On a balmy evening last week guests gathered around Michelin three-star mixologist Brian Van Flandern for a lesson in margarita-making. On the white crocodile skin-topped bar, Van Flandern laid out all the necessary accoutrements for professional bartending: jiggers, shakers, strainers, ice scoops, crystal pitchers of fresh-squeezed lime juice and freshly-cut lime wedges, including his preferred Don Julio Tequila and light agave syrup. Large silver bowls of ice were ready for eager guests who lined up to measure, ice down, shake, pour and garnish the perfect classic margarita in preparation for their own summer parties.
The natty and knowledgeable consultant Van Flandern, who creates cocktails for the iconic Bemelmans Bar at New York’s posh Carlyle Hotel, Thomas Keller at Per Se, Michel Richard at Citronelle, and Chef Mario Batali, had arrived at the chic Palisades home of Lani Hay, president and CEO of LMT, Inc., for a private dinner and launch of his book “Vintage Cocktails.”
Publishers Prosper and Martine Assouline, whose elegant imprint of luxury books and works of art are found in boutiques in Paris, New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, were on hand to celebrate the moment with a dinner menu that was designed around a progression of dishes paired with classic cocktails from the book.
THE COCKTAIL DOCTRINE
“Acid, alcohol and sugar,” Van Flandern instructed his mixologists-in-training. “It’s all about the balance,” he advised while the sloshing and clacking sounds of a battery of Boston shakers filled the room. Everyone had their own Hawthorne strainer to hold back the ice for the straight-up margaritas. A quick tasting was recommended to perfect the balance, and then it was down the hatch.
In an interview, Van Flandern, who grew up in nearby Chevy Chase, described a few of his techniques and ingredients for some of his spectacular cocktails. A purist to the bone, he crafts his exquisite “Tonic and Gin,” designed for New York’s Per Se, using ground CHINCHONA bark from the Amazon rainforest. He also makes his own maraschino-style cherries, using dehydrated Bing cherries reconstituted in hot water.
“They taste just like cherry pie!” he says. He counsels me, “Be sure to save the liquid, add sugar and reduce to make a simple syrup for infusing spirits.”
I wondered where the word “cocktail” originated and why some cocktails are referred to as “vintage” or “classic.” He explained that “at one point in history a certain cocktail gained global popularity and becomes a classic or is destined to become one because of all the publicity it has garnered.”
The term “mixologist” has been usually regarded as pretentious and taboo in the industry, but since a renaissance of the cocktail, he assures me bartenders are embracing the coinage.
“2004 was the 200th anniversary of when the word “cocktail” first appeared in print. And now great bartenders around the world are looking to chefs for direction and focusing on balancing acid to sugar. They are using fresh ingredients, hosting spirits education, and researching the histories of the specific distillation techniques. Even the TERROIR and culture behind where different spirits are made are taken into consideration in developing flavor profiles to create delicious and original cocktails.” A trend likely to continue.
While working with Chef Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York City, Van Flandern lowered the ethanol content of the spirits and paired his cocktails with dinner courses, creating food-friendly cocktails and earning a four-star rating from noted New York Times food writer and wine critic Frank Bruni.
Since I misspent some of my salad days at the Bemelmans Bar in the Café Carlyle, where Van Flandern reigns, I asked him to share some original cocktails he has created for the iconic watering hole.
“Sex in the City” Cocktail — On the cover of “Vintage Cocktails” is a photograph of a pretty pink sugar-frosted rim cocktail he calls “The Bradshaw,” named after Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex in the City.” Little known is that real life actress Sarah-Jessica Parker and her husband, Matthew Broderick, had their first date here. To mark the occasion, the drink was designed for her using Don Julio Blanco Tequila, fresh lime juice, simple syrup and the pink-colored, passion fruit-infused X-Rated Vodka. The recipe is just in time for “Sex in the City 2” and should be served at all the private screenings around town.
Tiffany and Co. Cocktail — For his design of “the official cocktail” for Tiffany and Co., he mixed Alize Blue, fresh lime juice, pear vodka, a drizzle of cane sugar syrup and Moscato d’Asti. When presented, it was served in a champagne flute and tied with a white silk ribbon around the base.
Dolce and Gabbana Cocktail — For the launch of their “Light Blue” perfume, he mixed Ciroc Vodka with Granny Smith apple cider and citrus peels, adding cedar wood from a distillation he created using the shavings from a cedar wood clothes hanger.
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