On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy is joined by Richie Boccato of New York City’s Dutch Kills bar to celebrate Thanksgiving with the American Trilogy. Tim discusses the story behind the distinctly American riff on the Old Fashioned with the drinks co-creator and learns how to make Boccato’s recipe. Tune in for more.
Richie Boccato’s American Trilogy Recipe
- 1 ounce applejack, such as Laird’s Bottled in Bond
- 1 ounce rye whiskey, such as Michter’s
- 1 cube Demerara sugar
- 2 dashes orange bitters (1:1 mix of Fee Brothers and Regans’)
- 1 splash soda water
- Add sugar cube to a chilled Old Fashioned glass and saturate with bitters and a splash of soda water.
- Crush cube using a muddler and work to form a rough paste.
- Add applejack, rye, and a large, single cube of ice. Stir gently, 15 times, to incorporate the sugar paste.
- Garnish with an orange twist.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: “A little glory, glory hallelujah.” Those are the words from the king, Elvis, an American trilogy. We’re here today to talk about the American Trilogy, with the cocktail’s co-creator, Richie Boccato. Welcome back, man.
Richie Boccato: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here as always.
T: It’s a pleasure to have you back. New studio, same building.
R: Lovely. Lovely. Very comfortable.
T: Yeah. How do you feel about what we’ve done with the place?
R: I feel it’s like a womb of warmth and comfort.
T: It’s comforting, isn’t it? This little studio we have here. Not little, but you know what I mean? That’s a Scottish — “This wee studio we have.”
T: No. It’s a great space. But no, up top there, I mentioned the American Trilogy. We’re going to get into this. It’s intentional that we’re recording today and we’re putting it out today because I’m going to say this from the top: three ingredients. Each, I’m going to say pioneered, created by immigrants, but also distinctly American. And we’re going to get into whether that kind of was the inspiration for the cocktail or the name. But the reason being overall is just like, if anyone ever asks me what I should be drinking on Thanksgiving cocktail-wise, say, “There’s no better candidate than the American Trilogy.”
R: It’s a very special cocktail for me, obviously, because I believe it’s the first one that I actually created with permission to reproduce it and sell it to guests. So it was a very early effort for me, but turned out to be very successful. And of course, would not have taken flight the way it did without Michael’s assistance behind the bar in those early days.
The History of the American Trilogy
R: It is. And I think that the birth of that cocktail was very — the roots were humble. I believe that I had wanted to experiment with specific ingredients that were not altogether foreign from our traditional Old Fashioned, which is the same way we make it now. The way we made it all those years ago at Milk & Honey and Little Branch is identical to what we’re doing tonight at Dutch Kills, and many other bars that fall under the Petroski umbrella that are still serving cocktails tonight. And I wanted to make a few changes, and I wasn’t even sure that this was permissible, that this was okay, that you could deviate from the standard and make these adjustments and come away with a successful drink. So I remember at that time — this was around 2007 — applejack in New York City cocktail bars was ubiquitous.
R: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I should say it was a very popular spirit that people were very, very excited about. And you would think, they were making this spirit in 1698 at America’s oldest distillery, we would’ve known a thing or two about it. But when the bottled-in-bond expression got into our hands and made its rounds around the popular bars and cocktail bars in New York City at that time, I think everybody had a very specific inspiration from that bottle. So a lot of people were making the Diamondback. I guess that was sort of a stirred straight up — I wouldn’t call it a Manhattan, but you’ve got your green Chartreuse, your rye, and your applejack from Ted Saucier’s “Bottoms Up,” 1951. That was a very sexy cocktail that only required about a half an ounce of applejack. So a lot of bars were then inverting those specs and doing different things with applejack and the Marconi Wireless cocktail, or the Star cocktail, or the Bentley cocktail, which are essentially all just stirred Manhattan variations that we were making at Milk & Honey at the time and Little Branch. And other bartenders were obviously doing interesting things at Pegu Club. And so, this bottle of bonded applejack was making its rounds. I remember seeing it in some cocktails of Milk & Honey in the early days. Joe Schwartz had a cocktail called the Turnpike, which was a shaken straight-up cocktail, very simple, but things paired well with applejack, and we were recognizing what that was. So rye, applejack, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, shaken straight up. Goodnight.
