Myth and legend blend in the best craft cocktails, like the gin and vermouth in the classic martini. That’s because the best bartenders also are storytellers.

And as craft cocktails enjoy a boom in popularity in East Texas and elsewhere, leading mixologists explain the basics of fancy booze.

“Cocktails really came about because of the degradation spirits during Prohibition,” explained Justin Wells, the bar consultant at the newly opened Black Pearl Oyster Bar. “Bootleggers would take one bottle of actual whiskey and cut it - with lesser ingredients, or ethanol, or even water - to make three bottles. That was their profit margin.”

But the bootleggers’ greed left bartenders with thirsty customers and all-but-undrinkable spirits.

“The quality was terrible,” Wells said. “Before Prohibition, most people drank their spirits neat - straight up, in a glass, maybe with ice, at most. There was no need for cocktail culture at that point, because the spirits were high-quality and flavorful. That changed with Prohibition.”

So bartenders got creative, drawing upon the few existing cocktails - the Manhattan, which dates back to the 1870s, and the Sazerac, which is even older. Bartenders eased the bite of the low-quality hooch with sweeteners, liqueurs, fruit juices and herbs.

“The classic cocktail is the Old Fashioned,” Wells said. “It’s a spirit-forward cocktail, which means the spirit speaks for itself. It got its name from people coming in and asking for a whiskey cocktail, and being asked what they wanted in it. They would respond, ‘Oh, I like it the old fashioned way,’ which means with bitters and sugar and a splash of water.”

During Prohibition, he explained, “that’s what it took to make it a pleasurable drinking experience again.”

 

RESURGENCE

More and more restaurants in Tyler are adding classic cocktails to their menus. Craft cocktails are mixed at The Grove, Sonoma Grill, Rick’s on the Square and other restaurants.

They’re not cheap; the price of a classic cocktail can range from $9 to $16. But the price tag hasn’t hurt their popularity. Industry group Tales of the Cocktail, for example, began as a gathering of a few bartenders in New Orleans in 2002 and has now grown to an industry trade gathering of 16,000 people every year.

At Jack Ryan’s Steak & Chophouse, housed in the Art Deco splendor of the 1930s-era Peoples Petroleum Building, General Manager Steve Riney said he noticed the classic cocktail trend while working in Dallas.

“It’s really about getting back to the basics,” he said. “Bartenders were starting to focus on the craft element of cocktails.”

This trend was incorporated into the design of Jack Ryan’s, with its hidden bar and speakeasy atmosphere.

A big part of the cocktail culture is educating customers.

“The Tyler crowd really does notice the difference between craft cocktails and premade drinks,” Riney said. “Their expectations are going up, so our skills have to go up, too. A lot of people come in and sit down, and ask to be educated.”

Bartender Ryan Fontenot is always happy to talk cocktails and cocktail history with a willing student, he said.

“The goal is to get a customer outside their comfort zone,” Riney said. “We want people to be unafraid to try new things.”

The true mixologist isn’t there to sell you the highest priced drink on the menu, Riney said, but to help you have a pleasant drinking experience. Classic cocktails are often more labor-intensive than pre-packaged mixers, but the final result is worth it, he said.

“Sure, we put a lot of labor into making a drink, but that’s because we want to,” he said. “It’s the attention to detail, as much as the ingredients, that makes a classic cocktail.”

 

COCKTAIL CHEFS

At Roast Social Kitchen, Parker Case said his goal is to show that bartenders are chefs with spirits.

“Throughout history, the bartender, the tavern keeper, those were noble professions,” he said. “The tavern was a center of the community; it’s where business was conducted, where local government happened, where people met. It was a hub. And at the center of it was the guy tending the bar.”

But the passage of the 18th Amendment ended that.

“Suddenly, alcohol became a taboo subject, and public taverns became speakeasies,” Case said. “And what was once a noble profession became something seedy.”

Case takes issue with the idea that classic cocktails are a trend - in the sense of something that will soon fade and be eclipsed by the next big thing.

“What’s really happening is that a lost art is being rediscovered, and more and more people are appreciating it,” he said.

In the bartender’s world, the 1970s and ’80s are viewed as the Dark Ages of the cocktail, he explained.

“Bartending was all about jugs of pre-made margarita mix and daiquiri mix, with the spirit dumped in,” he said. “The focus was on cheap and efficient drinks - the goal was to get someone drunk quick. There was no artistry to it.”

But a classic cocktail revival began in the 1990s in New York City, led by master bartender Dale DeGroff at the Rainbow Room.

“After Prohibition, we ended up with no skilled labor in this industry,” DeGroff has said. “Prohibition destroyed the quality cocktail, and we have ended up with mediocrity.”

DeGroff’s goal was to revive the best of the 19th century and early 20th century cocktail culture, as faithfully as possible. His book, “The Craft of the Cocktail,” is now required reading for cocktail artists.

“This became a passion for me,” Case said. “I’m a musician, so as I would tour with my band, I would find myself in dive bars night after night. I knew there had to be more to it. So I started learning about cocktail culture. It really opened my eyes.”

For more than a decade, Case has considered himself a serious student of the cocktail.

