action and it’s harder than you might think.

But as much as the bartender can be one’s social demigod in this sense, sometimes he/she is forced to act the opposite. I’m reminded of a recent episode in which a woman came to my bar in Brooklyn. Visibly drunk, papers and folders in hand, she ambles up to a stool and slurs out “cranbry v-dka!” I deciphered that she was ordering a vodka and cranberry and responded with a polite rebuttal, “I’m sorry but you seem as though you’ve had a few too many and I would hate to over serve you.” (A forgone conclusion at this point.) “You’re welcome back any other time but not today. I’m sorry.” She responded in a slobbering drone, “Well, I’m just getting– divorced, but perhaps– vdka crnbrry.” After turning her away in what seemed like days until she found her way to the door, I probably felt as low as anyone could. Here this woman was, innocent enough, with what were most likely divorce papers in hand on probably the worst day of her life, and I had to turn her away. Don’t get me wrong, booze wasn’t what she needed then and I don’t mean to encourage it as an emotional crutch. But what else would propel this woman to a bar, rather than just simply go home, hunker down in the bath tub turn on Michael Bolton and suck down a bottle of Chardonnay? It was the human element. And I had to say no. On the bright side, she was so obliterated that she probably won’t remember her anguish of me casting her away as she meandered across the street to a lovely little dive bar. I did not see her emerge. Everyone wins.

I don’t mean to end this discussion on a sour note. Let me just suggest that the role of a bartender by its very definition is not to simply entertain or host a party or perform as a comedian on stage, however much all of these skills help. It’s to simply be there with an open bottle, open ears, and as much creativity and knowledge as you can muster in order to supply them with a brief respite from daily life. Sometimes at the best time in someone’s life, sometimes at the worst. Booze is great but I truly believe it’s secondary; a wonderful craft but secondary. It’s a sanctuary where Johnny Boy and Charlie hide away from their woes in Mean Streets. It’s where Harry Angstrom and his father try to bond over daiquiris, and ultimately fail, in John Updike’s Rabbit, Redux. It’s where Ilsa and Rick, scorned ex-lovers cross paths again amid the war-time thieves, hookers, piano players, and refugees in Casablanca. But the bar is also where conversations start. And where every good joke begins with a simple phrase.

Monk-eying Around With Chartreuse

27 Apr

Chartreuse. Inspired by a friend’s recent Facebook album of an adventure through the cellars of Chartreuse (jealous, Misty!!) and the fact that spring is now upon us, I can’t help but have a sweet adoration for it. I mean, what better spirit captures the floral, grassy bouquet of spring coming into bloom? Like most spirits, Green Chartreuse developed in the late 18th Century as a tonic, it’s purpose strictly medicinal. So strict, in fact, that the Carthusian monks who first increased it’s potency for intoxicating consumption were sent out of France. Of course, this fell on the heels of the French Revolution, during which all members of religious orders were sent packing. But I like to romanticize the notion of 19th century monks peddling white lightning. A few years upon their return to the Monasteries in 1816, Yellow Chartreuse was created, a lower-proof formula given its amber-blonde hue from saffron. But it was still largely considered more of a medicinal tonic, than something to take the edge off a long hard day of praying to your maker.

But in today’s context, with the turning of the seasons and the wrath of the seasonal allergy taking its toll on the masses, perhaps throwing a few ponies back of Chartreuse is a good excuse of a prescription. In fact, it’s just this rationale that led me to mix up a variation on Julie Reiner’s Remedy I call the Cure-All. (More on that later.)

Anyhow, despite all the hoop-la surrounding great classics these days, one comes to mind that involves the great Carthusian elixur: the Widow’s Kiss. I first experienced its magical potency while serving at a well-regarded cocktailian restaurant in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood. It’s somewhat of an enigma as far as balanced drinks go. Consisting of a holy trinity of Benedictine, Apple Brandy, Yellow Chartreuse, it’s a seemingly overly aromatic concoction that one might gulp with a grimace by the spoonful to ward off a bad cold. But it’s delightfully drinkable. Refreshing, even. And contrary to most all-spirit recipes, it’s shaken not stirred. 007 would approve, I suppose. The result is a citrusy, floral (albeit, potent) libation that I would whole heartedly quaff deck side while watching the sun sink below a blush ocean side horizon.

I was relishing in the favors of this drink when I decided to create something equally as compelling with Strega. I thought it would play well with both Benedictine and Apple Brandy. Also, I was trying to find a damn use for Strega! The more I researched, I realized that both Strega and Yellow Chartreuse share commonalities. Both are made with a plethora of herbs and have a similar yellow color due to saffron. Strega, produced some time around 1860, is made with over 70 herbs including fennel and mint. After three test runs, and a willing guinea pig (thanks, Alex), here’s what I came up with. I give you the Witch’s Kiss #2:

1 oz. Laird’s Apple Brandy

1 oz. Rye

1/2 oz. Strega Liqueur

1/2 oz. Benedictine

2 dashes Angostura bitters

While I thought the name was brilliant–’strega’ is Italian for witch–alas, it was already taken by cocktail luminary Gary Regan. But hey, they say there is no original art.