R: Yeah. Delicious to this day. Sam Ross had a Harvest Sour, similar to the Turnpike. Rye, applejack, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, Peychaud’s, Angostura bitters. Delicious. So I think that that was somewhat of the inspiration that I saw, that these ingredients worked well together. The brown sugar cube. I don’t know why. I remember saying to Mickey, “Is this permissible? May we deviate from the Old Fashioned?” And Gaz Regan’s orange bitters were always just there in the bar staring at us. And I should note that, again, perhaps not an American ingredient, per se, or perhaps not invented by an American, and that shouldn’t matter either way, but-
T: Well, Gaz was English, right?
R: No doubt. Yeah. No doubt.
T: But I believe it was rediscovered perhaps by Gaz.
R: Indubitably. But we were doing a one-to-one Fee Brothers to Regan’s orange bitters. So that was our house orange bitters. The brown sugar cube was a rough cut, unrefined sugar cube, likely from somewhere in the Caribbean. That’s perhaps where its origins were. I don’t know if it came from the United States, the brand-
T: The sugar is the one that you may be — it’s the biggest stretch in this case, right?
R: Perhaps. Right. And at that time, we would go so far as to grip these rough-cut brown sugar cubes in our fingers and trim them with a bar spoon.
R: Yeah. Because they’re like snowflakes, right? They don’t come out the same, they’re not the dominoes dots. So you would have to be very good at trimming the sugar cube with your bar spoon, lest you should clip your fingernail and wind up having a very bad shift.
R: Yeah. Just to get the right measure. So this is what we would do if we were making any drink that called for that brown sugar cube. So the brown sugar cube being a slight departure from the white sugar cube in the Old Fashioned and the orange bitters, slightly different from the Angostura. But this was just an experiment that I was doing behind the bar. And Mickey, although in age my junior, very much as far as his tenure at the bars at that time, my senior and guiding me throughout my training along with everyone else that got me to the point where I was able to handle myself behind the bar properly according to those standards. So I remember working shifts with him early on and working on this drink, and somehow the applejack and the rye whiskey came together naturally in this cocktail.
T: Yeah. Fantastic. It’s interesting that you say that. And all of those other drinks that you were mentioning before that you guys are working on that were out there in the New York cocktail landscape and beyond, that it’s rye and applejack and it’s not bourbon. What is it about that combination?
R: I think that the bourbon — and I remember trying this cocktail with bourbon — I think it imparted sweeter notes that were not very, very sonorant or welcome in the cocktail. I think we needed that, because we were using a bonded applejack, and we needed a peppery note from the rye, something more spicy, and the bourbon didn’t quite work out as well. Not that it couldn’t, not that it wouldn’t, but in this particular cocktail it did not. But I do remember that what other bars were using in their well, and we had our formulas, and they had their formulas in bars like Pegu Club. You would see Rittenhouse in the well and that’s great. And for us, it was Old Overholt at the time. And so, that’s how we originally made the cocktails, with the Old Overholt rye and the bonded applejack.
T: That from Laird’s?
R: Correct. Yeah. And so, I remember seeing Lisa Laird around the bar once in a while, and that was also really interesting to meet her and speak with her about her family’s history, and learn about this distillery that was the oldest in the United States. And yet, they did not have the marketing behemoth that most spirits do, but they most certainly had the history in the cloud.
