Just as bartenders have evolved to become more knowledgeable and engaged with their craft, so too have bar patrons. But not every bar—nor every barkeep—can keep up. Pay attention and you might spot a few surefire signs: If your bartender mixes a classic daiquiri with bottled sour mix, or shakes a Manhattan (a drink that should invariably be stirred) it’s an indication you ought to stick to the basics. We talked to a few cocktail industry vets to suss out other harbingers of doom behind the bar. Read more >
The perfect nightcap is different for everyone. For some it’s a stomach-settling shot of Fernet Branca, for others it’s a perfectly crafted Manhattan and for many it’s whatever is left in the bottle.
This past Tuesday night at the inaugural Sip a Nightcap competition presented by Santa Teresa, four judges including Leo Robitschek, of Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad, and “King Cocktail” Dale DeGroff judged the ultimate nightcap to be Jessica Gonzalez’s Fortune Teller cocktail: a simple but powerful mix of Santa Teresa 1796 rum, Cynar (an artichoke-based Italian liqueur) and Bonal (a bitter French aperitif wine). It is exactly what Robitschek looks for in a nightcap: Four ingredients or less. Strong and stirred. “Something that makes you want another sip but also doesn’t make you want to drink it too quickly.”
While Gonzalez’s drink falls in line with the modern cocktail trend of brown and boozy, nightcaps weren’t always like that. Here, cocktail historian DeGroff shares four examples of some historic nightcaps that probably wouldn't have stood a chance in the competition.
Coffee Cocktail “It was half Cognac, half port, an egg and a teaspoon of sugar, shaken very hard. There was no coffee in it. They called it the coffee cocktail because it looked like coffee with cream and sugar. That was a nightcap from the turn of the century from the 19th to the 20th—when everything was richer and sweeter.”
Stinger “Half Cognac, half white crème de menthe, shaken very hard, served over crushed ice. In the ’70s and ’60s we were eating these rich French foods, so when you got to the end of a meal of wine and multicourses and cheese and creamy this and saucy that, you had this minty, icy cold Cognac–crème de menthe drink. It was kind of an adult after-dinner mint.”
Frappés “In the ’60s you had women—mostly—who after dinner would order frappéed liqueurs like green crème de menthe and white crème de cacao. It was a crème over crushed ice.”
Brandy Alexander “Around the same time as the frappés, the last thing you had at night if you were a kid out with a phony ID was a Brandy Alexander: Cognac, white crème de cacao and heavy cream, shaken.”
Mead may call to mind Friar Tuck in that Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood, or something sipped only by Renaissance fair–goers for the sake of historical accuracy. But the honey wine is worth drinking even when smoked turkey legs and jousts aren’t involved. Ranging from dry to sweet, floral to earthy, mead can pair with anything from buttery desserts to spicy Sichuan. At Distilled NY, a Tribeca tavern inspired by the American public houses of yore, bartender Benjamin Wood features four meads and one mead-based cocktail. “Mead is the grandfather of all fermented beverages,” he says. “It’s the OG.”
Here, a mead primer from this honey wine lover:
What is Mead?
“Mead is fermented honey and water,” Wood says. “It can be sparkling, still, sweet, semisweet, dry, flavored with spices, and served like a mulled wine during the winter: warmed with cinnamon, nutmeg, orange and clove. The variations are limitless.” In terms of body, Wood compares it to a Riesling but heavier. “Expect it to have a more viscous texture than a typical dry white wine,” he says.
“Mead predates cultivated soil,” Wood says. “From what I understand, that began around 2000 BC. Some historians have used it as a marker to indicate the change in humanity from nature to culture.” Mead also is connected to the origination of the term honeymoon: “It is derived from a historical tradition where newlyweds were given honey wine (mead) to drink every day for one full moon after their wedding to enhance fertility,” Wood says. “Mead is considered a natural aphrodisiac.”
How to Serve Mead
“It’s made from honey, so there are particles that could coagulate when mead gets too cold, so a lot of people recommend serving it at room temperature,” Wood says. “But the response from the public is that they want it cooler, so we chill it. It’s just a matter of finding the right temperature so that it’s not cold enough to coagulate but chilled enough that it’s pleasing to a palate.”
4 Meads to Try
All of Distilled NY’s meads are still and come from New York: two from Earle Estates—the traditional, which is sweeter due to more residual sugar, and the semisweet contemporary. Rounding out the selection is a traditional, floral style from Carroll’s Mead, and one from Mystic Mead, which is made with a blend of wildflower honeys to achieve a “more herbaceous, earthy quality.”
How to Make a Mead Cocktail
At the bar, Wood uses Carroll’s Mead in the Mead Americano, his take on the classic bittersweet cocktail made with Campari, vermouth and club soda. “It’s a spirit-on-spirit, all-booze cocktail,” he says. He mixes Aperol with juniper-heavy Spring 44 gin and the lightly sweet mead, and then carbonates the drink in-house for fizz. It’s served on the rocks with a dash of grapefruit bitters and grapefruit oil.
I'm not saying I went to Cuba. But if I had gone, I probably would have spent most of the time eating lots of grilled lobster (the stripey Caribbean kind, not the red Maine kind) in paladares (restaurants run out of magnificent family homes) and over-consuming exceptional rum-based cocktails. As the birthplace of the mojito and the spot where Ernest Hemingway popularized the Papa Doble (a double frozen daiquiri), Havana would inspire any non-heretics to drink copious amounts of each. Again, I'm not saying that I went there, but if I had, these would probably have been my most memorable brushes with alcohol. MORE >
© Christina Holmes
It’s an essential tenet of mixology: Great drinks start with quality spirits. But when the liquor on hand would be more appropriate at a frat party than a cocktail bar, don’t give up. “Throw some fruit in there and kick-start an infusion,” suggests Brandon Lockman, a bartender at the Red Star Tavern, in Portland, Oregon.
Here, Lockman shares ideas for fantastic infusions for every spirit, plus the perfect summer cocktails to make with them. MORE >
Lafayette's Ouest Daisy © Noah Fecks
Historically consumed in Europe as a shot before or after a round of golf, kümmel, a caraway- and cumin-infused spirit that originated in Holland, has found its place in America as a sweet-savory addition to cocktails. At chef Andrew Carmellini’s newest New York hot spot, Lafayette, beverage manager Megan Mina uses Combier kümmel in a refreshing tequila cocktail.»
House Fermented Shandy Courtesy of Son of a Gun
One of the simplest summer cocktails, the shandy is a refreshing blend of beer and lemonade—or citrus soda or ginger ale depending on where you're ordering one. But since "simple" isn't American bartenders' M.O., shandy upgrades are popping up around the country that use seasonal syrups, spices, hard liquor and, in the case of Son of a Gun in Los Angeles, re-fermentation. MORE »
Donna's Strawberry Sky © Craig Cavallo / Serious Eats
Bartenders who love in-season strawberries for their bright, floral flavor and gorgeous color, are now debuting complex spring cocktails with contrasting ingredients like chilies, egg whites and vinegar. At Donna in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, bar manager Jeremy Oertel pairs the springy fruit with tequila and serrano peppers in the Strawberry Sky. MORE >