Monday, October 24, 2011
Sure, we tackled the Manhattan here at I'll Eat You with Project Manhattan, but when I learned about a class on the classic cocktail being offered at Tryst (the bar under Le Bec-Fin, formerly Le Bar Lyonnais), I knew it would be a must-visit. I must say my that Jonathan, my partner in whiskey appreciation, and I were not disappointed in the least, and I'd recommend the rest of the classes on the course schedule without hesitation.
The presentation was done by Erik Lombardo, bar manager and chief mixologist at Tryst. As someone who got started in the business by making cocktails at home, his passion and enthusiasm were palpable throughout the evening, and I had a feeling that if not for the scheduled end time, the event would have lasted all night. He started with some historical background about the rise of the cocktail in the nineteenth century, and shot down a few of the apocryphal stories of the Manhattan's origin (including the story that Winston Churchill's mother invented the drink – which would have been difficult, since she was giving birth to the future prime minister in England during the New York party where the drink was allegedly first served).
We then got into ingredients, and a little more historical information on the rise and fall of rye whiskey in the US. Once the liquor of choice in the North, Prohibition brought production to a halt, and even following the repeal, rye never regained its popularity. Now, with the renewed interest in old-timey mixology, rye is enjoying a comeback, and a newcomer is making a big impression on the scene. I've always liked Bulleit bourbon, but now the good folks who make that fine potable are producing a whiskey made with 95% rye. It's a little spicy, nicely oaked, and served as a great all-around base for the three cocktails we enjoyed.
The first was the classic Manhattan. Whiskey, vermouth, bitters. Stirred. The details, of course, make the difference. The relative amounts of whiskey and vermouth are very important, and this one was made with a 2:1 ratio. That sounds like a lot of vermouth, but when you're using good vermouth (this was Cinzano) and not something that's been rattling around the back of your liquor cabinet since the Clinton administration, you actually want to taste it – and a complex, spicy whiskey like the Bulleit Rye is more than a match for the vermouth's sweetness. With the addition of the angostura bitters, the balance is impeccable.
The other ingredient not mentioned is water (in the form of melted ice). Shockingly, water can end up being 25% of a cocktail, so it's important to use pure, dense ice, in pieces as large as possible to avoid excessive melting. And for God's sake, don't shake a Manhattan, stir it, because you don't want froth and chipped ice in your drink, you want velvety smoothness. Trust me. I think James Bond, with his "shaken, not stirred" tagline, did more damage to the proper preparation of cocktails than he did to his Cold War adversaries.
Next, we were served a little snack of seared veal tongue served with pea shoots and a citrus vinaigrette, delicious and as pure of flavor as anything else that comes out of Le Bec's kitchens.
The other two drinks shared the same "plot" as the Manhattan (as well as New York-related names), but it was striking how different they tasted. The Brooklyn, made with whiskey, Amer Picon, maraschino liqueur, and dry vermouth, had a citrusy zing, but I wasn't fond of the sharp herbal notes from the dry vermouth. The last cocktail was the Red Hook, which seems to be a recent invention (from the mid 2000s). Made with Punt e Mes (a red vermouth already spiked with bitters) and maraschino, it had an oxidized, "brown"flavor reminiscent of a Port, and I could see serving it as a welcome substitute to that dessert wine.
Maybe this write-up was a little long-winded, but I didn't even cover all of the information conveyed during the event. If the rest of this series is like this one, I really can't recommend them enough, and at $25 they're quite a steal considering that you're getting three half-drinks, a small appetizer and a dazzling amount of knowledge. Perhaps what I appreciated most, though, was that every detail of these drinks was fussed over with the utmost scrutiny and passion, and yet Erik openly rejected any pretentiousness about the whole topic. This stuff is supposed to be fun, right? So grab some rye and stir up a Manhattan, or come out to Tryst to enhance your beverage repertoire.