There are five blank pages at the back of The Savoy Cocktail Book. First published in London in 1930 and compiled by the hotel’s then head bartender, the illustrious Harry Craddock, the guide is a quick-witted compendium of drink recipes that range from the Abbey (dry gin with Kina Lillet) to the Zed (Hercules and apple brandy). The extra pages are, according to the author, “for the addition of any new Cocktails that may be invented in the future.”
So what does the classic cocktail of the future look like? That’s what I’m here in New York to find out, sitting in on an exclusive sampling session at The Plaza, A Fairmont Managed Hotel. How fitting that the city that gave rise to the Manhattan is spearheading an effort to revive and reinvent the cocktail for generations to come.
It’s early afternoon and The Rose Club, the hotel’s second-floor bar and lounge, has yet to open to guests, but the buzz below is constant, care of an endless stream of porters, personal assistants and little girls in search of Eloise. People-watching, however, must take a backseat to the serious business at hand: tasting 20 cocktails in two hours.
The Plaza is one of six Fairmont hotels weighing in on which drinks will make it onto the new Modern Classics menu, launching in 2013. To get the inside scoop on this task, I’m joining Mariano Stellner (corporate director, food & beverage, Americas), The Plaza hotel manager Tracy Lowe, Rose Club manager Christina Dace and resident mixologist Heather Buesing. All have pen and paper handy, ready to rate each sip on a scale of one to 10.
Buesing begins with a glittering green, gin-based drink. She prepares one version to showcase the finished product and splits a second five ways for us to taste. This is her first time mixing these cocktails, but she has been prepping behind the scenes for weeks, grinding spices, boiling syrups and infusing spirits, all according to other bartenders’ precise instructions.
“This time we are asking the experts to choose the drinks,” says Stellner, referring to the Classic Cocktails menu. Launched in 2010 to showcase traditional recipes from the past hundred-plus years, each selection was tied to a property in its city of origin (or inspiration), such as the Singapore Sling.
Vying for a spot on the new Modern Classics menu were more than 80 recipes submitted by Fairmont bartenders from around the globe (short-listed to 20 for today’s testing). The emphasis is no longer on perfecting the past. Winners have to be bold and borderless, with a taste that transcends culture.
There is a little room for nostalgia, however, as the judges recall the legacy of cocktail culture. Says Stellner: “A hundred years ago, mixology was very important to luxury hotels. And I think it has come full circle.”
After evolving in the century prior to Prohibition, the cocktail devolved over decades throughout America – think moonshine, kitschy tiki-lounge concoctions and two-ingredient disco drinks. Only now is it reclaiming its rightful place alongside gourmet cuisine. Farm to fork? Try garden to glass.
“People have a DIY spirit now and want to know how things are made,” mixologist Kathy Casey tells me later from her test kitchen in Seattle, where she’s judging entries. “Artisan bread, rooftop herb gardens – people are even knitting again! That’s where handcrafted cocktails come in.”
Suddenly, a cosmopolitan cobbled together using squeeze-bottle lime juice and cranberry drink just doesn’t cut it. Ingredients must be fresh, recipes inventive, and even descriptions should inspire.
Back at the bar, creativity abounds as the experts move from cognac to vodka to Cointreau, with semi-finalists from Scotland, China and Egypt. There are some clear winners, a rare miss or two, and some that split us down the middle.
“You know what I like about this?” Lowe ventures, considering the next drink, a mix of whiskey and maple syrup. “It’s balanced.”
The word comes up a lot. Really, balance is the most important consideration when tasting a cocktail. There’s no talk of terroir or tannins. You don’t need to “nose” or swirl your glass – the aromas will hit you while the drink is still in the shaker. On most nights, a craft cocktail bar looks closer to a banquet table – or a candy shop – with its full spectrum of shapes, colours, flavours and smells.
After sampling our last drink, I’m asked to pick a favourite and to sit back and enjoy it as The Rose Club finally opens for the evening. I settle on the Célibataire. So delightfully bitter, gingery and sweet – it tastes like a classic.
A small crowd of visitors ascends the grand staircase, eager to explore the iconic locale, to investigate the very spot where jazz greats Billie Holiday and Miles Davis once performed.
“With the right atmosphere, even a glass of water can be a special experience,” proclaims Stellner, sweeping his arm across the bar, to the still-humming lobby below.
“I believe it,” I say. I just don’t plan on testing the theory.
Originally published in Fairmont Magazine .