The Ingredients in Richie Boccato’s American Trilogy
T: Mmhmm. Let’s get into Laird’s here, actually, as well, because I was going to — obviously this is the first time that applejack’s come up on this show. So it’s surprising, somewhat, to hear you talk about that doing the rounds in 2007, because it’s not an ingredient that I feel like gets a lot of play these days. I’m sure there were probably a number of different reasons why people were gravitating towards it then. But Laird’s, again, first licensed distillery, I have it written here, they got us license number one in 1780. This predates America’s national spirit, bourbon, or heritage spirit, whatever it’s called. This predates it.
R: Right. This is obviously very important. It was used as currency. To know that Jersey Lightning was used to coerce people’s entry through tolls on carriage roads. To learn about this spirit, to me, and its history and how we then applied it to cocktails was unlike any other. And also, the initial process of jack freezing, how it was produced on someone’s doorstep by leaving a pot-
T: Yeah. Tell us about that. Because that is not a common production technique and probably not one you can scale all that easily.
R: Yeah. Not from mass production, yet like many spirits around the world today that are produced by what you would call a small-batch or a small-production method. For example, Clairin rum, which you’re seeing a tremendous amount — well, I’m very excited about it. You’re seeing a tremendous amount of rum coming from Haiti, which is made — I think there’s over 500 stills on half of the island, which is a very, very small square footage when you think about it in relation to the state of New Jersey. I don’t know how it hit figures, but again, people all over New Jersey were making this applejack, and of course you have an immigrant like yourself from Scotland who we have to thank for that, right?
T: And for the rye as well. I’m just going to give that to us as well. Scotts and Irish.
R: No doubt. Yeah.
T: We’ll get onto that in a bit. So applejack is not just apple brandy and obviously it’s changed over time. But the jacking process that you talk about there. So you ferment a hard apple cider, or just cider as we would call it in the U.K., right? Maximum you’re probably getting to about 10 percent-ish through that process. I mean, cider wine, these kinds of things through fermentation, you’re not getting much higher than that. And then, so how do you bring this up to the proof of something that’s approaching a spirit or getting there but without running it through a still?
R: So official disclaimer, if we’re talking about distillation, I can probably lend a few thoughts to that, but how the jack freezing process actually extracts or assists with the distillation process, I’m not an expert, and I’m thankful that they’re not doing it that way anymore. But my understanding is, what would happen is — yes. You’re correct. They would take a fermented cider, put it out in the cold, where you would have open-air fermentation or distillation. I suppose what would be happening is, there would be one layer to freeze, but yet that layer would absorb what would be the congeners or the heads, I suppose. I’m not an expert here.
T: Yeah. I’m not sure how this works in terms of distillation. My only understanding of it is, and again, this is something that I looked into today and I’d never considered before, but it’s just like a case of freezing water content, removing that, and therefore increasing by concentration the ABV of what you have there. Now immediately I’m wondering, are you removing flavor compounds ,too, in that liquid aspect? I don’t know. It’s like evaporating or whatever, but it’s a different means of doing so, right?
R: I did not cheat before I came here today and do my research. So I’m unprepared for class, but yes.
T: Needless to say, no one’s making it like that anymore.
T: Thankfully not.
R: Thankfully not the main process by which we’re-
T: If you want that, go somewhere upstate New York or head north of the border and have some ice wine because that’s a similar kind of process.
R: Yeah. Very similar.
T: Phenomenal. But actually in that case, you’ve got lower ABV. Who cares? Anyway, modern day, so not just apple brandy.
R: Right. Going back to the inspiration for this particular cocktail. All the drinks manuals and the books and the cocktail folklore that we had available to us at that time in 2007, all these books that we had behind the bar, it was Calvados, Calvados, Calvados, Calvados. So you open up the “Savoy Cocktail Book,” every other cocktail, that’s a gross exaggeration, I’m sorry, but it was present, it was ubiquitous in that book. So what we started doing is replacing Calvados in our cocktails with this applejack that we had our hands on at the time. So I think the inspiration came from using this very American ingredient, much as the very American bartenders who left the United States during Prohibition to go to Europe. And what was in their hands was Calvados and probably many other things that they had never experienced or made cocktails with in their time. But here we have applejack and how does it compare? What’s the difference? What was special about applejack in 2007 or even in 1930 that was different from Calvados? And of course, the distillation process is different. In Calvados, you have pears often. It’s a brandy that can include other fruit aside from apples. Apples, I should say. So what you’re looking at is almost like a mash bill with a grain spirit like with a whiskey. There’s going to be a certain percentage of varieties of apples that are present in every expression of applejack or Calvados. But with Calvados, you commonly find that there are pears added too.
