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Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Art of the Bar

The Art of the Bar, Jeff Hollinger & Rob Schwartz; Chronicle Books.

The bartenders at Absinthe Brasserie in San Franciso have put together a classic. Carefully interpreting classic cocktails, the book focuses on taste sensibilities while remaining highly sensitive to cocktail history. Like two brilliant architects renovating classic Victorian row houses with touches of sleek postmodern designs that breathe life into classics, Hollinger and Schwartz hit all the right notes. Even the book's bibliography is a delight.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hey Ho, it's Cocktail200!

Are you all set to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the cocktail, defined?

Cocktail200 medallion

Too bad. So sorry to hear that. You missed it. Well, not the whole year, but if you did not look heavenward as you drained your glass on Saturday, you missed the moment. You see, on May 13th 1806, the cocktail got its first explanation in a New York newspaper. Oh, the word had appeared before, back into the 18th century, usually as a description of a type of horse, and even once in 1803 as a drink, but this use was in a narrative penned by a young callow good-for-nothing reprobate (probably an ancestor of Alex) – exactly the sort that did enjoy cocktails in those days – and he just mentioned it in passing. Unless you too were a miscreant of the period, you’d never know what the hell he was talking about. Again, on May 6th 1806, the Editor of Hudson, New York’s newspaper, the Balance & Columbian Repository, mentioned our fledgling cocktail obliquely in a snarky aside regarding a local politician:

“….a certain candidate has placed in his account of Loss and Gain, the following items: –

    LOSS:

720 rum-grogs
17 brandy (ditto)
32 gin-slings
411 glasses bitters
25 (ditto) cock-tail
My Election.

    GAIN:

NOTHING.”

Well. One week later (it being a weekly newspaper) the Balance ran this exchange:

To the Editor of the Balance.

Sir,
I observe in your paper… the account of a democratic candidate…under the head of Loss, 25 (ditto) cock-tail. Will you be so obliging as to inform me what is meant by this species of refreshment?”

To which our fearless editor replied:

“ Cock-tail… is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters –it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.”

No reference to the name of the poor Democrat was ever recorded, or is to this day known.

But there you have it; an etymologist’s wet dream: a new word meaning, defined in print. As I say, cocktails were quite bad form in those days, not only because they were consumed in the morning to stave off the effects of the night before, but also because they contained bitters.

“And what is wrong with bitters?” You might be so unwise to ask me. Well, in 1806, the cocktail was new. No cocktail glasses, no cocktail napkins, no cocktail lounges, no cocktail bitters. Putting bitters in your drink in 1806 was akin to stumbling to your medicine cabinet, grabbing the convenient bottle of Paragoric and dumping it into your hangover drink. Bad show, old chap, bad show indeed.

200 years later to the day, simultaneous celebrations for the now rather more gentrified drink form were held around the world: London, New York, Las Vegas, Sydney (Germany, Holland, Austria and Switzerland)… I attended the Las Vegas event, (at The Museum of the American Cocktail) which was simulcast with the New York one (at a bar with a satellite exhibit – a bar named, oddly, the Balance.) I gave a little speech, conducted tours and interviews, and drank. And ate. And drank. There’ll be more on that later. And drank.

At the event, the first annual The American Cocktail Awards™ (the Olives) were presented by the USBG (the United States Bartenders’ Guild) for the best drink. A little number named the “Wet Spot” won.

–Doc.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Doctor Cocktail's Sabbatical

Since January, I’ve been on so-called sabbatical from Martini Republic in New Orleans. You may remember, I was last there a week and a day before Katrina swamped the city at the end of August, and January 2nd displayed a city only just coming fitfully to consciousness. Dale DeGroff, Martin Doudoroff, Phil Greene, and I trekked down to pack up The Museum of the American Cocktail exhibit on the second floor of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum (which, fortuitously, sustained no damage) so to transport it to its new temporary home in Las Vegas, in a banquet room, in the satellite Commander’s Palace Restaurant, in the Desert Passages shopping mall of the Aladdin Casino resort. This was at the invitation of Ti Martin and the Commander’s Palace Group. Ti is still camped out at her Café Adelaide while the original New Orleans Commander’s Palace remains closed, its roof breached by Katrina. Once the Museum artifacts were carefully swaddled, Dale and I drove them to Vegas in a U-Haul truck. I had earlier stated flatly that I wouldn’t trust shipping companies (especially in the January chaos of NOLA basic services infrastructural repair) to safely transport such treasures.

Dale and I had several offers to film the journey, as though we were Thelma & Louise; as though we would pull into towns along the way in tuxes, breeze into swank cocktail venues, wittily tipple Martinis and hit the road again. We declined. As Dale would say, “why ruin a good story with the truth?”

New Orleans has always been a city symbolic to the rest of the country. To many, New Orleans seemed somehow frivolous with its year-round festivities, its embrace of hearty drinking, and its odd culture of accents, sensibilities, and cuisine. Even worse than the artificial, history-faking Sodom and Gomorrah image that has long tarred Las Vegas, New Orleans just seemed silly to a lot of people. Katrina changed that impression but not the judgmental attitude; you either “get” New Orleans or you don’t. Me? I was captivated, from my first visit in 1993, and the love compounded in my heart with every subsequent arrival.

It was emotionally difficult to move the Museum to Las Vegas. I’m less charitable with my impressions of that burg (though I adore its gin-loving Mayor.) That it was Commander’s Palace (my favorite NOLA restaurant, by the way) offering us space gave me the necessary umbilical cord to the Crescent City to curtail despair. As I’ve said in interviews, Vegas IS becoming a more substantial destination for fine dining, drinking, and the arts – for those like me who disdain gambling. There too, the stereotype of the place is both incomplete and out of date.

Having deposited the artifacts into temperature-controlled storage, I headed directly back to New Orleans to assume the position of Graphic Designer for the first movie to be filmed there post-Katrina. This gave me four months to view the city’s progress and tribulations, all while slurping Sazeracs, Vieux Carrés and Milk Punches. Every Friday evening I’d return to Las Vegas to oversee the installation of custom-designed display cases and to mount the new Museum exhibit. Every Sunday I’d return to New Orleans.

There is no need to relate oft-told vignettes of devastation, but the January views of burned out crushed minivans in parking spaces next to the humdrum vehicles of the workaday world is not one I’ll ever forget. The seeming acres of car-husks lined up beneath bridges and overpasses heading from the intact French Quarter and Garden District into the newly minted wasteland were a vacuum of life and spirit. The city rebuilds, slowly, in agonizingly small increments – and the wear was evident in the faces and words of its residents. Yet traffic lights, comatose since the storm, one by one, would go from black to blinking. The telling carcasses of cars would disappear with the debris extending inexorably the living perimeter of the city.

While there I did radio, magazine, and newspaper interviews. I held a seminar entitled “The History of the Cocktail in 7 Drinks & 7 Plates” at Café Adelaide at the behest of dear, dear friend Ti Martin and it was the best calculated pairing of cocktails and food I was ever involved in or, in fact, had ever encountered. I invented several new cocktails on that fertile ground and I’ll be back there in July for the annual weeklong Tales of the Cocktail event to try it again. Comfortable back in Los Angeles after months of hotel life, I miss that fitful, hopeful city already.