Cocktail Hour: Time has come (again) for classic drinks

The memory of Prohibition is fading quickly as more and more local bartenders make a heady plunge into classic cocktail culture. Balancing booze with fastidiously matched flavors, hand-crafted cocktails flex culinary flair. After all, you are what you drink.

Hush lights. Dim whispers. Lawless night cats perched on the seats. While the speakeasy culture of the 1920s and early ’30s may have been a sexy necessity, its contemporary revival is a matter of taste.

“If you look at the history of cocktails from the 1930s to, really, the 1990s, there was no real jump forward,” said Ted Kilgore of Taste by Niche in Benton Park, who has been making classic-style cocktails since 2002. “Prohibition killed all the creativity, and then people drank very monochromatic things. Cocktails in the late 1800s and early 1900s were a lot more flavor-driven.”

One example of a flattened-out cocktail: the dry martini. “Everyone drinks this bone-dry martini that is all gin, and it’s not a martini,” Kilgore said. “To make a cocktail, you have to have bitters and you have to have vermouth and you have to have a good amount of gin. The thing is a combination of spirits.”

Kilgore’s current menu includes freshly minted mixtures of pear liqueur, yellow Chartreuse and white chocolate (The 19th Century) and duck fat-infused oloroso sherry, Balvenie DoubleWood, Pedro Ximénez and a whole egg (Frontera Flip). Red Kitchen and Bar downtown and Eclipse Restaurant in the East Loop – headed up, respectively, by Edan Ballantine and Lucas Ramsey – offer specialty drinks with similar complexity. Culinary-grade cocktails can also be found at Herbie’s Vintage 72 in the Central West End and Maplewood’s Monarch Restaurant.

“With the cocktails we make, we like to have layers to them, like a fine wine,” said Nate Selsor of Monarch, who served frozen margaritas as a novice bartender. Over the years, Matthew Seiter, bar manager of the upcoming Sanctuaria in The Grove, has likewise retooled his approach. “When I first started out bartending, it was, like, ‘How many vodka tonics can you pour an hour?’” Seiter said. “And then once I got into mixology, it was, like, ‘What quality of a cocktail can you make? What methods do you use?’”

Convincing cocktails require more than a solid recipe. That said, following the recipe is a good place to start.

Certified sommelier Jason Main recently piloted a vintage cocktail class at The Wine Merchant in Clayton. He makes a point of measuring ingredients during demonstrations. “In classes, I like to reinforce that this is chemistry,” he said. “Free pouring is so often a nasty culprit in bars. You need to get your proportions right. If you free pour to something like a Corpse Reviver No. 2, it’ll be a lackluster cocktail.”

Some bartenders will argue that veterans of the stick can rely on instinct and eyeballing. Michelle Bildner of Monarch and Taste isn’t one of them.

“I’ve made a Blood and Sand a hundred million times, but I will measure it every single time,” she said. “You can’t put crazy, weird ingredients together when you don’t measure. It’s not going to taste right. You might as well not even make the drink at all.”
Wreck the balance, spoil the taste. Anyone who agrees with this caveat will pick up a jigger when making cocktails that have multiple components. Precision in shaking and stirring is another calling card of an earnest barkeep.

“Water is a big part of how a cocktail tastes,” Selsor said. “So when we shake, we shake it for at least 20 seconds to get the drink cold and to get the ice to melt to the right consistency. When I shake a cocktail, I’m putting all the energy into moving my arm and counting in my head.” He laughed, “Sometimes I forget to breathe.”
Cocktails without a juice component may be stirred 50 – count ’em, 50 – times to achieve the proper chill, balance and dilution. Giving drinks care that is tender and loving takes a little longer, it’s true.

“Making drinks this way can be a hard sell,” said Heather Dodderer, bar manager of Herbie’s. “It took a little time to convince my own staff that it doesn’t take that much more time to do it right.”

“Bartending is not just sliding beers and doing two-ingredient drinks across the bar,” Seiter echoed. “There is a craft to it. Some people take it, some people leave it. I’d just like to see more people take it.” Earlier this fall, Seiter collaborated with Dodderer, Selsor, Kilgore and T.J. Vytlacil to form a local chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, which provides beverage service professionals with networking and educational opportunities. St. Louis is one of just 14 cities in the country to host such a group.