T: Pears. And Lemorten, that’s one of my favorites out there. Just go and buy bottles and bottles of that stuff. Don’t know if you’re familiar with Lemorten, but a high proportion of pear, I think, in there.
R: Well, applejack traditionally, of course, there are many expressions that are aged. Laird’s has a 7 and a half year that we still enjoy at the bar. But generally it’s a younger spirit. And, of course, the folks that were jack freezing their apple cider on the front porch were not aging it in barrels afterwards. But in Normandy, it’s almost the younger the Calvados, the more appley, which bartenders I think appreciate. And perhaps as it achieves more time in the barrel, lends a more oak-ier aspect and a less appley element to the distillate. So with applejack as opposed to Calvados, you’re getting a very appley experience, at least from what would be an unaged applejack in the bottle.
T: And I think at some point, or I mean this is going to happen across the board, but at some point probably a lot more prevalent previously, you’d have folks also maybe adding some grain neutral spirit in there as well, lengthen it out that way. But the stuff we’re talking about here today, Laird’s, whether it’s 7 and a half years, the bond, those are pure brandies to my knowledge, aged brandies.
R: Yeah. We were very excited about the bonded. We had the 80 proof as well, and it worked in certain cocktails, but not in this one. But yes, the 7 and a half year — the bonded — which I believe is now at a hundred, so that they don’t have to legally bottle it in bond.
T: Got it. Okay. Nice.
T: And then rye.
R: Right. Yeah.
T: Actually, before we get into rye, where does the name for the cocktail come from?
R: Okay. Officially, I believe, and my memory doesn’t always serve me correctly.
T: Well, this is the business.
R: Yeah. Yeah. This is-
T: The business of forgetting.
R: In many ways. In many ways. The name that we wanted for the cocktail was Once Upon a Time in America. That was the name. It seemed a bit loquacious. For any purpose, a cocktail menu, or even just to announce the name of this, “I’ll have a Once Upon a Time in America.” It was a bit much. So the American Trilogy became the name.
T: So there’s always this tie to America there. It’s an intentional tie, presumably to the ingredients.
R: Yeah. So neither myself nor Michael were born here, but we have a strong connection to this place, especially New York. None of these ingredients are specifically native to New York.
T: Although we are getting a New York category of rye, I believe?
R: Of course. Now we have-
T: Now, now, now. Sorry. Yeah.
R: We have rye production here, of course, of course. New York Distilling Company, shout out to them.
T: Allen Katz.
R: Van Brunt Stillhouse, shout out to them. And also getting back to applejack, you have at the Warwick distillery, the Black Dirt Applejack, which is another. So of course props to Laird’s, but there are many other applejack distillers in production out there.
T: There’s others out there. Yeah.
R: But at the time, that’s what we were working with.
T: I like the Once Upon a Time in America. Can you come back with that one?
R: Yeah. We can revisit that. We can come back with that as the sequel. But that was, I suppose, a cinematic reference that we were both excited about, but didn’t quite work for the name.
T: Didn’t quite land.
T: It reminds me of possibly my favorite opening line of any movie, which is fitting for the discussion today. “I believe in America.”
R: Yeah. Yeah. I do too. I do as well.
T: Those are the words of “Godfather.”
T: Vito Corleone.
R: I quote that movie often, Part II, and I’m paraphrasing. But whenever I find myself facing difficult moments in this career path, I remember the character, Hyman Roth, who was played by…
T: I shouldn’t blank on this.
