Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com
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Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

One of the coolest things about the first decade of the new century was a continuing reemergence of cocktail culture. And now, with the dawn of the new decade mixology has become a major part in the palette of the culinary arts.

People have no doubt been drinking fermented and distilled beverages since the days in the Garden of Eden. The apple that caused Adam so much consternation may well have been blessed with a dose of hooch, hence, making it irresistible.

But cocktails as we know them today, spirits mixed with fruits, sugars, herbs, and bitters, are – drum roll, please – a distinctly American invention. At least that is what the historians say. But remember the same “historians” claim that America was “discovered” by Columbus, ignoring the previous centuries that this land was neither your land nor my land, but rather the provenance of native peoples.

But I digress.

In the early 1800s, cocktails were a morning repast, a way to mix a little something stronger with milk or cream or some other mixture to get one going in the a.m. Around mid-century, Jerry Thomas, a bartender with an eastern pedigree, set up shop in the boomtown of San Francisco during the Gold Rush. A character and a passionate drinker, he set about creating and cataloguing a variety of drinks and wrote a book titled “The Bar-Tenders Guide,” though it is also known variously as “How to Mix Drinks” and “The Bon Vivant’s Companion.” Upon its publication in 1862, a culture was born. People drank better, bartending became a respected profession and there was a codified tome that laid down guidelines to the etiquette of the cocktail lifestyle.

Cocktail culture moved with fits and starts for the next 100 or so years. The early 1900s saw great growth in the love of a finely mixed drink. Prohibition, a scourge upon the land perpetrated by religious do-gooders, actually was a factor in the creation of many great cocktail recipes as good mixers hid the taste of bad bathtub gins. And as airplanes got faster and the world got smaller, new tastes and exotic ingredients became more readily available from faraway places.

In the 1960s, the three-martini lunch became a cliche, but like most cliches the idea was built around a reality that even those who lived it say was under-, not over-, stated. The cocktails of the day lacked the care and sophistication of earlier times. We were, as a nation, enamored with the newly found joys of automation and simplicity. And as a result, the well-crafted cocktail gave way to the “well drink” made with cheap liquor and pre-made, bottled mixers. No wonder marijuana made a comeback in the ’70s, and with it a decline in cocktail culture.

In 1982, a barman with passion named Dale DeGroff moved cocktails forward by taking a look backwards. Asked to open a new restaurant in New York called Aurora with a decidedly different beverage program, DeGroff was given a copy of Jerry Thomas’ book by Joe Baum (founder of Aurora and – please bow your head for a moment here – Windows on the World) and it changed his life. He became obsessed with recreating not just the original recipes that Thomas had recorded, but also with recreating the concept of care that is so important to fine cocktailing.

He began making drinks from scratch, using the best and clearest ice he could chop, the freshest of juices he could find and the most authentic bitters he could source. In 1987, he moved to the perfect pulpit for spreading his gospel of quality cocktails, the Rainbow Room atop 30 Rock (for you Liz Lemon fans. And no, that is not the name of a cocktail). There, from 1987 through the 1990s, he introduced American bon vivants and a whole generation of young barkeeps to the joys of cocktails.

For those of you want to go further into this, two great books are recommended. First, for fans of the Professor, as Jerry Thomas is occasionally called, try David Wondrich’s wonderful “Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar.” And for those who wish to hear the word from DeGroff himself, I suggest “The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks.”

Next week we’ll look at what you need to become a mixologist at home.


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