It’s been a rough summer. And not just here in New York, where many of us experienced three wobbly seconds of our first earthquake on the 23rd. It’s been tough all over the country. Our economy got spanked, summer blockbusters (Harry excepted) tanked, and weather that was once content to torture us with your basic high temp-humidity spent most of the season seesawing between heat waves and flooding. This was a summer where “double dip” had more to do with recession talk than ice cream on the Coney Island boardwalk. But maybe it makes sense. After all, summer 2011 is sandwiched between two ends-of-the-world—May and October 21, respectively. A few semi-apocalyptic snafus are to be expected.
Here’s the silver lining: a punishing summer is the perfect excuse—where one is required—to sit back, relax, and knock back a great cocktail. Or two. From Portland to Chicago all the way to Chile and back home, we’ve done our fair share of trans-American tippling this year, and we're fondly recalling all of it, one drink at a time. What have we learned? In an industry populated by artists, musicians, wayward nine-to-fivers, and hardcore spirits enthusiasts, you’re bound to find as much variety in cocktails as your brain and belly can handle. And that was the theme this year—a kind of open-range, pioneering freedom, with cocktails of all stripes prepared on the backbone of well-trained, well-informed mixology.
We won’t exactly say we called it (we did), but we definitely foresaw that emergence of amari-heavy cocktails. We’re not just talking about a splash of Luxardo here. We’re talking bartender-levels of Fernet et al., mixed into a variety of highly refreshing, dangerously drinkable flavor profiles, from Stephen Cole’s thirst-quenching Giralomo Sour at The Violet Hour to Maksym Pazuniak’s power-coupling of Fernet and Carpano Antica at Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere. We gulped those down, along with a few other creative summery profiles, like the tahini-enriched Zanzibar from Justin Noel at 1534, the silky, umami-rich Sweet Tomato from the incredible Gen Yamamoto at Brushstroke, and a smoky, Scotch-ified swizzle on Julie Reiner’s menu at Hawaiian-themed Lani Kai.
Our Chilean travels took us to the land of pisco—or one of the lands of pisco, anyway; the grape brandy has dual, and sometimes debatable, citizenship in Chile and Peru. And while a few key differences make for heated debate about production and authenticity (Chilean piscos are aged in oak, while Peruvian piscos only know the brief kiss of a steel tank) our feeling is “the more, the merrier.” Norman Dabner of Pisco Waqar taught us about the variety and versatility of Chilean piscos, while longtime StarChefs.com friend and Liquid Chef Junior Merino clarified exactly how different, and how distinctly drinkable, the two types of pisco are.
The spirit (so to speak) of the pisco debate resonates in with the world of aged cocktails. With roots in Celtic tree-stump aging and pre-Prohibition home cocktail programs, and long known to the savvy bartender crowd, aged cocktails are nothing new. But they have made a kind of resurgence this year, at least enough to qualify as a “fad” to the likes of Dave Wondrich—and to produce some divisive debate within the industry. From across the pond at 69 Colebrooke Row, where Mixologist Tony Conigliaro oxidizes Manhattans with bottle-aging, to Portland’s Clyde Common, where Mixologist Jeffrey Morganthaler combines oxidation with wood flavors in his barrel-aged cocktails, “fresh” takes a backseat to “mature,” and everything old is new again.
Indeed, mixos know better than most—there’s nothing new under the sun, or in the barrel. But what they excel at is playing around in the sandbox of time, building trends upon traditions and vice versa. And what seems to evolve over the years is the experience of the cocktail itself. With our 6th Annual ICC only weeks away, the concept of the Sixth Sense (or the elaborated experience of hospitality) was heavy on our minds this summer. And who is better versed in not only the craftsmanship but companionship of hospitality than the storied shoulder-to-cry-on behind the bar? So we decided to investigate, to see what New York City bartenders had to say about the experience of the cocktail, specifically what makes it special. And we’ve got the results on film.
But if you want live-action elaboration on the Sixth Sense in mixology, be sure to catch the workshops at ICC (tickets on sale now). This year’s mixology program will feature hands-on (and more importantly, lips-on) demonstrations of the Sixth Sense through various facets of the drinks world. Audrey Saunders will lead a fearsome foursome (including Christy Pope, Naomi Schimek, Katie Stipe) in a discussion of the Feminine Mystique in mixology, while Alchemy Consulting trio Toby Maloney, Joaquin Simó, and Troy Sidle will consider the Experience of Cocktails Through the Meta-Sense of Time. Topics are serious, and the booze promises to follow through.
Whether you plan on staying inside until the ICC (or have yet to emerge after the fury of Irene) or intend to make the most of the Dog Days, be sure to print, download, memorize, or otherwise ingest the 2011 New York Mixology Travel Guide. Based on a summer of drinking in New York City, it reads with a lot more clarity than you’d expect, and charts a course of some of the best bars, and best bartenders, the Big Apple has to offer. Whether it’s the holy trinity of Cienfuegos, El Cobre, and Amor y Amargo (where rum and bitters get equal worship), the old school expertise of Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club, or Sasha Petraske’s siren call to Long Island City, Dutch Kills (with master mixologist Karin Stanley at the helm), New York City has your cocktail answer to summer, sweat, and, of course, sobriety.