BY ROBERT WILLEY; © 2011 New York Times News Service; Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate
So, what’ll it be tonight? How about a Smoke Signal made with bacon-infused rye, chipotle syrup, cold-brewed coffee ice and porter? Or the Grillo Cancion, an exotic and possibly deranged member of the Collins family that fuses pisco, cumin syrup, citrus and celery bitters? Or maybe a Knot Twist would hit the spot: a 60-milliliter riot of malty genever, smoky Scotch, smokier mezcal, absinthe, maraschino and bitters, stirred into accord and set before you like a dare?
These are just three of the strange and wonderful concoctions at Scott & Co. at 47 Scott, a 24-seat bar in Tucson, Arizona, that serves some of the country’s most creative cocktails. Sprung from the imagination of Ciaran Wiese, these newfangled refreshments highlight an ascendant caste of bartenders, more akin to doctoral candidates than service-industry workers, whose command over the ever-expanding canon of mixed drinks spawns not only variations on the classics but also variations on the variations.
But there’s a flip side to this creative efflorescence, looming large as demand for refreshment grows: The gap between zeitgeist cocktails and stuff you might actually whip up at home has become a chasm.
While obscure ingredients are partly to blame, the sheer number of items found in many drinks presents a psychic conundrum all its own. No matter how refreshing the payoff, there’s a point where assembling a drink overtakes your ability to enjoy it.
That’s why we asked some of the country’s top bartenders (old hands and newcomers, free-thinkers and classicists) to create streamlined coolers built for easy drinking. Our parameters were stringent: three ingredients, no fancy infusions.
We didn’t count basic components like sugar, simple syrup and seltzer, and we allowed straightforward garnishes like twists, fruit slices and herb sprigs. We omitted brand names whenever possible, because slaking thirst shouldn’t require a special trip to the better liquor store on the far side of town. Our goal was simple: loads of refreshment, minimal effort.
“I’m happy that there are guys out there who are doing weird things and innovating and making new drinks,” said St. John Frizell, the owner of Fort Defiance in Brooklyn. “But that’s not for me.” Before opening his bar, he spent 18 months honing his skills at Pegu Club, the Manhattan cocktail lounge that has spawned some of the city’s most forward-thinking mixologists.
When it came to devising his own list, however, he chose simplicity. Today his signature drink is a Tom Collins. He also makes a cucumber rendition and a 710-milliliter jumbo version called Sumo Collins, but that’s about as far as he cares to push this timeless blend of gin and fizzy lemonade.
“You could add seven more ingredients, but that’s not going to make it better,” he said. “It’s just going to make it more complicated.”
He is not the only one partial to minimalist refreshments. At Momofuku Ssäm Bar in Manhattan, the new cocktail list celebrates a trio of three-ingredient classics—the sour, the old-fashioned, the Manhattan—that function as formulas as much as they do drinks. Trade Campari for bourbon, add fizz, and your whiskey sour becomes a bracing, low-proof Collins.
You’ll also find formula-driven concoctions at Spoonbar in Healdsburg, California. Despite his fondness for elaborate garniture, the bar’s manager, Scott Beattie, deploys a sour recipe as foolproof as it is flexible: 44 milliliters of liquor, half as much lime juice and 14 milliliters of sweetener. For a mojito, he swaps the gin and basil in his summer gimlet for rum, mint and a splash of seltzer. For an amplified margarita, he rotates in tequila, cilantro and agave nectar. “I love that ratio,” he said.
Sometimes a simple cocktail offers a breather on a list crowded with ambitious concoctions. Italia Libera, a riff on the Cuba Libre that shares space with salted chipotle Demerara syrup and house-made orgeat on Chaim Dauermann’s summer menu at ‘inoteca e liquori’ bar in New York, removes Coke from the usual equation and forges an unlikely alliance between overproof rum and amaro. It nails the sweet spot between simplicity and innovation, fusing two stubborn ingredients with sugar, citrus and seltzer to create a drink that honors the original by improving it.
Other combinations succeed by recasting familiar ingredients in a fresh, seasonal light. Absinthe Frappe, from the bartender Lydia Reissmueller of Central in Portland, Oregon, yanks its namesake ingredient from the clutches of Serious Mixology and jostles it with cream and fine ice for a triumphant cooler that’s equal parts whimsy and decadence. Guadalajara Sour, a riff on the whiskey-based New York Sour by the mixologist Michael Bowers at Modern Hotel and Bar in Boise, Idaho, brokers a novel friendship between tequila and rose, two staples with more in common than you may realize.
Bobby Heugel is not an obvious source for breezy recipes you can bang out on a whim. An owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, he recently spent six weeks plowing through 36 bottles of gin, rum, aquavit and fortified wine to perfect his formula for a mustard-green-infused blend of dry and white vermouths. His new summer menu includes a riff on milk punch made with buttermilk, Chartreuse and maple syrup; a rum-and-sassafras julep garnished with roasted okra seeds steeped in Angostura bitters; and a pecan-and-popcorn-rice horchata whose inaugural batch took 18 hours to fabricate. He also makes cocktails with oats.
Tonight in Tucson, Wiese will make cocktails with espresso tincture, peach vinegar and Portuguese-style milk liqueur. When his shift is over, he’ll probably order what he often does: a shot of Campari topped with IPA.
Served over ice with a twist of lemon, it’s bound to infuriate Italians and beer geeks alike. Which is fine, because it also happens to be delicious, an offhand work of genius that ripens as the ice melts and the ale warms, as bitter citrus fuses with floral hops, as juicy bursts of grapefruit explode like sunsets pancaking on the horizon. It’s that tasty.
Sometimes the best cocktail is the one you don’t have to think about.