10/18/2012 03:37:00 PM

Trend Talk: A Coastal View of Cocktail Culture

NYC's Eamon Rockey (left) and Portland's Jeffrey Morgenthaler
Not since Prohibition ended has cocktail culture been so popular, proving that the movement of top-tier tippling isn’t just some passing fad. We talked with two mixology masters - NYC’s Eamon Rockey, formerly a captain and bartender at Eleven Madison Park who went on to become the general manager at Atera and is currently at work on a new restaurant with Frej chef Fredrik Berselius; and Portland's Jeffrey Morgenthaler, cocktail blogger at www.jeffreymorgenthaler..com and bar manager at Clyde Common - about how the scene has evolved in recent years, and where they see it going next.

Don't forget to follow along with Mixology Week on social media using hashtag #drinksweeks.


The View from the East - Eamon Rockey

How Did We Get Here?
The biggest influences of recent cocktail history boil down to two New York bars: Sasha Petraske’s Milk & Honey, which has been around since about 2000, and Pegu Club, a collaboration between Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders, which opened in 2005. They have really paved the way for the past five years. Milk and Honey was the place that revived the old classics, but Audrey and Julie were the ladies of New York that invented the new classics - drinks like the Old Cuban and the Gin Gin Mule. These sound and feel like old school drinks but they were all invented within the last seven years.


In the last five years you have seen bars like Death & Co., Mayahuel and Little Branch making these new classics, and they transcended into Portland, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago - all over the country. Julie and Audrey both learned directly from Dale DeGroff, who opened the Rainbow Room in 1987 and ushered in this really specific movement. He is the “patient zero” of this era of quality and freshness and bar hospitality, which up until that point was waning. One could even say it was a dead mentality. 



Where We Are Now
Cocktail bars like Booker and Dax, and the bar at WD-50, are incorporating the themes and lessons learned with the old and new classics and putting these things together with modern technology and taking it a step further. At Atera, we were using the rotary evaporator, clarification techniques, the vacuum chamber and low temperature juicers that have up until this point have only been used for things like wheatgrass in Whole Foods. Suddenly people are starting to think about what these technologies are capable of producing in the most natural of ways. And then there are hydrocolloids and molecular mixology and gastronomy-applied sciences. We are at the stage where we can say that we have relearned the philosophies of what cocktails are based on, and we have learned how to riff on them, and we have become comfortable with them. So, what lessons can we apply from that experience and make something totally different but equally satisfying, equally good and equally appropriate for our time period? 

People’s palates are more attuned to freshness now. We have moved away from cordials and dependency upon liqueurs and we have become much more interested in things that are freshly-squeezed or freshly-infused or freshly-juiced. People want things that come from the garden or come from the market. I’m also seeing people becoming really excited about bitters and bitter cocktails. Amaros are becoming the star of drinks and the integrity of these spirits are being maintained as well - they are not lunatically composed and mish-mashed. They are being showcased and complimented by thoughtful, well-educated bartenders. 

What’s Next
I would like to see a strong emphasis based on genuine context and reason in cocktails. Experimentation is a lot of fun, but experimentation for the sake of experimentation doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t resonate and I don’t think it has longevity. Now that we have an understanding of product and how the actual components of cocktails work, I’d love to see, using a knowledge of the chemistry of cocktails, how we can understand why these things that we have always loved are so good and how we can highlight them even further. How can we make effervescent drinks even more effervescent? How we can make a crisp and clean cocktail even more so without betraying the beauty of the cocktail, without diluting it and straying from its intent and purpose? I see the industry taking things that have always been exploited and exploiting them even further. And that goes from glassware to storage of glassware at the proper temperature, to ice storage at proper temperature, to spirits and the way that they are kept and held and the way that they are maintained.

The View from the West - Jeffrey Morgenthaler

How Did We Get Here?
Five years ago the cocktail scene on the West Coast was pretty much dominated by San Francisco. They were the leaders. We owe everything that we have now to San Francisco and it goes back further than five years ago, of course. The San Francisco style drove everything that everybody did on the west coast and that was very much a farm-to-table approach punctuated by attention to local artisan producers. From San Francisco, it grew and evolved up and down the coast. I think the next city to take hold was Seattle. The front man for the movement there was Murray Stenson, who developed the northwest style, or Seattle style, of the classic cocktail and attention to service. From there, Portland was really next. In 2007 we formed the Oregon Bartenders Guild which was the first independent bar guild in the country and from there we’ve seen independent bar guilds pop up all over. One of the things that drove the Portland movement was that if you can’t find the ingredients, then make it yourself. So you saw bartenders making cordials and making bitters and handcrafted syrups. LA was the next thing to pop up, and it was a mix of all the styles, but they started to lean toward classic cocktails and innovative twists on classics. Now there are bars in places that were not traditionally big cocktail towns - in Oakland, San Diego and San Jose, which was unheard of even two or three years ago. 

Where We Are Now
Right now we are seeing a lot of barrel-aged cocktails on the coast. San Francisco has gone crazy for it. And we are finally seeing bars that are doing those hardcore ice programs that you were seeing in NY a few years ago - spots where bartenders are cutting a 300-pound block of ice. We’re not seeing a whole lot of molecular mixology in the West Coast. While I think it’s cool, it is, and always will be, relegated to a small handful of cocktail makers. West coast is so different than the east coast in the sense that when you go to a James Beard Award-winning restaurant, they are pretty casual like Le Pigeon or Pok Pok. So when people try to open a super-fancy over-the-top restaurant or bar in Portland? They just fail. You can get away with that a little bit more in San Francisco but that kind of modernist cuisine and cocktails just doesn’t fly out here.

With the younger generation of bartenders now, brown bitters and esoteric ingredients are very common. The older guard, such as myself, tends to lend to citrus, not necessarily sweet, but more in the classic style of balanced cocktails. But it is interesting because the audience for cocktails and their tastes have greatly expanded. Nowadays, the average guy off the street may ask you for chartreuse, which used to never happen! Today, I sell more bourbon than vodka. And I’ve sold more gin than vodka for nearly 10 years. 10 years ago I had five gins, and that was a huge selection compared to what we had 15 years ago. Now I have 23 gins and we are barely reaching for vodka. But what’s really popular in Portland is American whiskey. We have about 80 on our shelves. Bourbon is huge all over and tequila has gotten massive. Now people are asking for mezcal, which never happened five years ago. 

What’s Next
I would love to see more attention to detail and more making classic cocktails properly, and less alienation of guests. I would love to see bartenders educate people and get them involved and to not turn up their noses when someone orders a Cosmo or something. I just would like to see the trend continue to better bartending. Just doing something innovative or something weird or something with esoteric ingredients doesn’t mean that it is good bartending. It takes a hell of a lot more and I don’t think people get that. 

1 comment :

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