Earth Shakers

Jeffery Lindenmuth / November 2007

Across the country, market-minded bartenders are taking vegetables from the side dish to the sidecar. Jeffery Lindenmuth reports.

Assembling a backbar that simultaneously supplies ingredients for an ever growing lexicon of cocktails and answers customers' calls for seemingly limitless lineups of fashionable brands can be a relentless challenge. Restaurants like Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar in Atlantic City, boasting more than 80 rums to rumba with its Nuevo Cubano cuisine, and Michael Mina's StripSteak in Mandalay Bay Resort and Cas­i­no, in Las Vegas, with its excess of 100 single malt Scotches, have found that intensifying their offerings of a single spirit gives their beverage program a competitive edge. With their educational menus, thoughtfully chosen glassware, and rarities connoisseurs crave, these res­tau­rants prove that in the case—make that many cases—of spirits, it pays to specialize.

At StripSteak, the single malt menu, numbering about 115 selections and organized by region and distillery, is presented with the dessert menu following meals of marbled mesquite-grilled meats. General manager Tony Fisher says that at the bar the bottle display does the selling, but in the dining room a well-organized list is the best device for publicizing the collection. To put neophytes at ease with ordering, the list includes pronunciation keys to the intimidating distillery names in Gaelic.

While single malt Scotch is traditionally enjoyed neat in a snifter, even the most discerning aficionados agree that a drop of water or a bit of ice can help to release the aromas of these complex spirits. At StripSteak, "on the rocks" summons a sturdy tumbler served with a single, perfect two-inch-square ice cube of purified water, which melts much more slowly than conventional restaurant ice and dilutes the dram ever so gently.

Cuba Libre, with locations in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, makes its rum collection unique with the addition of its own brand, produced in cooperation with Demerara Distillers in Guyana. Cuba Libre Rum is available in dark, spiced five-, 15- and 21-year-old varieties, along with a light rum that is the foundation for the house Mojito. The aged varieties can be ordered in a tasting flight of three three-ounce pours for $18.

"With the rum flights and the Mojitos, the guest gets a great price because we want to put the word out," says Chris Perrupato, general manager in Atlantic City. "By creating our own rum, we earn brand recognition and guarantee a great drink." Cuba Libre presents every guest with a copy of the cocktail and rum list, which includes 80 rums ranging from $7 for Brugal light rum to $65 for El Dorado 25 year aged rum, as well as an introduction to rum history, production, and styles. "Our bartenders and servers are required to know a lot about rum and about our list. We invite companies in here to talk about their products often because a well-qualified server is part of the experience," says Perrupato.

Diego, in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, offers more than 100 Tequilas in the three main styles: young white blancos; the briefly aged, or "rested," reposados; and smooth, aged añejos. Reposados and añejos are served neat in a wineglass, but Diego offers blanco Tequila in a traditional tall shot glass called a caballito ("little pony").

Añejos can vary greatly in price, according to their age and rarity, but in order to make the list simple for customers and servers, all blancos cost $10 and all reposados $12. A Margarita adds $2 to the price. According to Carmelo De Pasquale, assistant manager, the vast Tequila collection has intruded on the rest of the spirits, but the compromise is worthwhile. "We have only three vodkas, which is the fewest you'll find anywhere," he admits, "But we are dedicated to an area of spirits where many people have never been. I'm here to open their minds and bring them to Tequila."

While many bartenders and classic-cocktail enthusiasts profess their passion for gin, it predictably remains "the other white spirit," a relic pushed aside by an embarrassment of vodka brands. To the delight of true Martini traditionalists, however, Kevin Ludwig, bar manager at Park Kitchen in Portland, Oregon, stocks not only London Dry but also Dutch genever, delicate German gins, and several American micro-distilled versions. "To give you an idea, I read when Pegu Club, one of the top cocktail bars in New York, opened, they were praised for having 23 gins. So, I counted my list at the time, and I was delighted that I had 24. For gin, that's a serious selection," says Ludwig.

