I've gone out drinking with friends twice in the past couple days, and in reviewing the various evenings' carousal, what strikes me the most is the utter contrast between the two excursions.
Let's start with Saturday evening. A friend from work was having a party at Jour et Nuit, a lounge near the Plaza Hotel. We got there at about 8:30, and the place was filling up but not packed. It wasn't my kind of place, really; I usually find lounges to be uncomfortable places with insipid drinks and too-loud music that prevents conversation, and this wasn't really an exception. There were lots of "beautiful" people there, or at least people who went to great trouble and expense to appear beautiful to someone. (My favorite was the Ann Coulter lookalike (sans La Coulter's adam's apple) with 5" heels and legs so skinny that her knees looked like an ostrich's). And, of course, as the night progressed, there were lots of "whoo!" girls grinding in place to the music, spilling drinks, and bumping me repeatedly with their overstuffed shopping bags that they would not put down (or leave at the coatroom, evidently.)
But I digress: this is a cocktail blog, after all: you're wondering "How were the drinks, man?" Fair point.
There were three bartenders working behind the stick, and they were pretty busy even when we got there. I eyeballed the liquor selection and the drinks that were being consumed around me -- lots of Cosmos, lychee martinis, and the like -- and decided on something relatively simple. I ordered it like I would in a hotel bar or similar place that isn't likely to attract cocktail geeks: "Manhattan, up, with bitters, please."
The bartender rolled his eyes. (Bad sign.) He then protested slightly: "Hey, you live in Manhattan, you work in Manhattan, you drink in Manhattan...why do you want to drink a Manhattan?"
Bartender: "Ewwww, I don't think I'd want to drink something called a Bronx."
Me, still trying to keep it light, but wanting my damn drink already: "Yeah, and I think the recipe for the Brooklyn is just water from Coney Island Creek, shaken and strained into a dirty glass."
The bartender laughed, and set about making my party's drink order. I thought I saw him making a Manhattan, but he was pretty busy. He handed me drinks for my girlfriend (a Cosmo, not bad aside from the sour mix), my friend and co-author Chico (he'd ordered a Martini, he got a glass of cold gin with three olives in it), and my friend Patty (who had asked him to make something with Bourbon that was on the sweet side -- he came up with something involving Bourbon, grenadine, sweet vermouth and sour mix that she really liked).
I waited by the bar to catch the bartender's attention, which I did after he'd made drinks for two or three other people. He saw me looking confused and asked if he could help me. "I ordered a Manhattan", I said.
"Didn't I hand it to you?" he asked.
"Um, no, you didn't."
"Oh well, it's right there, then", pointing to the drink, which was sitting directly in front of a woman at the bar. I explain to the bartender that ah, I thought it was hers, we all had a little bit of an awkward laugh about it, and I collected my drink. It was one of the worst Manhattans I've ever had. (I've literally had Manhattans in diners that were way better than this.) I'm not sure what whiskey they were using (and I should have called one, in retrospect), but it was harsh and burny. There was little to no vermouth, and no bitters whatsoever. I only could finish about two-thirds of it before I fished the cherry out and decided to switch to a safer, easy-to-make highball.
But then I couldn't get the bartender's attention. Yes, he was slammed. But standing at the bar, looking awkwardly at the bartender for a full ten minutes, without even an acknowledgement that he's busy and would get to me soon, started to seem a bit fishy. And, when he looked right through me a couple of times and then moved on to someone who hadn't been waiting as long? That's downright weird. (And bad economics: why would a bartender want to ignore the person whose credit card anchored the tab? Seems like he wouldn't want to upset the person that determines his tip.)
Eventually one of the other bartenders took pity on me and asked me what I wanted. After letting her know that my tab was with the first bartender (she just asked my name and said she'd find my tab, no big deal), I switched to gin and tonics and was fine with those.
