A good cocktail is not simply a spirit cloaked in a Halloween costume, it is formally-dressed and in full makeup ready for its closeup.
Regardless of how “cutting-edge” you might consider yourself, everyone gets a touch of nostalgia now and then. It’s a natural human craving for a simpler time when efficiency and profitability didn't trample over quality, when having vegetables for dinner meant having to grow and harvest them first, when communicating with someone far away meant writing a letter, and everything was made by hand because there was simply no other way things could be made.
Cocktails have become automated and "dumbed-down" in the form of the ubiquitous "soda gun", pre-mixed high-fructose corn syrup-laden "juices", and cheaper versions of classic ingredients have become the norm. While organic and local food has swept into restaurant kitchens around the globe, their cocktail bars really haven’t kept pace. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen “fresh lime juice” on a menu (which I prefer to see being *actually* squeezed out of a lime) only to watch it pour from a dubious plastic screw-top container, nor can I help but wonder where that “lime” actually came from. If a menu simply says “lime juice”, I assume they mean Rose’s.
Aside from the ingredients, we like our vices to be exactly that - a vice. Fruit is much sweeter when it is forbidden and half the fun is “getting away with” something. We want absinthe because it's a little bit naughty and rumored to be dangerous. A beer tastes all the better after a hard day of work, a cocktail tastes much finer when it is lovingly crafted and if the purveyors make the bar just a bit of a challenge to find, it creates a more secret, private world in which to enjoy that vice.
We sit at the crossroads of lackluster ingredients, indifference to an end result by both servers and consumers, and perhaps a desire to return to simpler times when just the act of consuming alcohol made you an outlaw. Welcome to speakeasy culture.
Admittedly, I’m a little late to this party having just noticed a magazine on my coffee table covering the phenomenon from almost three years ago. Still, I'd hate for these two *technically* unrelated trends - quality cocktails and “secret society” drinking - to be confused with one another. Frankly - the latter is going to fade from favor while the prior should forever replace the soda guns and cocktails which resemble booze-laden desserts.
First, the drinks.
The cocktail was born the day we combined alcoholic ingredients - gin with vermouth, bourbon with bitters, rum with lime and mint. Over time, the technique and quality of ingredients - including the spirits themselves - have gone downhill along with our ability to taste the difference.
Sleazy ingredients such as cheap sweet-and-sour “mix” started sneaking in serving as the liquid equivalent of “Hamburger Helper”. Sweet and sour is not only an ironic description, it’s also almost as useless a descriptor of the individual flavors. “What does this dessert taste like? It’s sweet.” It would be a bit like describing a main course as “yummy and delicious.”
And in the clearest sign of the apocalypse, Red Bull somehow became an ingredient in “cocktails”. Far from hand-made, this stuff was engineered with the help of a pharmaceutical company, uses an ingredient found in animal bile (quite the contrast to that “bull” myth), and has all the flavor dimension of “Otter Pops”. It has as many imagined benefits as absinthe has hallucinogens. Combining it with vodka results in what can only be described as alcoholic Kool-Aid.
Most cocktails these days are slopped together with all the care and passion of a drive-through employee. It’s ironic that the most profitable product in any restaurant is also the one which has gotten less and less attention. They want you to drink more, naturally, but have only now begun to do something to encourage your enjoyment of the results.
The bartenders of better establishments eschew such silliness. There is no bull (red or otherwise), no Cosmos, no Lychee martinis, no chocolate martinis, and in a few extreme cases, no vodka. (The argument being that vodka is flavorless; the alcohol equivalent of tofu without sauce on it, inert and uninteresting.) The sweetest things you’re likely to find are the spirits themselves. Juices are squeezed from their respective fruits into smaller containers, usually glass. Bitters are either house-made, or are among the newer versions which aim to mimic the classics (Peychaud’s, which IS a classic, Fee Brothers, Regan's, The Bitter End, etc.)
A cocktail recipe is rarely as long or complex as a restaurant main course, but they are often much more precise in their measures and no less demanding and specific in their ingredients. 4 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters means exactly that (though everything is subject to "season to taste".) Mixologists (few care for that title) are refreshing in that they measure ingredients with a great deal of precision and, even more shocking, actually taste (via the finger-over-one-end-of-a-straw technique) the results of their craft. Perhaps this is an incentive to call oneself a mixologist, allowing for a gentle buzz to accumulate over the course of an evening from a few dozen “micro-sips”.
Despite my long-term appreciation of cocktails, this return to the classics has been eye-opening; akin to my first discovery of gin and tonic after the syrupy taste of wine coolers. I’ve always tended toward the classics such as preferring gin over vodka in a Martini, a love of Manhattans, and the inherently summer charm of a gin and tonic; all far from the sticky, sugar-rimmed nightmares created recently. The balance and complimentary nature between ingredients in a classic is amazing, like each voice in a chorus contributes its part and none overwhelms the other.
Aside from the staff, and a passion for their craft, there are the other components, from stemware, the bar, to even the ice itself.
A glass is more than a means of keeping a drink off the floor, it is the conveyor of the cocktail; the formal gown in which it will be dressed. A classic such as a Sazerac should be clad in stemware worthy of it, not the alcohol equivalent of “sweats and a t-shirt”. Raines Law Room in New York scours estate sales and eBay auctions looking for suitable glassware. Amazing what a subtle difference it makes.
