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Published: Tuesday, 4/5/2011

Here's to the second golden age of cocktails

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

BLOOMBERG NEWS Enlarge

In the Westerns, a cowboy always came into the saloon and said, "Give me a whiskey." Or sometimes, "Give me a drink." Or he would just bounce a heavy-sounding coin on the bar and the bartender would pour a shot of whiskey and then set the bottle down next to it.

Even Greta Garbo would say, "Gif me a viskey, ginger ale on the side, und don't be stingy, baby."

What they definitively and incontrovertibly never said was this: "Give me a chamomile-infused Flor de Cana four-year-old rum with lavender syrup, blood orange liqueur, and muddled nasturtium blossoms. And don't be stingy, baby."

We now find ourselves in what is being called the second golden age of cocktails. The first golden age came in the period between 1900 and Prohibition, when bartenders began experimenting beyond the basics of slapping down a shot of rye for a cowboy or Greta Garbo. In a burst of creativity that comes from developing a new artistic medium, drink mixers came up with such classics as the sidecar, the gin fizz, and the salty dog.

Straightforward drinks, all of them -- a shot of alcohol, a bit of acid, and a dash of something sweet. You could have one or two of them at night and still look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, if the light wasn't too bright and your head didn't hurt.

But this second golden age is different; now the drinks are all froufrou. They are being made with cachaca, a South American liquor made from fermented sugarcane juice. They are made from acai spirit, a drink made from berries that grow only in the Brazilian rainforest. They are made from hibiscus syrup and agave nectar, from green tea concentrate, yuzu juice, and a bitter French aperitif called Suze.

Some of the more scientifically inclined bartenders are even using sodium alginate and calcium chloride to chemically alter their drinks.

The change came about at the same time bartenders and saloonkeepers started thinking of themselves instead as mixologists. The word "mixologist" had been around for awhile -- since 1856, apparently -- but no one took it seriously. It was like "ecdysiast," to mean a stripper. But not many years ago, bartenders got a surge of self-importance, took on the monicker "mixologist," and started making drinks with elderflower liqueur, pisco, and homemade orgeat.

In Portland, Ore., a bar manager named Evan Zimmerman makes a drink called Smoke Signals that calls for -- wait for it -- smoked ice cubes. Apparently, he puts a big block of ice in a metal loaf pan and puts that in a pot with smoking pecan or hickory wood chips. After five minutes, he removes the pan from the heat, cools it slightly, covers it in plastic wrap, and freezes it again. He then chips the ice out with an ice pick and drops a chunk in a glass filled with bourbon, amontillado sherry, lemon juice, and pecan syrup, which he makes by simmering pecans in sugar water. As the ice melts it imparts a smoky flavor to the drink.

And here is my secret shame, the source of my abject humiliation and profound mortification. Here is the mortal sin for which I can find no absolution: That drink sounds kind of good to me.

I'm a bourbon man, myself; straight up, no chaser. I like the smoldering burn on the back of the tongue, the rich, caramel flavor, the hint of vanilla. I stay away from wussy drinks, from anything calling itself a martini that is not made from gin or vermouth. I don't want foam, I don't want fruit, and I certainly don't want sodium alginate, whatever that is.

But so help me, I want a Smoke Signal. I want a smoked ice cube melting into pecan syrup.

Oh, the eternal disgrace. The blasphemy. I am heartily sorry for having offended you.

Bring on the nasturtium blossoms.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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