When St. John Frizell stepped out of Downtown Brooklyn’s courthouse after finalizing his divorce proceedings a few years ago, he and his lawyer walked across the street to Rocco’s Tacos, where he promptly ordered a Prickly Pear Margarita.
“It was fine but it was not what I wanted,” Frizell recalls of both moment and drink. “What I wanted was something classic. I wanted a Martini. I wanted it to be made with care and I wanted the bartender to treat me like a human being,” he says. “I did not want to, at that point in my life, sit down at a bar and try something the bartender had been working on. There was no room for error. I could not afford to be disappointed at that moment.”
For New Yorkers, there was an upshot to that Margarita. It proved to be the flapping butterfly wing that set into motion the reincarnation of Brooklyn’s historic Gage & Tollner restaurant, where Frizell serves as co-owner and beverage director. In the meticulously restored historic space, he now oversees one of the finest and unintentionally unique cocktail programs in a city drowning in high-class drinks. But more on this shortly.
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As American society takes tentative steps away from 18 months of trauma, are we not collectively craving those very same virtues as a recently divorced Frizell? The comfort of something classic. The intimacy of being handed a carefully prepared drink — and in a space not serving as home, office, and speakeasy. America needs an ice cold Martini. And it cannot afford to be disappointed at this moment.
There’s a famous adage used in British sporting media, usually referring to the performance of soccer players: Form is temporary, class is permanent. Something similar can be said about cocktails. None can deny the myriad virtues of drinks like the Martini, Sazerac, and Manhattan — they’re classics for a reason. But while they slip in and out of favor throughout time (hello, form), there are eras when such drinks capture the zeitgeist with crystalline clarity. That time has returned.
Within New York, a city that’s propelled cocktail culture for decades, 2021’s most exciting bars are no longer those with complex, proprietary creations, assembled using techniques borrowed from the El Bulli cookbook. Instead, the loudest buzz spills onto the streets from spaces — new and triumphantly reopened — where classics and classic ideals form the foundations. Beyond fitting the emotional aesthetic of the moment, practical arguments abound for why this renaissance within a renaissance may sweep the nation’s bars very soon.
Classic New York
Now back to Gage & Tollner. I’ll admit, there’s a personal reason why the menu resonates so strongly with me. I’m a Martini drinker and there are seven — seven! — Martinis to devour at Gage. But being a spirits and cocktail writer, I’m also astounded by the rest of the cocktail menu, composed entirely of IBA recognized cocktails, from the Rusty Nail to the Harvey Wallbanger. With the exception of the Negroni, all of the drinks on the menu have been served at some point or another in the space throughout the restaurant’s history, Frizell later tells me.
Of course, one could theoretically go to any of New York’s vaunted drinking establishments and expect to receive a proficiently made Rob Roy, Sidecar, or Gimlet. But nowhere — to my mind, at least — will you find quite so many of these drinks listed side by side, nor a menu composed entirely of them. This feels like a statement; a stake-in-the- ground moment.
Such an approach to menu design may seem restrictive to some, and there’s certainly no need for every single bar in the city or country to eschew house-composed drinks entirely. But nor should that mean the two can’t exist with equal billing.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than at Double Chicken Please on the Lower East Side. Opened in November 2020, and helmed by GN Chan and Faye Chen, the bar’s menu affords equal real estate to classics and food-inspired house creations — around eight of each. Enjoyed in the ambience of one of the sharpest-designed spaces in the city, Double Chicken Please remains criminally underrated by the media and those who may consider themselves “in the know.” On the plus side, reservations are not yet an absolute must, though I can’t see that being the case for long.
It hasn’t proven quite so easy to belly up to the bar at Williamsburg’s Maison Premiere since it reopened in June of this year. Maison enjoys notable and deserved recognition for its extensive absinthe and oyster offerings. But it’s also classically oriented with its cocktail program, notably offering three different Sazerac servings prepared tableside (and an exquisite tableside Martini, for any fellow aficionados reading).
