It’s been a very good run for spirits. Fuelled by the entrenched Return of Cocktail Culture, and continued “premiumization” of spirits (i.e., the rapid expansion of high-end spirits), the growth of distilled beverages in the United States has averaged a healthy 6 percent annually since 2000. Even in 2008, the overall category managed a 2.8 percent revenue increase, an enviable mark for most industries last year.

Behind these numbers, however, on-premise spirits consumption (in bars, restaurants and the like) actually fell by 2.2 percent in 2008, while off-premise (at home) consumption climbed 2.9 percent. So, people are still enjoying (or needing) spirits during our economic collapse, but they’re going out less to imbibe. As Distilled Spirits Council President Peter Cressy put it, “the entire beverage alcohol sector is recession resistant, not recession proof.”

What, then, is the outlook for spirits, and the cocktail scene, going forward, in these difficult economic times? Well, mixed.

Clearly, restaurants and hotels are reeling from lower volumes and smaller checks, which naturally affect alcohol beverage sales, a key source of profitability. On the other hand, the spirit segments with the highest growth in 2008 – super premium gin (+44 percent), rye whiskey (+30 percent), Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey (+16.5 percent) and super premium Tequila (+11 percent) – are the favored elixirs of the artisanal cocktail set. And, more anecdotally, on some recent mid-week forays to some of Manhattan’s choicest cocktail dens, the bars were crowded, animated by sophisticated libations.

Channeling Jerry Thomas

The craft of the cocktail is in.

And whether you call them bartenders, mixologists, bar chefs or even “liquid chefs,” they are the new culinary darlings. In December 2008, Oliver Schwaner-Albright usefully identified a taxonomy of (at least) eight schools of bar philosophies in The New York Times, from Pre-Repeal Revivalists and Liquid Locavores, to Molecular Mixologists, showing just how far the craft has evolved.

What unifies the various approaches, however, is dedication to the best and/or most authentic ingredients possible, including: compelling (sometimes obscure) spirits, liqueurs, vermouths and bitters (often house-made), not to mention organic, fresh juices, self-made sours, myriad syrups and creative infusions (like Lapsang Souchong tea-infused silver Tequila). And don’t forget the ice, which should vary in size and texture according to the drink.

Much inspiration for the cocktail renaissance flows from the 19th century, when the cocktail first arrived, and flourished:

“A stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters” was the first printed definition in 1806 (in the Balance, and Columbian repository newspaper of Hudson, N.Y.), and for classic cocktails, this formula still holds true.

Take the iconic Manhattan cocktail, for example: rye whiskey or bourbon (spirit), sweet vermouth (sugar, sweetness) and Angostura (bitters) stirred with ice (water), then strained into a glass.

Bartenders of the period, like Jerry Thomas, who published the first-ever book on cocktails in 1862, “How to Mix Drinks,” were highly regarded alchemists, celebrities, in fact. And though they faded from view in the wake of Prohibition, Thomas and others have been resurrected by contemporary forensic cocktail gurus, such as renowned mixologist Dale DeGroff and cocktail historian and writer David Wondrich, who in turn have provided valuable groundwork for today’s bar chefs.

An indispensable and highly readable drinks history/reference for the home bartender is DeGroff’s latest book, “The Essential Cocktail” (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2008).

Classic Twists

Accessible through the faux phone booth at Crif Dogs, a Jersey-style, deep-fried hotdog joint in the East Village (but only if seats are available, no standing at the bar). Jim Meehan’s PDT (Please Don’t Tell) is a sleek, intimate speakeasy throwback, where the art of the cocktail is center stage.

Riffing on the classics, PDT’s mixologists offer up creative, seasonal potations, as well as some evergreen items, like the Benton’s Old-Fashioned, a smoky-sweet version of the classic, composed of bacon-infused Four Roses Bourbon, Grade B maple syrup and Angostura bitters, poured over an ice cube the size of Antarctica.

