The Cocktail Renaissance

>> Tuesday, August 4, 2009

These are the things that we have come to expect when ordering the braised veal shank in a better restaurant. The kitchen will be run by a professional--these days likely a well-educated and well-trained one. But at the bar, there is no guarantor of equal excellence. People often get bartending jobs because they once had bartending jobs. There is no comprehensive training, and you just don't know what you are going to get at a lot of places when you order a pre-prandial knockback. This magazine is published out of Washington, D.C., which has a characteristic cocktail: the Gin Rickey--named, yes, for a lobbyist. It's just lime juice, gin, and grenadine, topped off by club soda. It's one of the finest of the tall, cool drinks and as close as D.C. comes to having a notable food item. Yet when I've ordered one against the summer heat, bartenders have threatened me with concoctions including fruit juices and syrups, sugar, and all too little fresh carbonated water. Don't make the mistake of ordering one without quizzing the mixmaster on what he thinks goes in a Rickey.
I was at a bar in Seattle several years ago when I asked the bartender for a Manhattan. "A what?" he replied. He had no idea what it was. It's only one of the most basic cocktails as the author of this article, "The Cocktail Renaissance" noted.
There are only a tiny number of foundational cocktail recipes: the Martini, the Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned, and the Daiquiri. Making these well is just something to master: like the sound of Bessie Smith's voice, how to carve a turkey, and the order of the Triple Crown races.
I first learned about the Manhattan from The Last Seduction, which I saw in 1995. The first time I could drink at a bar legally was when I was visiting London in January of 1997. I attended multiple plays at London's West End while I was visiting, and none of the bartenders serving up the cocktails so eagerly awaited during intermission knew what a Manhattan was. So I got cognac, scotch, wine or a gin and tonic instead. It wasn't until I was at Heathrow in the process of leaving when I was finally able to get a Manhattan. "Sweet or dry vermouth?" I didn't know the difference. "Sweet."

I'm not a big drinker even though I can appreciate a good drink, usually not the sugar shit offered at some restaurants. The last good drink I had was at Beretta in San Francisco. It was the Acadian: rye, sloe gin, lemon, honey, absinthe and rosemary sprig for garnish. Something that fully accomplished the basics of a quality cocktail.

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