Sign him up, said Matt Obermark, general manager of the upcoming Pi in the Central West End, which will have a spacious bar serving cocktails with a classic sensibility. “You start drinking this style of cocktails – like at Monarch and Herbie’s – and you’re not just going to go back to drinking gin and tonics,” he said.

Obermark sometimes plucks successful flavor combos from the food he eats. Jennifer Pensoneau, owner of JFires’ Market Bistro in Waterloo, Ill., also connects cooking with cocktail-making. “I’ve been in the kitchen for 15 years, and I was able to use alcohol and liqueurs in my food preparation,” she said. “Now I’m looking at making fine drinks, going with the same concept as in the kitchen: Start with great ingredients.” Pensoneau already uses fresh-squeezed juices and fresh-cut herbs at the bar, and is currently gearing up to train her staff about spirits and mixology. (One rule has already established itself: Measure the ingredients.) “I want them to know the traditional methods and techniques, so we can move on from there,” she said.

Contemporary mixology draws heavily from traditional cocktail recipes – and as such amounts to a precession of switcharoos and riffs. Even Kilgore, who has committed hundreds of recipes to memory in addition to creating scores of his own, has been known to crack open a recipe book behind the bar.

“It’s my personal opinion that people have to go back to the roots and first learn the old way of doing things,” Seiter said. “Once you get the proper methods down and study the history of spirits, it’s all about the ingredients and how you interpret the flavor profiles.”

Liquor, like wine, tastes different from bottle to bottle and producer to producer. That’s why bartenders constantly hit the books and reach for a tasting glass. Rest assured that any cocktail popping up on a menu is the result of to-and-fro adjustments made for each of its parts.

But as Bildner pointed out, “People don’t trust bartenders yet as much as they trust chefs.” Still, this seems to be changing. Kilgore – who like Seiter often “freestyles,” serving drinks based on a patron’s palate and drinking preferences – said that his customers at Taste consult the menu less and less.

“If I know the bartender and they know what I like, and they can build it sweet, salty, sour – that’s like a million dollars to me,” Kilgore said.

Once Vytlacil, private events coordinator at downtown’s Flamingo Bowl, made a biker believe in classic cocktails. “He came into Monarch and ordered a Cosmo. I told him he couldn’t have one. He hesitated, and I told him, ‘Listen, let me make you something, and if you don’t like it, I’ll make you the best Cosmo you’ve ever had.’ I made him one of my cocktails called So ’Cue (equal parts soju, lime juice, bianco vermouth and Hendrick’s Gin and a little simple syrup) and the next week he brought in a big group of his biker friends.”

When Terrene opened four years ago in the Central West End, bar manager Sunny McElwain, who likes to make liquid renditions of her favorite desserts using quality liqueurs such as Domaine de Canton ginger and St. Germain elderflower, offered old-time cocktails à la the Moscow Mule. Her early cocktail menu also featured original creations such as a Negroni spin based on the artichoke-derived spirit Cynar. These savory cocktails didn’t sell well, McElwain said, though she and co-worker Jamie Kilgore have seen requests for vintage cocktails pick up of late. “I’ve had more calls for Sidecars in the last six months than probably ever before,” McElwain said. “I attribute that to my peers who have been working to change the way we think about cocktails.”

Vintage momentum is also building at The Royale Food & Spirits, the South City stickler for fresh-juice cocktails, where bartenders Robert Griffin and Roxanna Ratossa are a month into a “cocktail museum” series. On certain nights, curious bar patrons can sample pre-Prohibition drinks – think Hemingway Daiquiris and Tom and Jerrys – along with a smattering of mid-20th-century selections. “We only have a few menus left at the end of the night,” Griffin said. “People seem to be reading them and taking them home.”

Craft bartenders tend to reject the suggestion that classic cocktails are a trend. “We have a Tiki drink on our menu right now – the Trader Vic’s Mai Tai,” Selsor said. “I don’t care what decade or era or what craze or fad it came from. If it’s a good drink, it’s a good drink, and we’ll make it.”

Bildner added: “Saying it’s trendy just negates the purpose of why cocktailian bartenders are doing this. I like the idea of resurgence; it can last, it can stay.”