Friday, December 26, 8:25 p.m. EDT
Manhattan’s Pegu Club is heaven for this confirmed cocktailian, but rather than St. Peter wielding his keys to heaven, I’m met by a duo of bartenders wielding mighty muddlers and bar spoons.
I’ve come home—literally—to New York, which I noted with satisfaction, walking down Houston Street, smells like … New York. Here, every corner yields a new dark, basement or attic mixology cubbyhole—Pegu Club, Tailor, Please Don’t Tell ... On yet another classic cocktail quest, I’m not about to dally with modernity, not even the signature Pegu Club (the venue and cocktail so named for a Rangoon outpost of the British Empire; try it at Downtown Cocktail Room); I’m going off-menu.
“A … a Hemingway Daiquiri … ?” I ask with trepidation.
The last three times I ordered it in Vegas were met with folly, which only highlighted the uphill battle the cocktail renaissance faces in Sin City, a situation likely to be exacerbated by 2009 belt-tightening.
“Uh, we don’t have a blender,” the bartender at Frankie’s Tiki Room had answered. This unsweetened, unblended cocktail of light rum, lime, grapefruit and maraschino cherry liqueur (whatdyaknow: Hemingway was diabetic) would have been wildly out of place at sugar-happy Frankie’s anyway. But one thing Frankie’s does know—beside tiki décor and surf rock—is the Mai Tai. So I switched gears and enjoyed that much-loved, oft-disputed classic instead.
I watch Pegu’s bartender intently as he assembles my Hemingway Daiquiri. He moves behind the bar like an actor in one of those Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-esque films—his kata has him expressing fresh lime and grapefruit into the pint glass, then adding the Luxardo maraschino and rum. In a tiny, old-fashioned cocktail glass the little six-ouncer comes to me with all the daintiness of its age.
I sip, and sigh softly.
At Vegas’ Sidebar last week, a similar ritual yielded a similar cocktail but elicited no such sigh. It was huge, which hampers the whole cocktailing-as-sport thing and contained multiple bar spoons of sugar; Hemingway would have ended up in a coma on the floor.
At the Square Apple on East Sahara, I tried my Hem-Daiq line on bartender Chris, but the only classics being celebrated there are the Negroni, the Blood and Sand and the Original Mai Tai. A budding den of mixology, yes, but timeless cocktails ... not so much. I opted once again for the latter, if just for comparison’s sake. “We’re trying to make it like a classic New York spot with Vegas tendencies,” said GM Jamaal Ealey. He has just attended the same mixology class that I have been taking for months at Southern Wine & Spirits, but while I came away with a profound love for mixology’s very foundations, Ealey wants, no, requires that his bartenders create new, original cocktails using only the very best ingredients we sampled in our classes. Same class, two very different schools of thought, both benefiting the industry overall.
Come January 1, bars have an important decision to make. They can either move up the ladder of quality to attract cocktailians, or move down the ladder with cost-cutting decisions. Standing in the snow outside Southern the night before my Square Apple visit, Anthony Alba, owner of Liquidity Global beverage consulting, gave me faith for the coming year. “People always drink,” he said. “They just drink differently.”
Alba’s prediction for 2009: The changing administration brings new hope and, “With new hope brings a new kind of mentality.” We’ve been in a backspin and when we come out of it, “People are going to be more optimistic in their drinking habits.” They’ll spend more, try more. Two camps will form, he says: venues looking to grow and venues hoping to sustain. The growth-minded will accept lower profits over a longer time period and will invest in bartenders as craftspersons and in ingredients like traditional herbal liqueurs, alternative base spirits (Pisco, Arrack), egg, fresh fruit, spices and herbs, plus house-made syrups or mixers. Those subsisting will make dramatic quality cuts, hoping for high profits in the short term.
“We’re kind of in a new renaissance for cocktails in this country ... That might drive the niche people to kick it into high gear.” And when they do, Sidebar, Downtown Cocktail Room, the Square Apple and Frankie’s will be waiting for them.