What rocked my world, however, was the Astoria Bianco, a play on the modern Martini. I avoid the dry Martini, a palate-killing dose of chilled gin, with scant evidence of vermouth. But the Astoria was a revelation, flavorful and balanced with assertive citrus notes. The secret: restoring the Martini’s original two-to-one ratio of gin (in this case, Tanqueray) to vermouth (Martini Bianco), along with two dashes of orange bitters. Back to the future, please, and make it “wet.” And while you’re there, order a tasty Crif dog at the bar!

Another must-stop on the Manhattan cocktail circuit is Death & Co. (also in the East Village), a cozy lounge and mixologists’ hangout where the 19th century lives, but hardly frozen in amber ( http://www.deathandcompany.com/lounge).

From the passionate, bearded barkeeps come a stunning array of playful concoctions, like La Dolce Vita, a floral delight made of Chamomile-infused Overholt Rye Whiskey, Campari and St. Germain Elderflower liqueur; and The Black Prince, a dark and silky combination mix of Ron Zacapa 23 (an aged rum), Carpano Antica vermouth, Averna and orange bitters.

But back to history. After the life-altering Martini experience at PDT, my drinking partner, fellow scribe and cocktail aficionado Michael Anstendig insisted that we order a Martinez, the 19th century forerunner to the modern Martini. Though its origins are hazy, the Martinez first appeared in print in 1884 as a variation of, yes, the Manhattan, in which gin substitutes for whiskey in a one-to-two ratio with sweet vermouth. Call it gin’s formal introduction to vermouth, a cutting-edge ingredient from France and Italy in 1884.

Though not on the Death & Co.’s menu, the Martinez is well known among cognoscenti, and bar chef Brian Miller served up a brilliant version, each sip a sexy balancing act of fruit and botanicals. His recipe:

• two ounces Carpano Antica sweet vermouth;
• one ounce Old Tom Gin (a slightly sweetened gin popular in the late 1800s);
• barspoon of Maraschino liqueur;
• dash of Deragon bitters.

In a mixing glass with ice, stir ingredients well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a short, fat lemon twist.


The Liquid Chef


One of the hottest stars of the New York cocktail scene, Junior Merino, defies easy categorization.

His moniker, “the liquid chef,” is apt, not only because he has literally worked his way through the entire restaurant experience since emigrating from Mexico at age 16, from busboy to line-cook, and from bar-back to sommelier, but also because he approaches his creations in chef-like fashion. Always starting with a quality base spirit, just like a good stock or roux, he builds flavor and complexity, often with exotic and surprising ingredients (including vegetables), but always in harmony, without losing the essence of the base.

As a mixologist, Merino made his name at The Modern, where he invented the award-winning Champagne and rose-petal cocktail Coming Up Roses. Now as an independent über-beverage consultant, he has numerous bar menus to his credit, none more dazzling than at Macondo, the newish pan-Latino tapas eatery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Macondo’s Latin theme obviously spoke to Merino, as each drink is a thrill-ride. And with alcohol levels consciously aimed at around 20 percent per drink, “You don’t lose your palate so quickly, and you can have these with food, too,” he said.

The Maracuya + Vodka is a bracing blend of passion fruit, Sobieski vodka (a flavorful Polish rye vodka), Canton ginger liqueur, lime juice and, yes, diced fresh jalapeno (which works!). Got antioxidants? They’ve never tasted better than in the Acai + Ron, a vinous, berry explosion featuring acai juice (from Brazil), pomegranate syrup, fresh mint, Bacardi Razz and a splash of Sprite.

But you cannot visit Macondo without having the Aguacate + Mezcal. Built on the Mexican licuado tradition, this “Latin smoothie” of avocado, agave nectar, honey, Midori, Cointreau, lime juice and Scorpion mezcal is a smoky, velvety textural treat.

And the list goes on . . . (http://www.theliquidchefinc.com).

Christopher Matthews, a press and communications specialist, is also an independent wine consultant and educator. He can be reached at cematthews42@yahoo.com.