scroll down
Photo: Shutterstock
Molecular cocktails / Rotary evaporator / Tinctures & bitters / Liquid nitrogen / Aromatic vapor / Infusion flask / Chilling glasses / Herb/fruit-infused ice / Blast chiller / Rotating globular vessels / Butane burner / Snifter / Muddle
Though the first known mention of it was in 1688, the most famous Milk Punch recipe is probably Benjamin Franklin’s, published almost a century later, in 1763. Today, Milk Punch is all the rage again, served at bars across the country. Sometimes the greatest innovation is the return to a great, but forgotten, idea.
Milk Punch is still a New Orleans brunch staple and has been for hundreds of years. But today if you order this drink at the Grill Room in the Big Easy’s Windsor Court Hotel, here’s what you’ll experience: a waiter wheeling out a cart to make the drink tableside. A siphon coffee pot is employed, its top chamber loaded with flavor ingredients, including marigold blossoms, white chocolate, vanilla beans, and cinnamon sticks. Cognac and milk are placed in the bottom chamber, under which a butane burner is lit. The boiling liquid seeps into the upper chamber and is instantly infused with flavor before being strained into a snifter. It’s not Ben Franklin’s Milk Punch, but then maybe it’s not so far off. Franklin, after all, was a great innovator.
As the journey of Milk Punch demonstrates, the cocktail is one of the great theaters of American innovation. After all, in 1806, when the cocktail was first defined in print, it was simply a combination of spirit, sugar, water and bitters—a few tasty ingredients added to help the swill go down. By 1862, celebrity bartender Jerry Thomas was tossing a flaming drink between two cups for his famous Blue Blazer.
We think of progress as something that irresistibly marches forward. However, the greatest era of the cocktail was from 1860 to 1920 when drinks and recipes flowered in a shocking degree of diversity and complexity. But drinking’s version of getting “bombed back to the Stone Age” occurred in 1919, with the passage of Prohibition and the Volstead Act. Certainly, speakeasies thrived over the next 14 years, but the cocktail in all its glory died a sudden death. In the clandestine culture of Prohibition, making beautiful, complex concoctions was never a priority. Rather bathtub gin, rotgut whiskey—whatever high-proof tipple one could find—were the best one could hope for. Unfortunately, when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, things didn’t improve.
In the clandestine culture of Prohibition, making
beautiful, complex concoctions was never a priority.
Photo: Christian Seel
Sometimes the greatest innovation is the
return to a great, but forgotten, idea.
* Porthole
The Porthole is a unique container for The Blueberry, a drink that contains rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, blueberries, freeze-dried pomegranate, lemon, lemon balm and mint.
Photo: Christian Seel
First the Depression, and then the War, furthered the demise of the American cocktail tradition. By the 1950s, people were again putting back mixed drinks, but they were a faint echo of what had once been. A cocktail of the ’50s was based on the dull hooch drinkers had become accustomed to during the lean years—bad gin, flavorless Canadian whiskey. It’s telling that the postwar era was when vodka—legally defined as a colorless, odorless, flavorless spirit—took hold, via drinks like Cape Cods and Screwdrivers. Yes, the Mad Men years of the 1960s had venerable classics like the Martini, Old Fashioned, and Manhattan—simple and elegant cocktails—but even they were a far cry from the florid creations of the past. All the progress of the previous century was not only thwarted but gone, as if it had never existed.
Thankfully, that dull era came to an end with the return of a robust, creative, and thriving mixology culture of the 2000s. The change was sudden and immediate, like Dorothy stepping from a black-and-white Kansas into the Technicolor of Oz. For inspiration, bartenders returned to the pre-Prohibition bar manuals such as Jerry Thomas’s The Bon-Vivant’s Companion and Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book. They drew inspiration from the culinary world and shopped at farmers markets so they could muddle seasonal fruits, herbs and vegetables into their drinks. They turned away from shelf-stabilized mixers like Rose’s Lime Juice and started juicing their fresh citrus each day. They became interested in the diversity of spirits around the world, reviving obscure vermouths and amaro from Italy, pisco from Peru, mezcal from Oaxaca, and other exotic drams. Bitters, shrubs and flavored syrups—along with other homemade concoctions—began appearing in bars, a few drops of which could transform a cocktail.
