Grant Kessler
Apricot liqueur adds a touch of spring to the Sazerac.
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Neo-Glassical Studies

Jeffery Lindenmuth - June 2008

Jeffery Lindenmuth sees urbane renewals as mainstays of global era cocktail culture. Déja vu never tasted so good.

America loves remakes. And just as the Rat Pack's original Ocean's Eleven has been remade and twice sequelled with fresh chemistries of Hollywood stars, so too have the party gang's iconic Martinis and Manhattans been recast—along with a posse of sidekick classics—by dust-raising mixologists using previously unimagined ingredients to capture today's freewheeling palates. In 2008, flavored rum, kaffir lime, and rhubarb are the George Clooney to gin and vermouth's Frank Sinatra.

Tony Abou-Ganim takes his media moniker, "The Modern Mixologist," and stamps it indelibly on all of his most successful cocktails. Witness the Cable Car, a thoroughly contemporary take on the Sidecar, created by Abou-Ganim at Harry Denton's Starlight Room in San Francisco, which forgoes the traditional Cognac in favor of spiced rum. Abou-Ganim's new take combines 1 1/2 oz. Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum, 3/4 oz. Marie Brizard orange curaçao, and 1 1/2 oz. fresh lemon sour (2:1 fresh lemon juice to simple syrup). The drink is shaken with ice and served up in a glass rimmed with superfine sugar and cinnamon. Its genesis is a long one: the curaçao and sugared rim are in fact throwbacks to the Brandy Crusta, a potion which might be considered a forbear of the Prohibition-era Sidecar.

"I'm rooted in classic cocktails and barmanship," says Abou-Ganim. "But I'm also utilizing products that were not available 100 years ago. When I created this drink in 1996, spiced rum was a relatively new product here, and those flavors of vanilla and clove and baking spice became the inspiration for a drink."

At Abou-Ganim's newest venture, Bar Milano, in Manhattan, he will pursue both forgotten cocktail classics and personal renditions aimed at pleasing a wider audience. "Take an Italian classic like the Negroni; maybe gin does not work for you. If instead I use Belvedere Pomarancza, an orange-flavored vodka, with the Campari and sweet vermouth, that appeals to a whole new group of people."

Like Abou-Ganim, Toby Maloney, partner and head mixologist at The Violet Hour in Chicago, takes pleasure improvising on tradition. Each season he orchestrates different versions of the Manhattan, Pisco Sour, Sazerac, and Sidecar for the house cocktail list.

"I like to think of these classics like the base melody in a jazz composition," says Maloney. "They're all really strong anthems to riff on. You'll note that not including bitters, these are two and three ingredient drinks, which gives you room to add a few things."

Maloney's basic Sazerac consists of 2 oz. Old Overholt rye whiskey, 1 barspoon demerara syrup (2:1 sugar to water), 9 drops Peychaud's Bitters, and 1/2 tsp. Herbsaint. To make the Sazerac, fill a rocks glass with crushed ice and the Herbsaint. In a second rocks glass, stir the rye, simple syrup, and bitters with ice. Empty the first Herbsaint-scented glass and into it strain the chilled rye mixture. Garnish with orange peel.

To create seasonal renditions of the drink, Maloney keeps the defining ingredients, and varies only the demerara sweetener, substituting 1/4 oz. Berentzen Apfel Korn in autumn, or 3/4 oz. Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur for spring. For his wintry version, Maloney decocted a coffee flavored syrup: 4:1 Domino dark brown sugar to water infused for 30 minutes with a restaurant espresso pod. One barspoonful is enough to sweeten the drink.

At Manhattan's Flatiron Lounge, owner Julie Reiner continues to explore new renditions of the Daiquiri—essentially a mix of rum, sugar, and fresh lime. "We do that sort of thing a lot. I think there are a lot of versions of the Daiquiri out there precisely because the drink is so brilliant and simple you can add other flavors to it. With some drinks, there's so much going on you don't want to add more."