Then there is the bar itself. There is no fake memorabilia on the walls (well, not much anyway). There’s no thumping music, no disco ball, no jukebox, no pool tables, and best of all, no television showing “the game” or some other inane visual distraction from the conversation or the cocktail at hand. Other than the movement of the bartenders themselves, there isn’t much in the way of distraction. If you’re with a companion, you can concentrate on each other. There’s often no sign and, indeed, finding these places can be tricky (though web sites give plenty of hints on what to look for.) It’s a safe bet that few people “wind up” in these places. You pretty much need to know what you're looking for.
I quickly became fascinated with - of all things - ice. The result of only three, simple ingredients (water, cold, and time), there were many complexities to the process. It hadn’t really struck me before, but the ice they used is clear; a subtle, but pleasing, effect. (Dutch Kills bar in Long Island City buys their ice from an ice sculpting company at, rumor has it, a dollar a cube.) I say effect with regard to completely clear ice because this doesn’t happen accidentally. If you want clear ice at home, you need to take steps.
Their handling of the ice that was also intriguing. It wasn't that they put ice in each cocktail, it was which ice they used. Your average bar simply scoops the same ice into every drink they make (even if they later strain it all back out again.) At The Violet Hour in Chicago, rather than fill a pint glass with random ice shards, they would instead place a racquetball-sized chunk of ice in the glass. The other ingredients would then be added, and the resulting combination stirred to blend them. Unlike the "James-Bondian" approach, this was a Martini which was crystal clear. No bubbles to cloud, no shards of ice to disrupt the otherwise flat surface. Always enlightening to have a long-held belief turn out to be exactly wrong. Clear cocktails should always be stirred.
Much as I seem to have neglected this wave of progress (which, ironically, requires us to take a few steps back), perhaps the “old-school” style of bar tending and cocktails never really went away, it is we that strayed from it.
The Violet Hour, Chicago - Above ground, and huge, it was my first. Dark and pretentious, but with cocktail skills to back it up, it is WELL worth a trip. Look for a large wooden wall, and on the right side you’ll eventually find the door.
Pegu Club, New York - Not only above ground, but upstairs, the Pegu is a very large bar considering the cocktails being made. Fortunately, they also serve appetizers, each with a recommended cocktail pairing. Easy to miss, look behind a bus stop for a glowing red sign in the door.
Raines Law Room, New York - Probably my favorite overall, the feeling is much more of an intimate home than a bar. The “bar” itself feels more like a slightly modified kitchen. Look for a doorway at the bottom of a few steps, doorbell on your left will have a tiny sign.
Little Branch, New York - Probably my least favorite because, among other things, the interior looks like an actual speakeasy. No real semblance of decor here, but the drinks are good and the “genes” of Little Branch are strong. Look for a door on the end of a wedge-shaped building which hardly looks like it could go anywhere.
APO / Apothecary Lounge, Philadelphia - Now closed, was quite different in being street-level with no attempt at hiding. While it has been laid to rest, it's worth googling their cocktail list for inspiration.
The Varnish, Los Angeles - Another bar with larger “parents”, the Varnish sits behind an easily-overlooked door at the back of a sandwich shop. Walk in, head straight back (make sure they’re open, of course) and you’ll see a cocktail sign on the door, and that’s the only sign you’ll see. An important point here is that the front of the house (Cole’s) actually has a pretty darned-good bar itself. If the back room is full, don’t hesitate to sit out front where you can also grab a bite to eat.
The Drawing Room, Chicago - The 8-person bar gives plenty of room for bartender chat. Charles Joly, who was my mixologist, is as informal as he is informative. Tinctures are house-made along with a few bitters, and they have a unique offering in the way of smoked cachaca thanks to a little invention made for Grant Achatz at Alinea. While the drinks are top-notch, this is not quite a speakeasy. In fact, since the bar faces the dining room, I can imagine this being a bit noisy on a busy night. Go anyway.
P.D.T. (Please Don't Tell), New York - Not quite Milk-and-Honey exclusivity, but about as tricky to get into, they turn out a great product, but I'm a bit too old to make a reservation between certain spans of time. If you're feeling up for an adventure, and don't mind a few hoops, you'll have a great time. Don't bother showing up without a reservation.
Flora, Oakland, California - Seemingly a converted diner, Flora makes cocktails worthy of praise. Much more open and among few awesome bars at street level, their food is also worthy of respect.
Absinthe, San Francisco, California - My friends assure me I'm missing something, but despite a respected following, I recommend it with hesitation. This is not the environment in which I want to consume a well- crafted cocktail. Perhaps 2 in the afternoon affords the quiet I'm looking for.
Alembic, San Francisco, California - This place is hit-or-miss. Mind you, the cocktails are great, but they've fallen into that cult of snobbish bartenders which went the way of the dodo WELL before the recession started.
Andre's Restaurant & Lounge at Monte Carlo, Las Vegas, Nevada - A truly good watering hole in Las Vegas is about as hard to find as actual water. While Andre's doesn't fit the "speakeasy" definition in terms of setting, they certainly get their by using legitimate ingredients. When I grilled the general manager about their use of faux truffle oil, he noted that the truffles are sliced, poached sous-vide, and then added to the dish. While I only had a single cocktail, their belief in ingredients is evident in their drinks too.
(Following are places I have not visited, but have modestly researched.)
Downtown Cocktail Room - Las Vegas, Nevada - Way off the strip, and in fact at the very end of the Fremont district, sits a red neon sign. Below it, an entrance to a very sleek and low-key cocktail destination (if you can figure out how to get in... Hint... the door is on your left and it's metal.) True cocktails from a knowledgeable and fun staff.
The Teardrop Lounge, Portland, Oregon
Beaker and Flask, Portland, Oregon
Rob Roy, Seattle