The 1880s ushered in the biggest cocktail boom America has ever seen. Up until a full century later, says Blue Star bartender Nate Windham, the majority of cocktails still hailed from that era. That was the Gilded Age, when men sported canes, long jackets, top hats and those dapper vests now revived by hipster baristas. And, as in seemingly all times in history, they took easily to the bottle.
"Thousands of drinks were created during that time period because bartenders were trying to create their own cocktails," he says. And since the cocktail resurgence arrived, around 15 years ago by Windham's count, bartenders have once again been actively stirring and shaking to create all-liquor lovelies rather than just employing juice to hide the hooch.
"Next to the 1880s, this is probably the biggest time for cocktails that this country has ever seen," he adds, thanks to a handful of bartenders across the country who have "kept the spirit alive": Dale DeGroff, Murray Stenson and Jeffrey Morgenthaler, to name a few.
Indy readers' pick for top bartender in Best Of 2013, Windham has manned bar counters for almost 18 years across 30 states. TGI Fridays' unique passport program, which allows employees to work at locations across the nation, deserves credit for much of that experience, though prior to his three years at the Blue Star he also crafted concoctions locally at Red Martini and Blondie's, most notably.
The 40-year-old was first exposed to the cocktail world when he bought a historical cocktail book featuring original recipes. Now, with the information just a click away on the Internet, things have clearly exploded, and hyper-informed, history-minded mixologists like Windham are popping up all over the country.
"I'm not the most creative bartender, which is part of the reason why I've landed in the classics so much," he says. "Making those drinks the right and best way is what helps bring people into my business."
In his own words below (edited only for length), Windham proffers the five spirits he wants everyone to try, and six drinks he believes everybody should drink, at least once. Tapping into his commendable plethora of drink-house knowledge, he expounds upon the flavor legacies that were fine enough to endure for that 100 years. Welcome (back) to the golden age.
Five spirits to drink
1. Rye whiskey
Rye whiskey is a liquor that fell off the map after Prohibition. With the big cocktail resurgence, it has come back strong as the fastest-growing market for whiskey. Because of this resurgence, unfamiliar liquors such as this are starting to be behind bars.
A cousin of Cognac, Armagnac is one of the original distilled spirits in the world. Cognac, such as VSOP, ages for six to 12 years. Armagnac ages for eight to 16 years. You can taste the artisanal hands in it when you're drinking it.
I think of brands as ingredients. And there are a handful of unique brands from France now available in the U.S. that most people have never had a chance to put in their mouths. Brands like Bonal and Salers, two traditional French aperitifs, have their place in mixed drinks and on their own.
The bitter flavor is something we don't really use much, so it's a unique flavor but it is very popular in Europe. It's really interesting the way it dries your mouth and prepares you for a meal. Fernet Branca, a spirit from Italy, and even Jäger is considered an herbal bitter.
5. Sloe gin
A popular product in Europe, the sloe gin is made with regular lemon-dried gin and pricked sloe berries (little plums) that are macerated in the gin. After marinating for a while, it takes up a beautiful, rich flavor from the plum.
In the 1940s, all of the available sloe gin from overseas disappeared. So, all these crappy liquor places like DeKuyper and Hiram Walker started making their own version of sloe gin, which were just grain-neutral spirits with a flavoring of gin. Now, with the cocktail resurgence, real sloe gin is back on the market with brands like Plymouth and Bitter Truth. People with a preconceived notion about it ought to go back and revisit because it's changed drastically from what they expect from it.
Six cocktails to sip
1. Old Fashioned
As the oldest cocktail, the Old Fashioned Cocktail first entered the scene in 1806. When you walked into a bar in the early 1800s and ordered a cocktail, that was the drink you got. It wasn't an umbrella term for every mixed drink. It's what started all of this. They were drinking mixed drinks before this, but had never made a single drink for one person when they ordered it.
After the end of Prohibition, the Old Fashioned changed. The whiskey companies started making short-aged whiskies that weren't as nicely flavored as they were before Prohibition.
The traditional garnish was an orange slice and a cherry, which are still used today. After Prohibition, they started muddling the orange and cherry into the whiskey because it helped fight off some of that harshness due to the whiskey's short age.
Now that we know more about the history of cocktails, we've learned that the Old Fashioned has four ingredients: whiskey, water, bitters and sugar. So, a true Old Fashioned should be made without the muddled fruit. I use an original garnish, a lemon twist and a cherry, which is how the drink was originally made. The original recipe calls for a sugar cube, where you muddle the cube with a little bit of water and add the whiskey. I use simple syrup because it's easier and mixes better. You're basically making a sweet, spiced whiskey.
The Manhattan marked the first time we'd seen liquor and vermouth mixed together as a cocktail. It was the first cocktail served in a Manhattan glass, or what we now call a martini glass.