“I’ll go anywhere to learn more,” he said. “When I’m on the road and I go to a new city, I go to the bar and I ask for the head bartender. And then I ask him where he goes after work.”

The best mixologists consider themselves chefs, Case said.

“And you see it in this - they take every opportunity, with every single drink, to make a better cocktail than they made last time,” he said. “It’s in challenging yourself to up your game.”

That’s why many cocktail bars and restaurants - including Roast Social Kitchen, Jack Ryan’s and the Black Pearl - go to the trouble of making their own ingredients and even infusing their own spirits.

Take the Frequent Flyer, one of Case’s signature cocktails. It’s a variation on a true classic, the Amelia Earhart, a vodka-and-blackberry concoction. Case’s version includes vodka, elderflower liqueur, blackberry puree, fresh lemon juice - and sage. It’s not a drink a bartender can sling quickly - it takes patience and a steady hand. The finishing touch, a lightly bruised leaf of sage, is applied with every bit of the exactitude a chef demonstrates when plating his best dish.

Roast Social Kitchen owner Nick Pencis - of Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q - said cocktails are just another branch of the culinary arts.

“Chefs put this kind of time and effort into what they do; you just don’t see it because they’re back in the kitchen,” Pencis said. “What makes all the time worth it is the end result - the well-made cocktail.”

Roast Social Kitchen is adding something new to the lineup: barrel-aged cocktails. Aging the spirits (and some of the mixers) in small oaken barrels adds another layer of complexity, Case said.

“We’re really working at raising the level in Tyler,” Case said. “Sure, we want to be a neighborhood bar, where you’re comfortable and the bartender knows you and knows what you like. At the same time, we want to do something authentic to the cocktail culture. I think Tyler’s ready for that.”

Like the Black Pearl’s Justin Wells, Case said there’s an obligation to educate the customer.

“Customers will come in and ask us to choose something for them,” he said. “And we’re happy to do that. I’ll ask what their base spirit is - are they looking for a whiskey cocktail or a vodka cocktail or a gin cocktail. We start there, and we help them learn what they like.”

The personal interaction is a big part of bartending, he added.

“I love it when people come in here and are excited about learning something new,” he said.

 

STORYTELLING

Sitting at the Black Pearl’s long bar, local attorney Mitch Adams is a recent convert to classic cocktails.

“Beer is just too filling, and there’s too much good stuff out there not to try it,” he said.

Adams’ new favorite is the Highland Frolic, a variation on the classic Highland Fling. It has scotch, vermouth and orange bitters.

For Justin Wells, the Black Pearl’s bar consultant, telling the classic cocktail’s story is part of the service.

“Part of the customer’s quality of experience is whether I related that story or not,” he said. “I’ve read on Facebook that some people think our drinks are peculiarly named. That just shows the story wasn’t related well.”

Wells speaks with an eagerness and an obvious passion for the art form.

“The thing I’ve been trying to do here is simple,” he said. “I want to teach bartenders that they can take a great amount of pride in what they do as a trade. They’re not just handing out beer and whiskey-and-cokes. They’re mixing the classics and building on them. There’s history, and if we can impart that in the drink and in the story, then the drink tastes better.”

Twitter: @tmt_roy

 

HOW THE COCKTAILS GOT THEIR NAMES

At the Black Pearl Oyster Bar, Justin Wells can talk about the origin of nearly every drink on the menu. Every cocktail has a story, and the best bartenders are willing to share it.

“One of our most popular drinks is the Corpse Reviver No. 2,” he said. “It’s called that because it was initially designed as a hangover cure. The first recipe for it was awful - just really, really bad. The second recipe - that’s where the No. 2 comes in - was much better.”

The Corpse Reviver was first mentioned in Punch (a humor magazine) in 1861. It later appeared in the “Savoy Cocktail Handbook” by Harry Craddock in 1930.

“There are two quotes about it I love,” Case said. “The first warns that ‘Four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again.’ The second notes, ‘To be taken before 11 a.m. or whenever steam and energy are needed.’ Now that’s a cocktail.”

The Pimm’s Cup is the Black Pearl’s best-selling cocktail. And fittingly enough, it comes from an oyster bar.

“In 1823, James Pimm opened an oyster house in London, and the liqueur he made caught on,” Wells said. “They started doing large production. Pimm’s liqueur is gin-based, infused with spices and citrus. We add some other things to ours, such as cucumber and mint. We add strawberry instead of orange, and we top it with ginger beer instead of soda.”

It’s a summer drink, he said.

“In Britain, the Pimm’s Cup is a staple for Wimbledon and other sporting events,” he said. “It’s very common at polo matches. The significance of the Pimm’s Cup to Wimbledon is the same as a Mint Julep is to the Kentucky Derby.”

- Roy Maynard

 

RECIPE

The Classic Cuban Daiquiri

According to Roast Social Kitchen’s Parker Case, real mixologists test each other with the Classic Cuban Daiquiri. It’s what Hemingway drank, and it’s one of the simplest cocktails to mix. 

“It’s only three ingredients,” Case said, “so there’s nowhere to hide. This is where your skills show.”

2 oz. light rum

¾ oz. one-to-one simple syrup

1 oz. fresh lime juice

Shake, strain into a coupe glass. Float a lime wheel as garnish. Serve up.

 
 

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