It’s a fabulous trend. Fashion has become retro chic, architecture and design combine the old with the new, restaurants are back to basics, and now bigger is better—phone and computer screens that is. In the start of 2015 the US Census Bureau stated that half the adult population will be 49 and older, and they will control 70 percent of disposable income. In the beverage world Act Two consumers are already leading the way in alcohol sales and they’re not drinking nuclear, multi-layered, hypno liqueur laden concoctions. It’s back to basics, and yes, with a slight twist. Seriouseats.com, the Web’s popular eat-drink resource, continues to tout the merits of such original cocktails, stating, “Any self-respecting home bartender should have a mental Rolodex Excel spreadsheet of classic cocktail recipes committed to memory.” Chiming in on Serious Eats’ Top 10 All-Time Classic Cocktails is Food & Wine Magazine’s 2014 symbiotic list of libations dating as far back as the mid-1800s. They include: “The classics are the building blocks we use to shape what we do,” says Naomi Levy, Bar Manager at Boston’s Eastern Standard. “Just as a chef has to learn the classic mother sauces before they go on to create their own, so do bartenders. And once you start doing your research and learning about the classics, a whole world opens up and you find all sorts of hidden gems.”
Levy starts with simple riffs on classics and builds out from there to create cocktails that are still based in the classics but less recognizable as so. A trend of late, and infused into Eastern Standard’s wide-ranging portfolio, leans a bit more towards the culinary side, taking its cues from flavors out of the kitchen and applying them to flavors of the bar.
“Today’s cocktail culture celebrates life, creativity and experimentation, and there’s a wealth of history and recipes to revel in,” says Olie Berlic, an award-winning sommelier/mixologist and the Beverage Director of Chef Aarón Sánchez’s Paloma restaurant in Stamford, Connecticut.
“I like to keep the recipes and preparations simple, relying on quality ingredients, while having a little fun with spirit and flavor combinations.”
Berlic has created a myriad of tequila based libations in keeping with the flavors and flair found in Paloma’s Mexican inspired cuisine. Tequila, which originated from the Mexican state of Jalisco, is made from the blue agave plant, native to this area. The heart of the plant contains sugars and had been used by native peoples here to make a fermented vitamin rich drink called “pulque.” After the Spanish arrived, they took this fermented beverage and distilled it, producing the tequila varietal of the alcoholic spirit known today. Rich in flavor, tequila has long been enjoyed with a variety of sweet and citrusy components to offset the potent kick it is known for.
Author of The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook, Tina Ruggiero, MS RD, also chimes in on today’s cocktail philosophy and how alcohol’s stigma endures even though scientific evidence exists that shows that those who drink alcohol live longer and are healthier than those who don’t drink at all.
“In addition to longevity, alcohol has been shown to reduce the risks of numerous conditions,” Ruggiero explains. “Drinking alcohol can even reduce your risk of succumbing to the world’s number-one killer; heart disease.”
So, what’s best to drink? “There’s good news for beer, wine and spirit lovers,” says Ruggiero. “Major research shows each type of alcohol equally paves a route to health, which means it’s not what you drink, but how much you drink that’s important. Two drinks daily for men and one drink daily for women should be the limit. Keep in mind, one serving of wine is five ounces.”
Ruggiero is excited to see the culinary arts and the cocktail culture become so integrated and is thrilled with how bartenders are seeking out fresh, seasonal ingredients for their cocktails. She also reminds us that any produce adds nutrition to cocktails—from berries and herbs to the rind of citrus fruit, the latter contributing essentials oils.
There was a time when certain perceived to be “old fashioned” alcoholic beverages were referred to as “your grandfather’s elixir,” often a bourbon-based Manhattan or Old Fashioned. Or “Mom’s chocolate milk,” the original Brandy Alexander.
There’s no denying pop culture, then and now, using of libations to set the tone for some of Hollywood’s most quoted scenes:
“I got rid of all those reporters.”
“What did you tell them?”
“We’re out of scotch.”
“What a gruesome idea.”
—Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) & Nick Charles (William Powell) in Another Thin Man (1939)
“The whole world is drunk and we’re just the cocktail of the moment. Someday soon, the world will wake up, down two aspirin with a glass of tomato juice, and wonder what the hell all the fuss was about.”
—Dean Martin in The Rat Pack (1960)
“How do you say banana daiquiri?”
—Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather (1972)
Brand name alcoholic beverages have also become synonymous with events, eras and demographics throughout the ages. Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (1844) has recently been resurrected as one of the most popular beers and now goes by its hip new moniker PBR. The Jameson Irish Whiskey (1780 best-selling Irish Whiskey in the world) bottle has not only graced small and big screen entertainment the most out of any spirit brand in US history, it is the most widely used brand name when ordering whiskey. And a Barcardi and Coke gets asked for upwards of 25% more than a non-brand rum and Coke.
E. & J. Gallo Winery, headquartered in Modesto, California, was founded in 1933 by Ernest Gallo and Julio Gallo, and today is the largest exporter of California wines. Seems like a pretty successful and credible force within the wine industry and among consumers, wouldn’t you say? But the company endured some hard knocks as a brand once other wine producers began carving out a place in the California wine market in the 1960s, most notably, the Mondavi Family. To compete, Gallo marketed its products in a way that matched well with consumer attitudes toward wine in those days: affordable everyday drinking wine meant to be consumed in larger quantities. The gallon of wine, while a hit throughout the 1970- 80s, was less appealing as consumers and wine makers became more sophisticated and the wine industry grew.
Cut to 2015. Not only are mainstream, more sophisticated wine makers utilizing those larger bottle designs, they’re taking things a step further (some might say a step back) and packing these smashed grapes into a box. Gallo continues to lead the way in this affordable niche market just as they did in 1933.
Another wine brand making a back shelf comeback is Lillet (1872), a blend of Bordeaux wines and handcrafted fruit liqueurs produced in Podensac, France. Throughout the swinging 1920-30s Lillet, then labeled as an aperitif, a drink to be enjoyed either before or after a meal, hit the US market with its stunning advertising campaign designed by French artist Robert Wolff, better known as Robys, and remains a famous art style in the USA and France to this day. Bartenders have become reacquainted with these vibrant wine-based aromatic aperitifs and find them to be a great way to class up even the most basic of cocktails.
An expert in the world of spirits and mixology and former editor of Cheers magazine, Jack Robertiello, sums it beautifully, “Modern cocktail culture embraces everything—chemistry, culinary, ancient Italian Amari, house-made bitters, phosphate, anything and everything. Experimentation is rampant, and today’s bartenders are at the top of the game, and a few levels below are still among the best ever.”
It’s a great day for a cocktail.
By Linda Kavanagh