R: This is eluding me, but a very important man in so far as theater and cinema. Let’s not ask our pocket wizards. Let’s use our brains.
T: Let’s use our brains. Yeah.
R: Noodles, referencing “Once Upon a Time in America.” And so, he says to Michael Corleone, “Always remember this is the business that we chose.” And this is a paraphrasing, I don’t remember the line exactly, but that’s always a line that I think about from that movie.
T: Fantastic. He’s trying to be, what? Meyer Lansky?
R: That was the reference. They were in Cuba. He was an exile.
T: Yeah. Yeah. Phenomenal.
R: Stanislavski? Oh, no. That couldn’t have been him.
T: No. Anyway, people can Google. We’ll Google after, or it might come halfway through the episode.
R: Forgive me for not remembering.
T: But I just felt like that was two, three degrees of separation there with the “Once Upon a Time in America.” Great film as well. Go check that one out. Great cocktail name. Waiting for it. Back to rye, though. We’ve covered this before at times. The rye renaissance tracking with the cocktail renaissance, it’s a phenomenal category. I probably find myself more intrigued by rye when it comes to trying new bottlings or new producers than I am by bourbon. Don’t get me wrong, I love bourbon. But there’s something about it. And those kind of caraway spice notes, for me, it’s a perfect fit with apple, that flavor.
R: Yeah. It worked really well. Still does. And just for whatever reason, the chemical reaction in the glass was harmonious. As you said, the caraway. Just the fact that this spirit is just so chewy and peppery and spicy, and it really complemented the applejack tremendously well, one-to-one.
R: Equal parts.
T: Equal parts. How many Old Fashioned riffs are you seeing at the time? Because it’s not a cocktail that I think gets riffed upon as much as you might imagine. Of course, we have Phil Ward’s classic Oaxaca Old Fashioned, but a very different beast to the cocktail we’re talking about today, right? It’s a much looser kind of sibling to this.
R: We barely had tequila, we barely had agave spirits at Milk & Honey and Little Branch. They were there, but they were not featured prominently on the back bar. So it is of no surprise to me that we did not have a similar inspiration.
T: Something like that. Yeah.
T: But I mean, you have the Rum Old Fashioned, which is okay. Yeah. The Old Fashioned riffs swapping out bourbon for something else. Great. But what we’re talking about today is a different cocktail, seemingly directly inspired by the Old Fashioned, but also with its own identity. Unique.
R: Yeah. And as I said, that was a bottle that people were reaching for. This was a popular bottle. Not because it was new, because it wasn’t, but it was maybe new in its presence at these bars. And we wanted to make this part of our experience, embrace the history, not only of American bartenders making cocktails in America, using distinctly American spirits to create a balanced drink that we thought could stand the test of time. It seems like it has, because we’re talking about it tonight.
T: It definitely has. And I was thinking about this earlier. I definitely had one November last year. Might have been after Thanksgiving. But I do remember sitting down in Dutch Kills and ordering one. The funny thing as well is the wonderful server. There’s just always a knowing look in someone’s eye where you’re like, or they weren’t quite sure if they knew you like, “You do know that this drink…” And I’m like, “Yeah. It’s the perfect word.” Late November in Dutch Kills, your bar, fantastic, best way to do it.
R: I once had one in Sydney, Australia, I believe, at Shady Pines.
R: It was on the menu there. So it’s made its way around, which is always interesting.
T: That couldn’t get further away.
R: Yeah. Yeah. Lovely experience.
R: But it’s also interesting when cocktails make their way around the world, it’s like a game of telephone. You might experience an ingredient differently, or maybe they can’t source the same ingredients. And we have that issue here, too, of course, with attempting to recreate cocktails from bars the world over. So if I was to try to conjure the same cocktail as someone in Italy, perhaps, here in New York City, the grape might taste different. Who knows what the-
T: Completely different. Yeah.
R: Yeah. What the experience would be.