Although Martinis and Prohibition-era cocktails remain the most popular drinks among juniper fans, Ludwig also offers gin tasting flights, chilling the gins in metal shakers submerged in ice so as not to dilute them. He typically serves three three-quarter ounce pours, priced according to the brand selected. Ludwig also collaborates with chef/owner Scott Dolich on special paired menus. "Scott has gotten really into it and totally embraced the bar. We've used several gins in a spirits dinner, where we matched the food with the spirits. Scott also works with a lot of vermouth, so we find those dishes, especially shellfish, work with my gin Martinis," says Ludwig, who often serves the classic gin drinks in his personal collection of antique barware. Among the pairings were gin cured mussels with saffron and leeks served with an Aviation Gimlet (Aviation gin, simple syrup, fresh lime juice).

It's only logical that in Washington, D.C., the star-spangled American spirit should prevail, and Bourbon leaves no doubt where its loyalties lie. "We slowly evolved what we thought a neighborhood concept should be. The idea began with Bourbon, and it followed that we have domestic beer, domestic wine, and inspired American comfort food, like mac and cheese, meat loaf, burgers," says Stephen King, the vice president and director of operations.

With two locations, in Glover Park and Adams Morgan, Bourbon offers nearly 100 examples of its eponymous spirit at each location, served in a Riedel glass designed for the spirit, with water and large ice cubes on the side. The menu abounds with red meat and steaks, including a popular ostrich burger. "We designed enough strength in the menu that it can stand up to Bourbon," explains King. Bourbon also finds its way into the food, as with Maker's Mark in caramel bread pudding or Old Crow in a steak sauce. And for those looking for a milder tipple or the perfect chaser, Bourbon offers an equally impressive, 80-bottle beer list in Adams Morgan and 40 bottles in Glover Park.

While exclusive bottlings like Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 year old can cost $55 per serving, Bourbon offers about 30 Bourbons priced at $6 or less. "We pride ourselves on being accessible and being an educators' bar. Young people want to know about the spirit that they are drinking," says King.

Jean-Pierre Etcheberrigaray, vice president of food and beverage for the Americas for InterContinental Hotels and Resorts, is delighted to see bars moving to the forefront of hotel hospitality. "The bar was hidden behind the restaurant in the old days. Now it's urban chic to be upfront in the bar. You can do wireless, talk on the cell phone, cross-pollinate, and meet people. That culture has changed, and every local city has different habits," he says.

For the InterContinental Buckhead in Atlanta, Etcheberrigaray conceived XO bar, featuring a collection of more than 100 Cognacs with XO as the minimum standard. "VS? VSOP? What is that?" he jokes. The towering collection is displayed with dramatic backlighting, and with its single bottles valued at $15,000 the top shelf is quite literally raised high, keeping valuable bottles securely out of reach.

"We have discovered that putting a signature spirit into a bar creates a buzz. But we don't just repeat a successful bar. We do what is appropriate," says Etcheberrigaray. For the InterContinental Boston, that meant hiring a professor to research the history of rum in the city, which was a trade hub housing 67 rum distilleries in the 18th century. The result is RumBa, a name that sounds to many locals like "rum bar," offering 80 rums and historically correct drinks, such as a hot toddy much as Paul Revere might have imbibed.

At Paragon, operated by Paragon Restaurant Group, in the SoMa district of San Francisco, vodka reigns over the bar, in the form of 80 options, originating from 16 countries, made from potatoes, grapes, grain, and soy. "Right now the vodkas are organized by country, but we're going to offer one list by country and another version by base ingredient," says Stacey Wood, general manager. "People are getting more adventurous and want to really taste the difference."

In order to preserve the delicate flavor of super-premium vodka, all water for ice and washing glasses is meticulously filtered. And the cocktail list has been recently revamped to refocus on classics, like vodka Martinis with olives or a twist. "The fruity drinks really cover up the tastes of the vodka, so we wanted to go back to basics," says Wood. For those customers who want flavored vodkas, Paragon infuses its own with hot peppers or berries in season, suggesting that the next development might be the farmer/mixologist connection.