Reiner's most recent, the Imperial Daiquiri, is a spring seasonal in which she combines 1 1/2 oz. Appleton Estate White Jamaica Rum, 3/4 oz. strawberry-rhubarb jam, 3/4 oz. lime juice, and 1/2 oz. orange juice. Prior to shaking the ingredients with ice and straining into a cocktail glass, Reiner runs the jam through an electric blender with a touch of water to puree any large chunks. Orange juice is also a non-traditional Daiquiri ingredient. "That was inspired by some strawberry-rhubarb pie recipes," says Reiner. "I often look to pastry chefs for inspiration as I'm developing cocktails and I saw these pie recipes that used orange juice. I tried it and the flavors just worked."

While most mixologists prefer to readdress a personal favorite, Toby Cecchini, author of Cosmopolitan: A Bartender's Life and owner of the now defunct Passerby in New York, spent months re-creating the Blood and Sand Cocktail, a drink he'd come to loathe. The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930, defines the original as equal parts orange juice, Scotch whisky, cherry brandy, and sweet vermouth: "I was all excited and mixed it up. It was utterly disgusting. The Scotch mixes well with spicier things, but really clashes with citrus. The drink was overly sweet and one-sided."

Undeterred, Cecchini pressed on through a barrage of Scotch, both single-malts and blends, before ditching the smoky whisky in favor of Cognac. Standard orange juice succumbed to trendier blood orange and Dubonnet Rouge displaced sweet vermouth. As for the cherry brandy, he ultimately decided on a cherry cordial from micro distiller Clear Creek Distilling in Portland, Oregon.

Redubbed Le Sang et Sable, Cecchini's version is a French translation in all respects: combine 1 oz. Dubonnet Rouge, 3 oz. Cognac, 1 oz. cherry liqueur, 3/4 oz. fresh blood orange juice, and 3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake, strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cocktail cherry and a twist of lemon.

According to Cecchini, like Blood and Sand, many lesser known classics require some reformulation to suit modern tastes. Cocktails were generally smaller and sweeter in the golden era. "Judging by other forgotten drinks I've mixed, I think people used to drink things much sweeter. Even the Dubonnet cocktail, which is equal parts Dubonnet and gin, is very unbalanced and sweet by today's standard. People just don't have that palate," he says.

However, Americans do have a palate for intensity of flavor and big impact, which is why David Chiong, co-owner of Islero in Manhattan created an Islero Manhattan with plenty of appeal for the Starbuck's crowd. While preserving the traditional proportions of 2:1 whiskey to sweet vermouth, Chiong infuses each of them with complementary flavors before mixing. The oak and vanillin flavors of Woodford Reserve Bourbon are augmented with a scored vanilla bean. And sweet vermouth is spiced with cloves and cardamom, creating a "chai vermouth." A dash of orange bitters finishes the drink. The cocktail glass is rimmed with house-smoked sugar and garnished with a brandied cherry.

"I've been drinking Manhattans for a very long time and I love them, but I think this fresh take not only makes it more accessible to new drinkers and livens it up for fans like me," says Chiong.

At Wolfgang Puck's Spago in Las Vegas, beverage manager Wes Guild has updated the Tom Collins by replacing the standard sweet and sour mix with house-made kaffir lime syrup. Voilà the Kaffir Collins! "It adds a hint of citrus flavor and also a really cool green color that is so appealing to the eye," says Guild. Other innovative twists on the original include the use of Hendrick's Gin from Scotland, with its unique infusions of cucumber and rose petal, and the substitution of lime juice for lemon, which technically puts the drink in the realm of the rickey.

Guild credits the modern era of bar/kitchen collaboration as one of the reasons for so many refashioned classics. "Our bar and the back of the house have a really good relationship. So we make use of that culinary resource to give our own twist to cocktails that have worked for the last century," says Guild. The kitchen prepares the kaffir lime syrup using a 2:1 sugar to water ratio and infuses it with enough leaves to color and flavor to taste. A final flourish of kaffir leaf crests the top of the Collins glass.