Those guests who snagged a reservation during the early days of Maison Premiere’s reopening were greeted by a greatest hits menu from the past 10 years of the bar’s existence. “We knew that we needed to come out with as many guns blazing as possible but not overextend ourselves either,” says William Elliot, Maison Premiere’s managing partner and bar director. “To me, trying to reopen with a bunch of new drinks on the menu that weren’t time-tested, weren’t vetted by a neighborhood and a clientele and a bar team, it didn’t make sense.”
Practice and Pragmatism
Amid a well-documented labor shortage, and ongoing uncertainty among some of the population to return to indoor dining, Elliot’s point on “overextending” may be most relevant of all when considering the practical implications of returning to the classics.
In recent years, many bars have mirrored kitchens in embracing equipment like sous-vide machines, and turned drinks preparation into a science measured in hours rather than revolutions of a bar spoon in a mixing glass. In 2021, is that still a financially viable model?
“If you’re looking at a room packed full of people and your register’s going wild all night long, you can justify having 20 hours of prep on a Friday or Saturday, and you can justify juicing nectarines and other seasonal products that you might not use a lot of,” says California-based Erick Castro, who runs a trio of bars in San Diego and New York, and hosts the “Bartender at Large” podcast. “But when the state told us we had to run at 25 percent capacity, all that stuff went out the window — and it wasn’t just in California, this was coast to coast.”
Like many of his peers, Castro quickly abandoned prep-heavy menus as the pandemic took hold. It wasn’t merely a question of labor costs outweighing nightly takings. Selling fewer drinks also meant diminishing or no discounts on produce and other ingredients that could no longer be bought in bulk. “In a way, instead of looking at it as something unpleasant, it gave us the opportunity to throw ourselves back into the classics and the foundation of drinks,” he says.
That’s not to say bars that have forged their reputations on forward-thinking drinks need to compromise their identities, Castro adds, and nor should they. The challenge is to instead continue imagining envelope-pushing cocktails in a way that’s more financially responsible. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he says. “There might be more restrictions, more shutdowns. Bars can’t ignore these realities.”
Another reality rearing its ugly head is the industry’s labor shortage. And in this respect, whether newly opened or returning with a new team, many might deem it most wise to stick close to the classics.
“Bar programs are going to be expected to know how to make a cocktail as good as, if not better than, what people are now doing at home,” says Eric Alperin, the Los Angeles based co-owner of multiple bars, including The Varnish. “You might as well not have that liquor license if you don’t know how to make the Old Fashioned, Negroni, Martini, and the sours.”
A veteran of New York’s legendary Milk & Honey bar who moved out West and witnessed the cocktail renaissance unfold in real time in L.A., Alperin says he and his team continue to work on perfecting the classics to this day. A focus on those drinks has, in turn, helped The Varnish pull through the most challenging times in the pandemic.
“It was tough getting back open — we [did so by the] skin of our fucking teeth, like many other places — but it didn’t mean we couldn’t make drinks because we had the base ingredients for a lot of great classics,” he says. “But here’s the thing: I think a lot of people are just happy with ordering classics.”
By many accounts, serving classic cocktails, or classically inspired drinks, offers a more streamlined bar model — what with minimal perishable ingredients beyond fresh citrus, and the à la minute nature of trimming prep work down to shaking, stirring, and the odd infusion here and there. But were we perhaps already approaching this moment before the pandemic arrived?
If we consider cocktail menus as an art form, Gage & Tollner’s Frizell argues that within the last few years, we reached the Rococo phase: overly ornate and inventive, and perhaps drifting away from the fundamentals of the form. Maybe the time had already come to drift back toward the classics before March 2020. Still, the status quo left Frizell with doubts about a program entirely devoted to classics, even if it was befitting of Gage’s vintage chop house and raw bar aesthetic.
“I did feel in some ways that it was a risk putting a cocktail menu forward that was so Normcore that nobody would notice,” he says. “There are no hooks there for writers, except that it’s aggressively old-fashioned.”
Ironically, it may just be the single most forward-thinking composition of cocktails in America right now.