When we decided to move on, we went to Stone Rose, which was full, but huge. The hostess told us that it'd be 10-15 minutes for a table, but that we could wait in the bar (which was busy, but not so busy that there weren't a couple stools free, with sufficient space for the rest of us to stand...and they came and got us when a table was free.) They had a better selection of liquor visible, and one hard-working bartender who took our orders with aplomb. (two Lillets on the rocks, two Hendrick's and tonics.) My Hendrick's G&T was excellent, but I wasn't sure what kind of tonic they used -- it was very sweet and cloying. The Hendrick's is big enough to make its unusual botanicals' presence known, though, and it was ultimately a successful drink, and a nice change of pace from the earlier madness. (Going through the menu made my eyebrows shoot up, however -- $17 for Ketel One and Red Bull? When a buck less will get you a Champagne cocktail at the Pegu Club, or $5 less will get you a non-Champagne drink there?) We ended up getting hungry after one drink (or less-than-one for one friend, whose Lillet got snagged off the table by a busboy before she'd even finished it), and went elsewhere for burgers and Prosecco.
That was Saturday. Last night, we went to the Pegu Club.
What a difference. I realize that we were at a trendy-ish lounge on Saturday night, versus a cocktailian temple at 5:15pm on Monday, but the contrast rests on much more than how busy the places were. At Pegu I felt welcomed. At Jour et Nuit, I felt like the one bartender I dealt with most didn't want to do anything other than argue with me or make me a crummy drink. (Even if you're slinging sweet vodka drinks all night long and you're incredibly busy, would it have hurt to make my drink correctly -- it's no more complicated than a Cosmo -- or treated me with a shred of hospitality?) It's about the passion, the attitude: the drive to do a good, professional job, versus just hustling for tips.
On to the drinks!
- My friend Patty couldn't decide what she wanted, and after some gentle quizzing about her tastes, bartender Eric recommended a "Remember the Maine", a concoction containing rye, Cherry Heering, Antiqua vermouth (I don't know this one -- is it like Carpano Antica Formula?), and Pernod. Its initial spicy sweetness gave way after the first taste, opening up with a warm glow (from the Pernod) and a long, complex aftertaste.
- I started my evening off with a real Tom & Jerry -- the first time I'd had one. Like St. John Frizell writes, "the first sip of a Tom and Jerry can be a head-slapping moment of sudden enlightenment. Tom and Jerry will show you what egg nog can—and should—be." Indeed, this was like the world's best eggnog; rich, heady, and with fresh-grated nutmeg on top. Incidentally, I'd been thinking about possibly having a Tom & Jerry party sometime in December, before Christmas. One thing led to another, life got complicated, and I didn't end up doing it. This year, though, by hook or by crook, I'm gonna have that party; this drink's simply too wonderful not to share.
- For my next drink, I decided to change tack, and ordered a Monkey Gland. I'd never had one of these before -- one of the great things about having a top-notch bar like the Pegu Club in one's town is that if you're wondering what a particular cocktail tastes like, or you don't want to invest in a bottle of something until you're sure you'll like it, you can go here and know that you can get the drink, whatever it is, made correctly. I'm not a huge fan of anise, usually (black jellybeans get discreetly discarded on my watch) but I do generally like splashes of it in cocktails -- it's a complicated flavor that tends to bounce off other flavors in interesting ways. This was a prime example: the sweet orange juice was made fascinating with the Pernod's anise and fruitiness, and the slight juniper note from the gin blended nicely and held it all together.
- Patty's next drink was a Whiskey Smash -- rye, muddled lemon & mint, and simple syrup. A variation on a julep (indeed, Jerry Thomas called it "a julep on the small plan") that was minty and delightful. After this drink, Patty bowed out to attend to a prior commitment, but my estimable friend and co-author Chico Bangs showed up, thankfully saving me from having to drink alone. The bar had started to fill up a little by this point, and Eric (who'd been ably taking care of us) had moved to the other end of the bar, leaving another bartender to handle our end. I introduced myself, and was pleased and surprised to meet St. John Frizell himself. I hope he doesn't think we're stalking him; I mentioned his blog in Bon Appetit, asked about the Brooklyn restaurant where he bartends, and we had a very nice conversation about drinking, history, writing, the history of drinking, writing about drinking history, et cetera. (And he gave a shoutout to another friend and co-author of this here blog, the estimable Chuck Taggart.)
