You write cocktail books co-authored with Food & Wine. What do you think is the best upcoming cocktail? What cocktail trends do you see? What’s the next big ingredient?
I don’t know, man, I think that’s tough. I mean, I still think cocktails are seasonal. In the heat of summer right now, in the beautiful Atlanta sun, I’m not necessarily going to be over at the bourbon tent right now, even though they are serving it on the rocks, thank goodness. White spirits to me are more refreshing. I’m not a gin drinker, per se, but there is absolutely nothing more refreshing on the hottest of summer days than a gin and tonic with fresh-squeezed lime. It doesn’t get any better than that. I am not much of a martini drinker. I would prefer a gimlet because I would prefer to have some lime juice in there. But I’m a brown spirits guy. And as I’m confessing, as I get older, I drink fewer and fewer cocktails before dinner. One max, two plus all the wine I drink at dinner… I can’t afford to slur in my career. That could happen, so I’m careful.
Trendwise you’re seeing the resurgence of rye, which I’m thrilled to see. There’s a funny story that I tell at my seminars about my proclivity for drinking. I come from a family that drinks unabashedly. They gave kids wine at the table cut with cream soda. They called it the Spaghetti Spritzer. But kids were given Sunday wine, and it was a big splash of something out of a gallon like Cribari, or it could have been hearty Burgundy, or it could have been Fortissimo Rosso, or Carlo Rossi, and they would put it over rocks and float it with cream soda.
So this is where your passion comes from!
My mother drank cocktails, and smoked, and dyed her hair while she was pregnant, and I have this hilarious home video from New Year’s Eve 1966 where she’s in her ball gown, and her Parliament is in her cigarette stick like Phyllis Diller. Her hair is teased in a beautiful Priscilla Presley jet-black beehive and she’s holding a Manhattan, and it’s a silent Technicolor 8mm on Kodak film, and she mouths to the camera, “Happy New Year,” with all the ladies. And they all down their Manhattans. My mother takes a long drag, and then her hand rest on her belly, eight months pregnant with me.
So I was drinking Manhattans in-utero. I love that the Manhattan is returning to rye. Post-Prohibition it became bourbon, and rye never really recovered. Canadian rye has nothing to do with real American rye. And you’re seeing down in tents today that Bulleit has perfected a beautiful, rustic rye. They’re introducing it as, “Do you like sweet? Or do you like strong?” And the sweet is bourbon, and the strong is rye. So I took a little group on a tour yesterday, and I made them all taste the rye. And with ice in it, one cube, it was absolutely delicious. Do I want a lot of that on a hot summer day? No. But my go-to is always a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, properly done.
What about after-dinner drinks?
I love the ascendance of Amaros. Italian Amaros are unique to the world. Nobody else in Europe makes them. And I love finishing a meal with a fabulous bitter, maybe one ice cube in it. And I really do believe it helps you feel lighter and helps digestion. It’s a nice way to end a meal, and with something that’s savory not sweet.
What’s the best new cocktail ingredient?
I don’t have one. I clearly love everything to be fresh in a cocktail. And I love the employment of any fruit. I love savory, so I like to see vegetables in there. I don’t know where I was recently, but someone diluted beet purée with vodka, and I thought that was brilliant. I love savory. That’s not an easy sell for Americans. We tend to still be sweet-tooths at the end of the day, so that divides serious spirits drinkers from cocktail drinkers. It drives me crazy when I walk into restaurants and I’m handed a martini menu and it’s 20 cocktails, but they’re all served in triangle-shaped cocktail glasses.
Where did that trend come from?
Mr. Boston came to me eight years ago and asked me, “What’s wrong with this book? What would you do to change it?” Wiley Publishing had bought it from Time Warner, and I went through it, and I said, “There is more powdered mix in this…” It seems like they stopped taking it seriously in the 70s, and I did a ton of research and I spoke to the founder up in Boston, and we talked about the evolution of the book, and it really followed the trajectory of American food into the 60s wasteland of TV dinners, powdered everything, and Tang. I joked that the margarita recipe was: one ounce of tequila plus three ounces of margarita mix, shake! [laughs] What does that mean?!
What does it mean?
Simple syrup had been completely abandoned for mixes, and fresh lime had become Roses with a trademark next to it. I mean it was a disaster. If I take any pride in that… I ceded the book to Jonathan Pogash who is now doing the new one. But I brought on Jim Meehan who was a serious, serious, up-and-coming cocktail maven back then, back in 2004. And I put his name on the cover and gave him credit. He and I, I think we took the book as far as Wiley was allowing us to. We really wanted to just cut out 500 recipes and throw them overboard. Like the Statue of Liberty, which was: dip finger in Sambuca, light up, hold your burning finger in the air while you do your shot. And we were like, “We need to get rid of these crazy frat party drinks!”
So in what way were you able to change the book?
So every edition we added 100 new recipes, but then there were credit issues. We were getting the best bartenders across the country to give recipes to Mr. Boston, and then they wanted credit on the recipes, not just on the front of the book. So that became an issue. But I enjoyed it, and I took it through four new editions of Mr. Boston.
But Meehan and I have a book in us that I can’t tell you about, because I’ll have to kill you. But I think what it’s evolving into is not just about cocktails, but also about wine and entertaining, and it’s like a gentleman’s guide that will of course have the female perspective too. I think guys need a lot of help with this stuff, and they want to be good hosts and entertainers.
I don’t know, maybe it’s the post-Maxim voice we’re looking for, which is the next generation of grown-ups. Having worked at the lad magazines in the 90s, I think that there’s a fun place for that, but I want to take it to the next level now, which is a smarter, more mature voice. But never, ever, ever forgetting that this needs to be fun at the end of the day. When I’m at wine seminars, I say, “People, let’s remember at the end of the day this is fermented grape juice. Stop taking it so seriously. And stop worrying about whether or not you sound smart when ordering it. Pretend it’s a hamburger, and tell that waiter exactly the way you want it.”
What’s been your favorite cocktail over the past year?
I’ve been turning back to the margarita a lot. I love the array of tequilas out there, and the quality of tequila has soared in the last decade. Pure agave. People recognize what it means to say tequila is really tequila, the nonsense of the worm and all that stuff. Because I don’t drink spirits straight, I’m not really into that. I love that for tastings and testing purity, but I like to see what could be done when you make a proper cocktail. I love a margarita. It’s the perfect party cocktail. Now that the hot weather is here, I’m ready to drink really, really well-made margaritas. And that comes down to starting with simple syrup. You have to give me pure simple syrup as a foundation and fresh-squeezed limes, or we’re not talking about a real margarita.