Yellow Chartreuse wasn’t the only thing on my mind. Green Chartreuse, the original recipe which predates the Yellow by about three quarters of a century, involves over 130 herbal extracts and has a higher proof of 55 percent. Tending bar in Williamsburg, I was enlisted with the task of utilizing a chamomile tea syrup. My first thought jumped to Julie Reiner’s notorious Remedy concoction featured at Flatiron Lounge. Plymouth gin is infused with chamomile and mint teas, then mixed with honey, lemon, and egg white to produce a wonderful spring time tipple with a delicately sweet flavor and a creamy texture. While pondering its medicinal namesake, I thought what better liqueur to introduce into the mix then Green Chartreuse? Behold, the Cure-All:

1 1/2 oz. Plymouth Gin

1/2 oz. Green Chartreuse (VEP would do nicely here)

1/2 oz. chamomile syrup

1/4 oz. lime juice

1/4 oz. honey syrup

Egg whites

Another Chartreuse classic that deserves praise here is The Last Word. According to Cocktail Chronicles, the drink is credited by Ted Saucier in his 1951 book, Bottoms Up, to the Detroit Athletic Club and bartender by the name of Frank Fogarty some time around 1921, right smack in the throes of Prohibition. This drink entails three ingredients I hold dear: gin, maraschino, and of course our good friend Green Chartreuse. I thought of the name, the color and my creativity exclaimed absinthe! That being said, here’s my recipe for The Final Say:

1 oz. Bourbon (of the sweeter, vanilla variety such as Evan Williams Single Barrel. Woodford would be exceptional.)

3/4 oz. Green Chartreuse

1/2 oz. fresh lemon sours (2 parts lemon juice:1 part simple syrup)

1/2 oz. Luxardo Maraschino

1/4 oz. of your favorite Absinthe

I should note that Audrey Saunders features a rendition of the original Last Word at Pegu Club, replacing gin with rye. I’ll have to try a dose.

Scotch. Neat!

24 Nov


Scotch. The man’s drink. Lyndon B. Johnson famously quaffed scotch and sodas while driving his convertible around his Texas ranch. Humphrey Bogart, on his death bed, lamented “I should have never switched from scotch to martinis.” In his final days, jazz great Miles Davis would “ease” his ulcers with scotch and milk every night. There aren’t nearly as many famous cocktail recipes as there are drinkers. But they do exist.

Beyond the omnipresent Rusty Nail, Rob Roy, and Godfather, there’s The Blood & Sand, my personal favorite out of this cannon. First appearing in Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Cookbook, it incorporates whisky, Cherry Heering (a delectable Danish cherry liqueur), sweet vermouth, and orange juice. It’s a blissful combination that speaks more of the evening ahead, than the business day that’s been left behind.

One was named after one of America’s most famous women, The Mamie Taylor (the 1900 Vaudeville star, correctly spelled Mayme Taylor). A precursor to the Moscow Mule, it blends scotch, ginger ale, and lime juice. As my friend Pink Lady of LUPEC describes, “a simple beverage composed of inexpensive ingredients.” Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh notes in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, “Poems were written about the drink, jokes were told and articles were written using Mamie to illustrate au courant sophistication.”

In keeping with the category’s apparent penchant towards sometimes meaningless iambic namesakes, I’d like to offer my own recipe named after another famous scotch drinker on film, The Bob Harris (Lost in Translation, dir. by Sofia Coppola). There may not be any poems written about it. But I think Miss Taylor might approve.

The Bob Harris

2 oz. AnCnoc Highland scotch
1⁄2 oz. (shy) Luxardo Maraschino liqueur 1⁄2 oz. Nonino Amaro
3⁄4 oz. fresh lemon sours
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake vigorously to chill. Strain into a coup glass.

The Burger Uncovered

6 Aug

hamburgerAhh, the hamburger. It conjures up images of American cuisine like no other. It leads the ranks of other symbols of Americana such as the milkshake, apple pie, the banana split, and other notable fixations surrounding the soda fountain in the 1940s and ’50s. But unlike all of these other food favorites, the hamburger predates them by nearly half a century. Earlier incarnations of the modern burger started appearing on diner menus from New York to Washington State at the turn of the century, Continue reading

Beyond Hogs and Hominy

28 Jan


soul-logoDuring the black liberation movement of the 1960s, soul food emerged as a celebration of a long cultural history connecting Africa to America. These “dishes with a debt to Africa” related the slavery experience to a newer American food culture. The cuisine typical of soul food has since been viewed soley through the tunnel vision of those comfort foods of the Southern States. Continue reading

Haute Building Blocks

11 Jan

strawberry_485With the Madrid Fusion Conference in full swing today, January 11th, the topic of molecular gastronomy is not just limited to the borders of Spain or the scope of its culture. Molecular gastronomy, pioneered by Hervé This and his colleague Nicholas Kurti, coined the term in 1988. Soon after finishing his Grandes écoles diploma in chemistry in 1980, the Parisian scientist began to be intrigued by what he refers to as “cooking precisions” and sought out to experiment with culinary techniques in the laboratory. Continue reading

Prosecco Defined

10 Jan

imagesThe American mainstream’s wine knowledge is growing, and so is our dictionary. On July 7th, 2008, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary presented Prosecco, as part of the English lexicon. There is an insatiable American thirst for the sparkling wine these days, found in libations ranging from mimosas and peach bellini cocktails, to punches and Campari fizzes. Prosecco’s increasingly common usage led Peter Sokolowski, an editor at Merriam-Webster, to officially consider it a “naturalized citizen of the English language.” Continue reading


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