During Prohibition, the Manhattan started being made with bourbon instead of rye, the original American whiskey. Rye has a big heavy spice to it and needs to be tamed a bit. But bourbon is sweeter and made to drink on its own or with water. The sweet vermouth in a Manhattan tames down the heartiness of rye. So, a Manhattan made with bourbon and sweet vermouth comes out a little too sweet and murky. Rye whiskey enhances the whiskey and pulls unique flavors from the rye.
We finally got our hands on the original vermouth that was first produced in the world. The Manhattan I make here is as close to the original 1840s Manhattan as I can get. Carpano Antica, what I use in our Manhattans, is as close supposedly to the very first sweet vermouth that was produced.
Rittenhouse is my favorite rye because it's inexpensive, 100-proof and makes a big, hearty Manhattan. But I typically use Russell's Reserve rye because it's softer, approachable and not quite as big of a jump from a bourbon Manhattan to a rye whiskey Manhattan.
A martini has gin instead of whiskey. It was the first time we put gin and vermouth together into a cocktail. Eventually dry vermouth became popular, so they started making gin and dry vermouth, dubbed the martini. But we don't know where the name came from or when exactly it started to show up. But it became the cocktail for the next hundred years. That's the impact the martini had on the drinking culture here. They named that glass after the drink and that glass became the symbol of a bar.
Vermouth is a wine-based liquor, so it needs to be stored in a refrigerator to prevent oxidation. For many years, bartenders stored it in a well and it would oxidize and turn into vinegar just like white wine. And, the amount of vermouth used in a martini diminished to almost none. So, you weren't drinking a martini anymore. You were drinking a cold glass of gin.
Now that we know how to properly store vermouth, we can up the proportion of vermouth-to-gin in the martini. It is the best cocktail I make and the only cocktail I drink. You just can't make a better drink than a martini that's made properly.
My favorite gin is Junipero from San Francisco. But, I use Plymouth, my beginner martini gin, because it's more approachable. I'm trying to change people's minds into wanting a gin martini as opposed to a vodka-tini.
A Negroni is equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. During Prohibition, Campari was legal and considered medicine. It's such a hard-to-drink spirit that they probably didn't think people would be out drinking it. You could go into a pharmacy without a prescription and buy a bottle.
So, that led to a very popular drink called an Americano that was sweet vermouth and Campari. The story goes that there was a Count Negroni in Italy who drank Americanos all the time and decided he wanted something a little lighter so he asked the bartender to cut it with gin. And, that's where Negroni comes from.
In a Negroni, the Campari evolves into something different with just a nice, bitter finish instead of being so harsh on your palate. Nolet's Gin is my favorite gin to use, which has a little bit of a raspberry and peach flavor to tame the Campari even more.
A Sazerac is a rye whiskey with New Orleans' Peychaud's Bitters, served with a little bit of sugar and in an absinthe-rimmed glass. This was the first drink I made when I got my first bottle of absinthe, which has only been legal since 2007. It blew me away. You rinse the glass with absinthe simply for the aroma. The drink itself doesn't taste like absinthe. Every time you take a sip, you get this beautiful herbal floral-ness to match the whiskey you're drinking.
Sazerac rye is my favorite, but it is hard to get your hands on. Peychaud's Bitters, created by Antoine Peychaud in New Orleans, was originally used as medicine. He made it easier for people to drink by adding it to a little bit of Cognac, called Sazerac de Forge et Fils, hence, the name Sazerac. That drink got to be so popular in the 1850s and 1860s that there was actually a Sazerac house in New Orleans. The building is still there and on the front sidewalk, it says Sazerac House.
6. Ramos Gin Fizz
A Spanish immigrant named Henry Ramos created the Ramos Gin Fizz in the 1880s in New Orleans. During an annual food and wine expo, he set up a booth outside his bar making Ramos Gin Fizz. His key to making the proper Ramos was to shake it as hard as you could for as long as you could to make a milk-like consistency. To do so, Ramos hired 10 to 12 "shaker boys" to shake as long as they could, passing it all the way down the line for about 10 to 15 minutes.
The Ramos Gin Fizz was Huey Long's favorite drink. When he went to D.C., he couldn't find a proper Ramos Gin Fizz. So, he flew his bartender up from New Orleans and took him from bar to bar so he could teach all the other bartenders how to properly make one.
In an interview in The New York Times in the 1930s, Ramos finally released his recipe for the first time. Vanilla extract is the secret ingredient that nobody ever knew was included. The drink is also made with gin, milk, egg, lemon juice, lime juice, orange-flower water and sugar. The egg white allows the citrus and cream to bind together. I shake my drink until I'm sweating. On average, I shake it for three to four minutes. It's the only way you can make it turn out the way it should.
Gordon's Gin is one of the traditional, inexpensive brands that is used in a lot of cocktails. There is something about Gordon's that melds into a Ramos so well. The drink is not on the menu at The Blue Star, but if someone comes in and asks me to make one, I will happily make one. If it were on the menu, I'd have to bring in one bartender just for that.