Of course, all of this was a way of reviving the past, returning the cocktail to the vibrant condition it held before Prohibition turned off the music, called the cops, and shut down the party.
Indeed, the best part of the modern cocktail regaining its form has not been scaling the heights of invention and technical wonder; it’s been the
standardization of higher quality.
* In the Rocks
Modern twist on a classic. A cocktail injected inside a hollow globe of ice. Guests break the
ice globe with a specially made slingshot. Photo: Christian Seel
Trou Normand
San Francisco, CA
A temple to French spirits and drinks both classic and new, Trou Normand produces cocktails of rare purity and freshness, served in an elegant space in downtown San Francisco. Similarly, the kitchen here brings in whole pigs and turns them into some of the city’s best charcuterie.
New York, NY
A small team of New York’s greatest mixologists created this East Village mecca for mezcal and tequila. The multi-floored space is a warren of intimate little rooms where the cocktails effortlessly cast new light on these spirits without obscuring their timeless flavors.
The Violet hour
Chicago, IL
The wood-paneled exterior can make it hard to find the door for this Wicker Park speakeasy, but entering is worth the effort. The elegant, ornate space provides the perfect environment for beautifully honed drinks built with classic ingredients and a twist of complexity. One of the best drinking experiences in the country.
Aviary Martinez
2 oz Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin 
1 oz Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth 
⅛ oz Maraschino liqueur 
1 dash Angostura bitters 
5 drops Orange bitters
Combine all ingredients over ice, and stir. Strain into a chilled coupe.
Photos: Christian Seel, Shutterstock
By this time, however, Silicon Valley’s spirit of invention and innovation had taken hold within the world of drinks. We began seeing not just spirits aged in barrels, but entire cocktails like the Negroni and the Boulevardier aged for months or years until texture and flavor had coalesced in new ways. Bars started putting pre-made cocktails on tap. Then bottling them. Then bottling and carbonating them. For the first time in history, you could buy a bottle of fizzy Negroni or Americano. The molecular gastronomy of restaurants such as El Bulli inspired a similar movement of molecular mixology, which reached its peak at The Aviary in Chicago, a side project of celebrated modernist chef Grant Achatz. At his flagship restaurant Alinea, dinners often start with solid, edible cocktails like the Sazerac and Bloody Mary served on a plate like amuse-bouches. The Aviary takes it a step further: In the Rocks is an Old Fashioned delivered in a perfect sphere of ice. You crack the ball with a rubber band slingshot, and suddenly you are in possession of a beautiful whiskey drink on the rocks. Another drink features buttered popcorn purée.
At this point, just as with many of the technologies, services and apps coming out of Silicon Valley these days, one wonders if all the new ideas will succeed. Demand for bottled, carbonated Negronis never seemed to soar. And although it’s fun to chew a solid cocktail, it’s unlikely to replace the beer you have with a buddy after work.
Indeed, the best part of the modern cocktail regaining its form has not been scaling the heights of invention and technical wonder; it’s been the standardization of higher quality. Today in most cities, it’s much easier to find a delicious, well-made cocktail than ever before. Indeed, from good restaurants and bars we expect it, whereas just a few years ago a good drink was less than assured. Now we have better sodas and tonic waters, higher-grade spirits, fresher ingredients, and bartenders who have actually studied the craft of properly mixing drinks. The greatest innovation of all is a new, higher standard. And that’s something we can all drink to.
Always drink responsibly, and never drink and drive.
* Gin and Tonic
Spherification of cucumber. A reaction of sodium and calcium forms a skin with a liquid center—a ˝bubble tea“ effect and gives texture and a burst of fresh flavor.
Photo: Christian Seel