One of the great things about blogging about booze: the interesting people you run into.
While on a recent trip to Henderson’s Total Wine, I ran into a gentleman named Joe Intiso in the bourbon section. We almost immediately began discussing our favorite bourbons, ones we still wanted to try, and those we had trouble finding. It turned out Joe knew a hell of a lot more about bourbon—and spirits in general—than I. That’s because he’s a bartender, but not just any bartender. He works at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in the Venetian, and is in training to become a certified mixologist.
Upon learning who I was, Joe invited me to a cocktail pairing—he would pick all the cocktails and the best dishes to have with them. How could I possibly refuse?
A few weeks later I found myself at a small alcove of the bar at Postrio, with Joe taking the reins for the evening. I’m sure many readers out there have done a wine pairing or two. Take it from me: Do a cocktail pairing. Now.
Before we even got started, manager Jason Gordon came over and picked out an appetizer for me: Deep-fried calamari and shrimp with a sweet Thai chili sauce. Instead of the usual amber color for deep-fried products, these were off-white, a result of using corn starch and potato starch in the restaurant’s ongoing efforts to be gluten-free. Wonderful start to the evening, and someone needs to bottle and sell that sauce; I could have that with every meal.
Joe decided to pair my appetizer with a Negroni (gin, Campari, Carpano Antica vermouth and soda). Its sweet/bitter combo took a bit of getting used to, but sometimes you need to challenge your taste buds, right?
The next drink was as much fun to watch Joe make as it was to drink: Corpse Reviver #2, invented by Harry Craddock around the mid-1920s. Originally intended as a hangover cure, it’s made with gin, Cocchi Americano (an aperitif wine), orange Curacao, lemon juice and topped off with a Maraska cherry. But, in a bit of showmanship, Joe took out a small spray bottle and sprayed the glass before pouring the drink. I discovered shortly after that the spray was absinthe, a pretty powerful drink on its own that added a nice accent to the already sharp, crisp drink. Joe paired it with a spring asparagus soup topped with crème fraiche, lobster, croutons, garlic salt and pepper. The richness of the soup went, well, pretty wonderfully with the cocktail.
Before the next course, Joe couldn’t resist making me the original version of the Corpse Reviver, called, obviously, Corpse Reviver #1. Not much is known about this drink’s origins, other than it came from somewhere in France—hence the use of cognac, sweet vermouth and Benedictine, an herbal liqueur. It’s basically a cognac Manhattan, and Joe spiced it up a bit by carmelizing some orange zest with his lighter. It’s much richer than its counterpart, and much softer. The two drinks could not be more different, and while I appreciated the effort, I found myself anxiously awaiting the next course.
Next up was the classic Aviation, invented by Hugo Ensslin at the Hotel Wallick. Its combination of gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and Crème de Yvette ensured a very lush, easy-drinking experience. This got paired with a Pink Lady Apple Salad – arugula, pink lady apples, blue cheese crumbles, shaved Parmesan, endive, dates, fennel, sherry vinaigerette and spiced almonds. The combo of these two together was almost like eating dessert.
My main course was a plate of Puck’s world-famous spaghetti and meatballs, paired with one of the most famous cocktails of all time, the Crusta, designed by Joe Santini in New Orleans. The Cosmo, Aviation, so many others … they were all made possible with the creation of the Crusta, Joe explained. It was originally made with brandy, but Joe substituted bourbon, specifically Blanton’s. Combining Curacao, lemon juice, egg white and orange bitters and shaken cold with ice so as to get a nice froth, this drink looks literally like egg white soup. A little sugar around the rim offered a nice counterpoint for the powerful bourbon bite.
(Around this time in the pairing experience, Joe made me one of his original creations, but I will be writing about that amazing concoction another time. It was so good, it deserves its own writeup. Stay tuned.)
The highlight of the evening, by a mile, was Joe’s original Manhattan (it doesn’t even have a name yet). He swaps out the vermouth for a Madeira wine and adds a bit of amaretto in addition to the Angostura orange bitters. Best of all? He used one of the best bourbons on the planet, George T. Stagg, which is as powerful and pricey as it is hard to find. This got paired with one of the best desserts I have ever had: chocolate beignets with vanilla syrup and caramel macchiato ice cream. This combo was so over the top I couldn’t leave anything on the plate or in the glass.
Joe’s final touch was a classic Mai Tai, but truthfully I didn’t drink much of it. I wanted to savor all that had come before.