- Chico's first drink was the Fitty-Fitty -- remembering the bone-dry Martini he'd had on Saturday, he wanted to dive into something a bit wetter. This 50% - 50% mix of gin and vermouth (plus some Regans' Orange Bitters) did the trick.
- And, speaking of the estimable Chuck Taggart, his description of the Twentieth-Century Cocktail was so appealing that I just had to have one. In a word: wow. What an incredible drink, and one that makes me want to march right out to the corner liquor store for a bottle of crème de cacao. Wonderful, smooth citrus taste, with the barest hint of chocolate in the finish.
- Our friend Scott had joined us at the bar at that point, and decided to shake the chill off with a Tom & Jerry of his own. He approved of it wholeheartedly.
- Chico followed up his Fitty-Fitty with an Audrey Saunders original: the Earl Grey MarTEAni, a fabulous drink consisting of Earl Grey tea-infused gin, lemon, and an egg white for froth. The tea's tannins and bergamot really play off the gin's botanicals and create an eminently quaffable drink.
- Scott must have still been feeling the chill of the winter weather outside, so he continued to warm up with a Hot Port Sangaree -- Port steeped with Cointreau, lemon, pomegranate syrup, Angostura bitters, and lemon peels. This adaptation of a Jerry Thomas recipe was unbelievably rich and spicy-sweet -- like Port, but with the volume knob turned to "11".
- For my next drink, I decided to put myself in St. John's hands -- kind of a mixological omakase. St. John had but one question: "Bourbon or Tequila?" I answered that while I liked Tequila in the right drink, I generally favored Bourbon. St. John nodded, set to work, and then presented me with the Nineteenth Century Cocktail, a variation on the Twentieth Century I'd had before. This one had Old Forester bourbon, Lillet rouge, lemon, and crème de cacao. A nice spicy drink, with citrus notes contributed by the Lillet and lemon juice, and still that wonderful cacao aftertaste. I'd seen Lillet rouge in the liquor store before, but always bypassed it in favor of the more popular blanc version -- how nice to find a use for it! St. John also dropped some knowledge on us: this variation on the Twentieth Century was invented by Pegu Club alumnus Brian Miller, who now tends the bar over at Death & Co. in the East Village.
- Chico didn't miss a trick, and asked St. John what he would have made if I'd selected tequila instead of Bourbon....and the answer was the Twenty-First Century, of course, invented by Jim Meehan of PDT. Tequila, crème de cacao, lemon, and a dash of Pernod made up this extraordinarily smooth, lemony drink with a looooooong cacao-anise finish. As Chico noted, "that's a drink with hang time."
And hang we did...but at this point we were getting pretty fuzzy (and hungry), so we bid St. John and Eric farewell and sloshed out into the street, in search of comestibles. Another satisfying evening at the Pegu Club, the Mount Olympus of the cocktailian trade.
But getting back to our Saturday night experience and how it contrasted with our time last night: one was a surprise and a delight with each well-crafted new drink, and the other was like an AMC Motors assembly line, churning out shoddy, flawed product at maximum speed. I guess I should have pegged Jour et Nuit from the beginning, and ordered something truly unchallenging and hard-to-screw-up (like, say, Scotch on the rocks), but I figured a Manhattan wouldn't be that hard.
All this raises some questions, though: Am I a cocktail snob? I can answer that one, at least: yeah, I guess that I am. But I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Where does the line fall between having high standards and being a nose-in-the-air jerk? (And, are the standards of professional behavior and knowing basic drink recipes really that high after all?) What can be done to raise the standard of bartenders and bars to make an acceptable drinking experience for everyone, not just those who want vodka-syrup highballs? And why don't some bartenders view the most basic drinks as ones to embrace, serve with enthusiasm, and tinker with? Your guess is as good as mine.