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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Cocktails in the 21st Century

I know the term mixologist is trendy now, and I’ve resisted using it to a large extent. But I think I understand the intent behind it. Putting together a great cocktail is not easy—it requires considerable skill, finesse, and creativity. Somehow the quotidian phrase “bartender” just doesn’t seem to fit. 

So what makes a good cocktail? Like a fine writing pen or an Italian sports car, a good cocktail is all about balance and harmony. The flavors and alcohol should compliment each other. Naturally, a cocktail should have an alcoholic kick, but too much and you’ve got the equivalent of an 80s one-hit-wonder band. If you want just alcohol, and only alcohol, then have a shot of tequila. 

Speaking of alcohol, we are in the midst of a renaissance—a focus on craft and flavor. This is especially the case with gin, with craft distillers who focus on botanicals. Hendricks probably started the trend, but there is now so much more. Two of these newer gins on the market that I like are Green Hat (made in Washington, D.C., and named for a bootlegger who serviced members of Congress during prohibition) and G’ Vine Floraison (French). The forward flavor profile of these gins is such that they can be drunk on the rocks without any tonic or if so, very little. For a martini or traditional G&T, however, the old standbys are Tanquerray and Bombay. 

On the darker side of the spectrum, bourbon’s erstwhile cousin, rye, is making a big comeback. My favorite rye is Bulleit, with Rittenhouse a close second. Rye is not as sweet as bourbon and has a subtle spiciness or even woodiness. Don’t think of ordering a Manhattan with anything other than rye.

While those who drink should always have a “go-to” cocktail (a well-made classic gin martini always works any time of the year, especially around lunch time!), it never hurts to try something new. For me that opportunity came knocking during a recent visit to Barmini in Washington, D.C., José Andrés’s latest mixology venture.

Unless you know exactly where to look, you will walk right past the entrance to Barmini. After all, Barmini is not the kind of place you just wander into off the street. You must make a reservation because drinking here is a deliberative, contemplative act. And you don’t just stroll through the front door. Instead, you push a button and someone let’s you in like an old speakeasy from the 1920s.

The inside is nothing like the 1920s, however. I would describe it as a combination of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder version) and 2001: A Space Odyssey

Corpse Reviver 2
© 2014 Chris Terrell

I started with the Corpse Reviver #2, which consists of gin, lemon, Contreau, Lillet Blanc, and absinthe rinse. It certainly woke me up!
Clover Club Cocktail
© 2014 Chris Terrell

I also tried the Clover Club Cocktail, with gin, lemon, raspberry, and egg white (a classic cocktail ingredient). Then on to the Cedar and Agave, which is añejo, Benedictine, agave orange bitters and …. smoke! Here’s where it gets interesting. The best part of this drink is how the smoke gets into the drink. The bartender starts with a cedar plank and, with a blow torch, sets fire to the plank. When it begins to smoke, he places the glass over it and traps the smoke. A square block of ice is carefully inserted into the inverted glass and flipped over. At this point, he adds the liquid, along with a twist of orange and a violet flower. Voila!

There is also food at Barmini which is just as good as the drinks. (Barmini is the bar side of Andrés’s restaurant next door called Minibar.) I started with the banh mi burger, lobster roll, and finished with a grilled cheese. 
© 2014 Chris Terrell
Banh Mi Burger

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Lobster Roll

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Grilled Cheese
Even though Barmini certainly has that cool, trendy vibe, the service is not snooty but friendly and gracious. The seating also lends itself to meeting new friends. We sat at a communal table, which is how I discovered the Cedar and Agave—a dapper man in his early 60s who reminded me of Roger Sterling from Mad Men—was enjoying one and highly recommended it. 

America in the early 21st is in the midst of a golden age for cocktails. I say America because the cocktail is quintessentially American. But more importantly, bars today are full of restless creativity. And that’s what really makes America so unique.

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