T: Was that somewhat common at the time? You talk about Laird’s doing the rounds, or bottled-in-bond applejack doing the rounds at the time. Things are different now, right? The number of brands and products out there has increased exponentially, thanks to folks like yourself. Would you see that where suddenly there would become excitement for this one ingredient, and then suddenly it’s just like, “Who can do what with it”? Not in a competitive way, but I think about other things like St-Germain, or maybe in more recent times people love Mr Black. Different ingredients like that where it’s just like, “Okay. Everyone’s figuring it out, what do we do with this?”
R: It’s so true. Yeah. And you just hit the nail on the head. When Rob Cooper came around with the first bottle or first iteration of St-Germain, certainly to Little Branch and to Milk & Honey, and to other cocktail bars around New York City, everyone was very excited. And I think Joaquín Simó said it best when he called it the ketchup.
T: Was that Joaquín who coined that one?
R: I believe so. At least that’s my reference to that, ketchup for bartenders, because it somehow found a way to bind so many cocktails.
R: Yeah. And so, we were excited to have that bottle of Laird’s bonded applejack behind the bar. I remember specifically Christie Pope, who I was so fortunate to work with and also train with in my early days. And Chad Solomon, I believe, was at Pegu Club at the time, but I think they, and still do, had a pretty good relationship with Lisa Laird at the time. And that’s how she made her way to Little Branch and Milk & Honey to meet us and talk with us. And it was all very casual. There were no brand ambassadors, there was no corporate presence. This was very much in line with who we were, which was a very small cocktail bar in a big city without any sort of marketing presence. This was before the days of the way people communicate nowadays.
T: Social media.
R: Yeah. None of that was a reality. We barely had cell phones at that time. Of course, they existed, but the smartphone was just invented, I believe, in 2007. Sasha gave me an iPhone generation one because he didn’t want it. He said, “Here. You have this thing.” We had all been communicating with BlackBerrys previously because we had that-
T: BlackBerry Messenger?
R: Right. Because they couldn’t track. It was a completely encoded means of communication that nobody could track. So that’s what we did, the pin. When I met Lisa Laird, and when Chad and Christie, I think, first introduced us, at least behind the bar to this spirit, it was unlike anything else that we had been working with. And it had a very similar, and I don’t want to say low key, I just want to say a truly respectable pedigree. And it felt immediately familiar to the bars that I was working in.
T: And totally aligned with everything that you guys had been doing at the time, right? Okay. So we’re seven years since Milk & Honey first opened. I would assume there’s been this whole excitement about rediscovering categories and finding new products, and maybe people bringing old stuff in. But then at some point you’re like, “Okay. So what else can we do now?” Seven years at least feels like a good time for that where you’re like, “Okay. We’ve done not what we can, but we’ve got bourbon, rye, all these other things. We got that covered now. What else can we do but that’s also looking to the past as there had been with the recipes?” I don’t know. It makes complete sense the way that you kind of highlight it there.
R: Yeah. It just fell together very naturally. It was also something that just made a lot of sense in those bars, that we would combine those ingredients, of course. Why did we put an orange twist? I don’t know. Orange bitters, orange twist, I think we probably tried a couple things.
T: And so, orange bitters, you were using it a lot of the time. It was there in the bar and it was-
R: We did our one-to-one. That’s what worked for us. It still works for us.
T: Mmhmm. And rye, you mentioned Old Overholt. Obviously the options now are tenfold what they wear then, but-
R: Very different. Yeah.
T: Let’s do a little shout out-to Overholt, because the Olds family, as they’re called, is owned by Beam Suntory, James B. Beam Distilling Company, right? Fantastic products.
R: Yeah. We-
T: Old Grand-Dad.
R: Yeah. OGD.
T: OGD, the 114 phenomena. What’s this? A $30 bottle of bourbon?
R: Always present on the back bar at both Little Branch and Milk & Honey. And as far as I’m concerned, belongs and has its place and should be heralded to this day. A fantastic bottle. A fantastic whiskey.
