Mix Master

Jeffery Lindenmuth - July/August 2006

In the competitive New York City market, an astute and unflappably resourceful bartender is putting flavor ahead of flash. Jeffrey Lindenmuth reports.

There's no towering back bar stocked with ornate bottles and rare spirits. And the drinks menu offered in the salon lists only three signature cocktails, far outnumbered by the wines by the glass and even the sake by the glass (there are four). For a city obsessed with signature drinks, the cocktail program at Thomas Keller's Per Se, in New York City's Time Warner Center, is surprisingly, well, discreet.

But that does not mean mixologist Brian Van Flandern takes his task lightly. In an effort to bring beverage director Paul Roberts' mantra of nulli secundis to the bar, he has expanded his own palette of flavors to reach beyond his rather small enclosed bar area, which, appropriately perhaps, faces the kitchen rather than the customers.

"Prior to Prohibition, bartenders operated this way. They were in the cellar making their own colas and seltzers. All that changed with Prohibition, when people were just looking to get schnockered quickly," explains Van Flandern. "And by the 1940s and '50s it was Betty Crocker time—an era of processed foods."

Dissatisfied with the available brands of tonic water, many of which seem to have devolved into something more akin to sweet lemon/lime soda, Van Flandern decided to put the medicine back into tonic. Like an urban witchdoctor, he shakes russet-colored ground cinchona bark, the natural source of quinine which traditionally lent its bitter flavor to tonic water, with one and one-half ounces of Junípero Gin from San Francisco, simple syrup, and fresh lime juice. He strains the drink into a 15-ounce glass over fresh ice and tops it with Tynant Welsh sparkling water to create A Tonic with Gin "Per Se." Van Flandern never actually makes tonic water, as some reports have claimed, but he does get the ingredients, and the flavors, into the glass.

Beyond its ability to combat any malaria-carrying Central Park mosquitos, the drink is rather soft, with generous lime and little obvious alcohol.

"The goal here is to de-emphasize alcohol and to balance acid and sugar. We want to make food-friendly cocktails," says Van Flandern.

A similarly temperate drink of Van Flandern's creation is homemade ginger beer. To make the drink he uses one of his favorite tools, a metal chinois, filling it with several tablespoons of diced fresh ginger root. To this he adds one ounce of simple syrup, muddles it in a glass to extract the flavor and yield an opaque, potent ginger infusion. After shaking this with ice, he strains it into a glass and tops it with Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale from Japan. The drink created, Ginger Ale, resembles a Caribbean shandygaff, with fruity ale aromas and warm gingery spice. While he generally prefers wine with food, Van Flandern notes the Ginger Ale goes especially well with cheese.

Of course, Per Se will happily serve any of the classic cocktails repertoire for those who insist that a civilized meal begins only with a dry Martini. However, the bar is so limited in space that they have edited out certain liqueurs that are standard stock, even at the average corner pub. Van Flandern has learned to rally all his resources to craft classics on the fly while still meeting the mandate for an exceptional drink. In the absence of crème de menthe, for example, and faced with mixing a Stinger, Van Flandern makes some to order using fresh mint in the same manner as the ginger.

And when called upon to concoct a White Russian in the absence of Kahlúa, like a chef he calmly surveys the resources at hand. By snaring unsweetened dark chocolate syrup and freshly brewed espresso from the barista, plus Madagascar vanilla bean extract from the kitchen, and mixing them with half-and-half and Belvedere vodka, he fills the order.

Because many of Van Flandern's ingredients are natural—as opposed to standardized processed flavors—and he is constantly improvising, he's adamant about tasting every cocktail before it's served. Like a chef, he's free to tweak, spice, and balance the flavors, out of sight, before serving one.

A thorough understanding of flavors and ingredients is a great asset for any mixologist, especially in a pinch. When Per Se ran out of Pineau des Charentes, Van Flandern simply approximated his own. "I knew we had Gewürztraminer juice in the kitchen, so I took that and added some VSOP Cognac to re-create the ingredient." To make the eponymous Per Se house cocktail, he combines Pineau des Charentes with Cîroc vodka, also made from grapes, and Grand Marnier Cuvée du Centenaire, shakes it with ice, and serves it up.

Very few cocktails ever make it into the main dining room at Per Se. They are ordered almost exclusively for waiting patrons' consumption in the salon, a sort of lounge and staging area with couches that can seat about 25. "Cocktails are not always among the best device with dinner," observes Van Flandern. "We are here to fulfill the chef's vision, to complement his food."

The fact that cocktails exist at all at Per Se is testimony to New York's love affair with the mixed drink. At Keller's The French Laundry in Yountville, California, no spirits are dispensed whatsoever. At Per Se the sense of reticence is almost palpable: the highly abridged spirits list, the scant menu of just three cocktails ($20 each), a bar with no stools, and mixed drinks that weigh in more like wine. But in a world where bartenders vie for celebrity, Van Flandern quietly toils for perfection, content to fulfill his part of the greater mission.