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Boozing Across America

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Particularly given the so-hot-you-could-fry-an-egg summer New York just endured, I can't say that I spent much time regretting being on the roadtrip instead of in the city. The only story I heard that gave me a twinge of wistfulness for being outside Manhattan was Frank Bruni's report on Ward III, a cocktail lounge that promises to make whatever drink a customer wants, and to save the recipe for her. In his review, Bruni declares, "There are two pronounced strains in current cocktail culture. One exalts the classics, treating them with the reverence that a gourmand accords Escoffier. The other prizes whimsy, imagination, tweaking and tinkering."

There's truth to this, though one should be aware that a bar can hold both strains simultaneously. For example, two of our favorite Prohibition throwbacks in NYC, Death & Company and Please Don't Tell, naturally emphasize old school cocktailing, but their bartenders are also willing to play with the classics upon customer request. And our absolute favorite bar in Houston, Anvil, recently swapped from a hyper-emphasis on the classics (their original shtick was a list of "100 Cocktails You Should Try Before You Die") to a menu of original formulations by their bartenders coupled with a changing shortlist of their current favorite classics.

I think the only place I've been that seemed reverent toward the classics was Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, and even they had some new cocktails such as Philip Ward's Oaxaca Old-Fashioned. Tony loves this drink, and we tried to recreate it while visiting Mike. Unfortunately, the quality of this drink really depends on the quality of mezcal put into it, and mezcal is still expensive and relatively rare in most of the United States. Phoenix's liquor stores afforded only one brand that was definitely not what Mayahuel uses. Fortunately, Mike's own inventiveness as a bartender converted the drink into something potable, but I won't speculate on what a negative attitude toward Mexican immigrants might entail for getting ahold of the good Mexican liquor...

In general, Tony's preference is for the classic cocktailers with wide-ranging menus, whereas I lean toward bars that emphasize a particular ingredient. [1] Sometimes I want tequila, and on those Cinco de Mayo kind of days I head for Mayahuel and can go far beyond the standard margaritas and sunrises of the average bar. Rum is probably my favorite liquor -- what can I say, alcohol for me is just dessert by another name -- which is why Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco currently holds the title of Pallavi's Favorite Bar. (Also, again, PIRATES.)

Incidentally, San Francisco may be the only other American city appropriate for the Clo concept, because it's pretty much the only place in the U.S. that has labor and rent costs as high as New York's.[2] Clo is a wine bar on the 4th floor of the Time-Warner building in New York's Columbus Circle. Instead of a half-dozen waitstaff to fill your glass, the hostess hands you a rectangle of plastic similar to a credit card. The small seating space is surrounded almost entirely by glassed-in cases of wine bottles, each with a spout sticking out of the case. Take your card to the case with the bottle you'd like to try, put it in the slot and press the button above your favored bottle. The spout will allot a few ounces of the wine -- 2 oz. for dessert wines, 4 oz. for most of the rest -- into your glass.

It's a great way to try things you otherwise might not, whether because a whole bottle is price-prohibitive or because you aren't sure you want a whole bottle of this stuff in your house. For example, the $8 glass of Indian wine I tried on my first visit falls into the latter category; heretofore, I hadn't known that anyone in India even made wine. Extra-endearingly, the one other person generally working there aside from the hostess is a fellow Texpatriate and Anvil fan.

[1] It's sort of like my view on museums: I like artist-specific small institutions such as the Picasso and Rodin museums in Paris, and wish that large museums such as the Louvre or the Museum of Modern Art-NYC would function primarily as curators of exhibits drawing together works owned by these smaller, specialized galleries, rather than trying to own all the Big Deal pieces themselves.

[2] Internationally: Tokyo? London? The key is that space and labor cost enough that it be worthwhile to invest in technology instead for the long-term savings.

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5 Comments

The trouble I have with classic cocktails is that too many of them contain unpleasant ingredients like Vermouth due to lack of availability of superior alternatives at the time they were invented.

On the other hand, I prefer tried and tested recipes to bars that think they can throw stuff together randomly, stick an umbrella in it and charge you £10 for it.

Eno's, my favorite wine bar in South Beach, Florida, is the first and only place I have ever encountered the "CLO concept."

I can assure you that (with the exception of Smuggler's Cove, which really is kind of appropriate for an umbrella drink) I've never seen an umbrella at any of the bars mentioned above.

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