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The Tippling Point

A journey to the heart of the new golden era of cocktails leads us to concede (however reluctantly) that the dreaded Cosmopolitan may have started a revolution.

Author Coleman Neary

IT’S LATE, AND I’M WAITING. I’m in a basement bar that can only be entered through a secret door in a phone booth in a hot dog joint next door, I’ve ordered a Maker’s Mark, neat, with a beer back. I’ve had to watch a 25-year-old bartender with a handlebar mustache finish muddling fresh ginger for someone else’s rye high ball and scrupulously measure maple syrup for another. I look thirstily at my watch and think to myself, Where did it all go wrong? I’m told that cocktail culture is currently undergoing a glorious renaissance. Both purists and innovators, I’ve read, are pushing drinking to new heights. Which is all well and good, but I’m thirsty.

My bourbon neat arrives. It is simple and utilitarian. Perfect. I turn and consider the bar—a dark, sleek cocktail oasis in Manhattan with a mounted buck’s head—called PDT, which stands for “Please Don’t Tell.” Which is, to my mind, annoying. The patrons, though, are savoring their drinks, and seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. And who can argue with that?

But I’ve seen these cocktail trends before. While the tiki bar era predates me, I still recall with a shudder the terror of watching a tray of melonball shooters arrive at the table (often accompanied by wailing sirens, clanging bells and other party-hearty accoutrements). And just when that tsunami of Midori seemed to be ebbing, along came the ’Tini Era, during which barkeep added the -tini suffix to every potable substance known to man as a way to give what were basically still shooters a pricey patina of class. That was followed swiftly by the syrupy sweet Cosmopolitan Age, ushered in by Carrie and her handbag-worshipping “Sex in the City” girls. For a while there the primary goal of drink recipes was to find ways to mask the minimal flavor of vodka—drinks as dessert courses. And if the bartender had to purée a Carvel cake and pour the resulting mess over chilled Grey Goose, then so be it.

But as any seasoned drinker knows, obscuring the taste of alcohol—which is, after all, a poison—can be a reckless proposition. A drink should be uncomplicated, or at least it should taste uncomplicated, now more than ever. If your situation is anything like mine, you’ve spent the last few months watching your 401K get battered by the market and fretting about the future. Or maybe you’re doing just fine, but you’re increasingly tormented by worries about the rest of us poor schlubs. Either way, the last thing that’s going to take the edge off of this fraught moment is a banana split martini. You need something real, something honest and unassuming and a bit tough to swallow, to match the times we’re living in. There’s something about a Cosmo—to say nothing of an Appletini, Chocolatini, Saketini, or any beverage that spouts flames like a Bunsen burner—that simply seems too disingenuous to do us any good.

What you require now is a cleaner, more candid exchange between alcohol and you, something more pure in its intention. It should be slightly more complex than a bourbon on the rocks or a boilermaker, which I’ve just finished drinking, but not too complex. You might start with a classic American cocktail, one with no more than four ingredients and with a minimum of what the guys on “Mad Men” call “salad.” For instance, the Martini, with its perfectly chilled distilled gin (or vodka, if you must), is the ur cocktail, the place where it all began. The stalwart Manhattan, with its measurements of rye, vermouth, and a maraschino cherry, is the king of all drinks—elementary and bracing, with just a touch of color. The Old Fashioned is generally a straightforward standby, though people often overwhelm the bourbon with too much salad. Beware the salad.

Draining my second glass, and irked by the sight of innumerable fussy cocktails I don’t even recognize, I decide to have a word with PDT’s head “mixologist” and general manager, Jim Meehan. I ask him about drink fads, and “salad.” My anti-Cosmo bias is obvious. In response, the amiable Meehan suggests I consider the Cosmo craze as a necessary part of the evolution of the cocktail. “When the Cosmopolitan became fashionable,” he explains, “what it did was move the ball forward. Remember, it was made with fresh lime juice. That was already an improvement over the apple and chocolate martinis.”

Furthermore, he offers, there’s a very good chance that any bar you could walk into—and it must be said that Applebee’s is not actually a bar—will probably pour a much better Manhattan or Martini today than it did 10 years ago; it’s likely to stock better gins, vodkas and whiskeys, and it will assuredly be tended to by a more knowledgeable person than it was before, when the guy behind the bar wore a Zima visor and juggled bottles of Malibu behind his back.

And the new cocktails PDT and other newfangled joints are serving up, he points out, tend to follow the spirit, if not the letter, of the law as written by Messrs. Martini and Manhattan.

Somewhat mollified, I agree to sample a few of Meehan’s specialties. First, he whips up a high-test experiment called “El Burro,” which is made from Reposado tequila, simple syrup, ginger beer, absinthe and lime. From the first sip, it is surprisingly light and complex, a full array of complementary flavors that put every taste bud to full effect without overwhelming any one. I finish the Burro and skeptically order the Old Fashioned, which is made with bacon-infused bourbon and maple syrup. It’s a bar favorite, and it’s magical.

Suddenly, my usual drink, a tumbler of bourbon, strikes me as unnecessarily austere. Especially with such mixers as orange marmalade, fresh ginger and—yes—pork on the menu. And these inventive drinks are made and presented with little fuss. Meehan’s bartenders are masterful, but they never think of themselves as the center of attention. The point seems to be not to fetishize cocktails but to provide a place where people can drink well and in peace, even if they have to make a reservation to do so. “It’s not about exclusivity or about building an altar to the bartender,” he says of the spot’s ethos. “It’s about valuing the time people spend with each other.”

As Meehan passes me a Paddington, another PDT signature, I reconsider my initial question, “Where did it all go wrong?” It didn’t go wrong. It just evolved. Of course, all bets are off if you stand around tapping your fingers on the bar waiting for a fussy purist to finish agonizing over your high balls. At that point, an essential point is surely being missed. “When your bartender takes 10 minutes to make your Old Fashioned,” Meehan adds. “You’re going to go out of business.”

And haven’t we had enough of that?

PDT’s Guide to
Bacon-Infused Bourbon

To infuse the bourbon:

1¼ ounce fat
750 ml Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon

On low heat, melt bacon fat in a small saucepan. Stir fat until it liquefies; continue stirring for three to four minutes. Pour liquid fat into large container, then pour in the bourbon. Stir. Cover and let stand for four hours, then freeze for two more. After that, scoop the solidifed fat off the top and strain the bourbon twice through cheesecloth or a cotton shirt.

Benton’s Old Fashioned

2 ounce bacon-infused bourbon
¼ ounce Grade B maple syrup
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters Add to a mixing glass with ice.

Stir and strain over a large cube into a chilled rocks glass.
Garnish with an orange twist.

2 Responses to “The Tippling Point”

  1. Sandy Says:
    April 6th, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    Fantastic article! You should check out Holeman & Finch Public House in Atlanta, GA.
    http://www.holeman-finch.com
    mixology cool

  2. JR Says:
    May 4th, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Highball. One word. The other thing, high balls, that's something else. And not something I want a fussy purist agonizing over.