We have been in the middle of a cocktail revolution since the late 1990s. This is a time in our history when a well-made drink is served with as much pride as a foi gras terrine once was. Ingredients and innovation have become the staples of beverage menus at the best bars in the country.
Technique is also being tested in these places, and I'm not talking about jugglers who dazzle you with flair, but rather classic professionals who prefer flavors over pomp and circumstance. Today, mixologists are hired with as much precision as chefs and are coveted among restaurant owners as key elements to a successful business.
Due to the effort that goes into creating a single cocktail, some drink prices have soared to astronomical figures to compensate for highly specialized ingredients. In larger cities, it is common to see cocktails priced more than $15. We even witnessed the perfect martini for $10,000 in 2004 at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. It was garnished with a diamond ring. Thus, we, the public, feel like we are a part of something special when we indulge ourselves in these guilty pleasures. We are, in fact, a part of the cocktail revolution.
The cocktail has origins dating back to the very early 1800s and has had a glimpse of notoriety in a few decades since then. However, no period in time has put the cocktail on such a pedestal as we see today. If I had to pinpoint an event that could be attributed with the start of the latest cocktail revolution, it would have to be the drink known as the Cosmopolitan (Cosmo, for short) put forth in the HBO series "Sex and the City." This media smash not only glamorized life in New York City, but brought the trends of the metropolis to a vast majority of TVs across the country. Thus, the pink cocktail served in martini glasses was offered at, virtually every bar in America. As the series continued, so did the desire to drink trendy and glamorous beverages. The mojito soon followed the Cosmopolitan in the ranks of so-called "hot drinks" that stemmed from the show. The demise of the iconic series was sure to end the cocktail trend, but, instead, we have seen our cocktails reach new heights and claim even more importance in our national food and beverage scene.
While the media plays an important role in the popularity of the cocktail, the culinary advancements in the kitchen have been the true inspiration behind the bar. The forthcoming of molecular gastronomy, where chefs study and manipulate the chemical processes that occur while cooking, possibly had the greatest impact. This led to molecular mixology, which is the same in principle, only with bar drinks. Replacing the term "bartender" with phrases like "bar chef" and "mixologist" has increased the awareness of skill involved in creating the delectable drinks. Thus, the onset of infused spirits, solid cocktails, shattered fruit and ingredients beyond imagination have perched our drinking habits firmly on flavor and texture. Likewise, the use of crafted spirits and rare ingredients has become the calling cards for mixologists across America. It seems to me, the new monikers given to bartenders actually raised the standards and the expectations of the job. What a great concept.
Exactly what are we getting at and how far are we going to take the innovation of the cocktail? My most-recent favorite cocktail bar in NYC, called P.D.T. or Please Don't Tell, offers a bacon-infused bourbon with maple syrup as the main ingredients in its Old Fashioned. Not a bacon fan? Definitely try the buttered popcorn rum or the Staggerac, which is 140 proof bourbon and absinthe.
Jim Meehan, the famed mixologist behind the drinks at P.D.T., likes the classic cocktails that he can spin into a world that outstrips anything your imagination could dream up. Given the menu, I'd say he does it well.
Likewise, a friend and colleague in Los Angeles named Chris Bostik is an enthusiastic supporter of locally grown produce and fruit when it comes to his cocktails. Simply reading about his Cherry Smash which uses Hibiscus-infused tequila, limes and mint from his backyard and his neighbor's cherries, will bring dreams of moving to California. His organic approach to mixology creates a story well beyond the drink itself. As you can see, much like the food we eat, cocktails have become regionally specialized according to climate and taste of the local population. This indicates that the masses have accepted, given license to and supported the professionals behind the bar creating these culinary delights.
The cocktail revolution could end tomorrow. There is no doubt something new is due to take its place in the near future. Until then, we will live a lush, muddled life in a Boston shaker.
Kevin Hoover, a local food and beverage manager, is engaged in the endless pursuit of the perfect cocktail and dining experience. Check out his blog at lushlifeonline.com, including the entry "The Four Letter Suffix That Ruins My Day" which clears up confusion over the difference between a cocktail and martini.