The cocktail culture has changed tremendously in recent years. Looking back just two decades to when I broke into the business, the landscape behind the bar was pretty barren. In its golden age, the cocktail was a star and the bartenders that made those cocktails ruled the night. Beautiful hand-made drinks--with the freshest ingredients--were created and the earliest mixologists reaped the benefits of a thirsty nation.
Sadly, prohibition robbed the US of most its true bar craftsmen, leaving the profession without an apprenticeship system to regenerate the talent behind the bar. Then techniques to process and preserve foods, which were developed for feeding our troops overseas, led to a gradual purging of fresh ingredients throughout restaurants and bars. Quite simply, it became too easy to have fruits and juices come from bottles and cans, and bartenders took full advantage of these short cuts. From all of this, and a few other factors, we ended up in a period of cocktails that was dull and unexciting.
The highball, the two-ingredient drink, became the drink of the day because it was easy to make, and customers learned not to expect too much when they went out for a drink. Happily, that started to change in the mid 1980’s with the re-emergence of the cocktail. Many of us point to our colleague Dale DeGroff and the cocktail program he put together for the opening of the Rainbow Room in 1987 as being a key component in restarting the quest for great drinks. Dale’s program was a high profile return to classic cocktails and fresh ingredients, and the publicity that the program generated coupled with their ability to produce these types of drinks at high volume was a wake up call to the industry.
From that point forward things have changed immeasurably. The profession has been re-awakened, and once again bartenders are treating it as a craft. Today’s mixologists are seeing that they have more options behind the bar then ever before. Perhaps the biggest difference to note is how much thought today’s drink makers put into what goes into their creations. Taking a cue from the kitchen, bartenders are seeking ways to utilize fresh, exciting ingredients in the drinks they are making at the bar. It is safe to say that the time leading up to this cocktail renaissance was defined by limiting flavor. Today, it is just the opposite as bartenders are utilizing big flavors and finding more and more ways to incorporate not just fresh ingredients but quality spirits into cocktails.
Now this raises an interesting point, because all of us have heard this argument: “if you’re going to drink a spirit straight then you drink the good stuff, but if you’re going to mix it in a cocktail, then it doesn’t matter.” Well, we have been disputing this concept on several levels for years. The first is simple: think about food; would you put ingredients that were less than fresh--that you didn’t like by themselves--into a recipe and hope that your guests wouldn’t know the difference? Of course not. But if you are making drinks with inferior spirits, you can taste the difference. The bigger issue is how a quality spirit affects a cocktail.
When a spirit is well distilled it acts as a vehicle for flavor, a platform that will push flavors up through the cocktail. Now for me, when I talk to people about cocktails, the two most important things for me are balance and texture. Texture, I’ll come back to, but let’s talk about balance.
If I am choosing specific ingredients to go into a drink, then each of those ingredients is important and I want to taste them all. I don’t want too strong or too sweet or too bitter, but rather I want all of those flavors to work together harmoniously. By using a spirit that is well distilled, I am starting with a base for my cocktail that is going to act as the backbone to everything else that I want my guest to taste in that drink, a backbone that will inform the drink but also allow the other ingredients to shine through. This is one of the reasons that Cognac has been such an important part of the history of cocktails, and it is a huge reason why today’s bartenders are using cognac in new cocktails—the spirit itself. As we have discussed here, the quality of distillation in Cognac is as good as it gets. The beautiful base spirit of these products make them the perfect vehicle to carry flavor and allow for the balance that is the hallmark of any well made drink. Which leads me to my other point about cocktails, texture. Texture refers to the layers of flavor that should come through when you taste something great. Whether it’s a wine or a great food dish, we expect things we taste to have a progression of flavors to them. A well made cocktail is no different--it should present an array of tastes in our mouths, as the different waves of the flavor show themselves. In cocktails you get this by using great ingredients.
When you a taste a Cognac straight you get a huge array of flavors in the mouth. Depending on the Marque, you can get a range from light and delicate, to more full-bodied spice, to more robust powerful fruit and all manner of points in between. This complexity of flavors lends deep texture to cocktails without having to add a litany of ingredients.
Bartenders have learned to build upon this complexity in Cognac, and so their embrace of Cognac is not only a reflection of a return to the classics, but it is an exciting tool for the creation of newly developed cocktails. A showcase of this process at work was the 2010 International Cognac Summit, where bartenders from all over the world came together to taste and talk about Cognac and Cognac cocktails. The drink that they created is called “the Summit” and is a great example of using fresh ingredients and Cognac together to create a new drink. Here is the recipe for the Summit Cocktail:
- 1.5 oz Cognac VSOP
- 2 oz lemon-lime soda
- 4 thin slices fresh ginger
- 1 zest lime
- 1 long piece cucumber
Put lime and ginger into glass, pour in .75 oz cognac, press lightly 2-3 times. Half fill with ice, stir for 5 seconds. Pour the remaining cognac. Add lemon-lime soda and cucumber, stir well and serve immediately.
And when you taste this drink what you get is a sense of the Cognac pulling out the flavors from the other ingredients and being the vehicle for tying them all together. A wonderful new expression as created by some of the world’s top bartenders.
I’d like to close with a drink of my own which brings together for me all the items I discussed about cocktails and specifically, This is a drink that I make with Cognac--a drink that I call the Old Town Cooler.
The Old Town Cooler
- 1 1/4 oz VSOP Cognac
- 1 oz Manzanilla Sherry
- 1 oz fresh grapefruit juice
- 1/2 oz agave nectar
Combine all and shake with ice. Strain over fresh ice into a highball glass. Squeeze the oil of a wide grapefruit twist on top of drink, stir and garnish with the twist.
For me, this a drink that has the great balance and texture I spoke about as being so important in cocktails. Critical for me is that the cocktail uses just four ingredients and each of them plays well together, with the beautiful distillate of Cognac acting as the base that makes everything shine—just the way a spirit should in any cocktail. I love a drink like this because it’s--to me—what all bartenders should be doing and that’s providing ways for people to explore things through cocktails that they might not otherwise try. Cognac is, for some, the type of thing that they would only think about in a snifter after a meal. Because many people don’t eat and drink like that, there are lots of people who only respect what Cognac is, but will never try it. This is an easy refreshing drink, that sounds like it would be easy to drink—and it is. Therefore it’s approachable and encourages people to try Cognac. As someone who helps people make their beverage choices, I love finding easy ways to get people to try new things, and by understanding how well these great spirits play in cocktails, it's easy to do. And just as I say to the guests at my bar and to the beverage professionals I talk to every day, I encourage you to try it yourself.
Andy Seymour is an internationally recognized educator of cocktails, spirits and Sherry. As one of America's top mixologists, he brings a diversity of experience to the profession. Andy developed his passion for the craft of cocktails working in clubs and high volume bars in New York City and the Hamptons, where his enthusiasm for creating drinks became a top priority. In addition to his partnership at BAR, Andy is a partner at aka winegeek and owns his own company, Liquid Production, which is devoted to the education and understanding of today's cocktail culture.