T: Phenomenal. I’m going to sound like an assh*le for bringing this up on air here right now, but I’ve drank so much of that in my time that someone recently made me their house Old Fashioned, which had a little twist to it. And they were about to tell me what the bourbon was. I said, “Let me take a guess.” So I did the whole thing, knew the drink, tasted the drink. I’m like, “It’s Old Grand- Dad Bonded.” And got a high five there and also said, “Maybe I need to drink less bourbon.”
R: Enough respect, but so approachable, right?
T: So approachable. And the thing about Overholt as well is, during the pandemic, 2020 was for sure — they upped the proof of the lowest-price offering, brought back the bonded, and then they also released this aged version that for the life of me, I can’t remember how old it was, but it was phenomenal, the small sample that I tried.
R: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s funny, I recently tried the original version of this cocktail when you and I first started talking about it and the possibility of coming here and talking about it together. I tried the original cocktail as it was 16 years ago. Or is that 16 years? So it’s going to be 16.
T: 16 in a month and change.
R: And so, people describe Old Overholt as a bag of peanuts. And that’s kind of a common thing that I hear bartenders say, “If you like peanuts, you’ll like Old Overholt.” Especially like the crushed peanut shells at the circus. Something tells me these kids never ate peanuts out of a bag in a circus, but okay, that’s cool. It’s a good reference. And I like the reference. I enjoy that. But I never really got that specifically. It was just a pound for pound, a steady and reliable rye whiskey that we could use as a utility scalpel in all of our cocktails behind the bar. And nowadays you’ve got a rye for stirring and a rye for shaking. Your well gets deeper now because you’ve even got a mezcal for shaking and a mezcal for stirring. So it gets very complicated.
T: How big are these wells getting?
R: They’re getting deep. Back in the day, that was not the case at all.
T: No. I wonder whether that peanut reference — I got to say, I wonder whether that’s something to do with the yeast that Beam uses, because I get that Knob Creek and Booker’s, some of those releases from them just tastes like eating a Snickers bar to me. And I mean that in the best possible sense. I absolutely love it. So I wonder whether that’s the yeast, but either way, good to give some love to Old Overholt.
R: That’s how we did it back in the day. It always worked. And so I tried it again recently, a few different variations. I have to say, if we’re going to be specific, Chip Tyndale at Dutch Kills made me an American, almost just said American tragedy, which was one of our nicknames for this drink, because we wound up having to make so many of them. And what have we created? We’ve created a monster. Chip made me an American Trilogy with Michter’s rye, which was lovely. Just velvety, chocolatey, delicious.
T: Cherry as well. That’s a cherry for me. Yeah.
R: That’s how I would have it tonight.
T: Nice. Yeah. And I imagine maybe that Overholt that you were using back in the day might not have been quite the same proof. Who knows? But as you said, Rittenhouse is another that bartenders often favor. We’ve covered rye a lot before, so I don’t think we need to go too much further on that. Wait, what does Michter’s come in as?
R: Okay. I think it’s at 94, but I could be wrong about that. I could be wrong about that.
T: 94. Yeah. That makes sense. At or approaching 100 proof is basically the sweet spot for cocktails for rye?
R: Yeah. For rye for sure. And that’s why I respect what other bars were doing with Rittenhouse, which was at 101, I believe. So that makes sense. It was a good move, especially when you’re stirring cocktails, because if you’re starting with three ounces of liquid content prior to adding ice and prior to stirring, and you wind up with 120 mil total when you strain the cocktail in the glass, so you’ve got an ounce roughly. That works well with a higher-proof rye, specifically, because you’re proofing it down a little bit. And then what you’re doing when you’re stirring that cocktail is, you’re changing the ABV inherently. That’s your job as a bartender. So with a higher ABV, I believe that you have more control over the final product that gives you an option to retain much of what the distiller intended for the spirit in the bottle and becomes prominent in your glass when you strain that cocktail.
T: And spoiler alert here, we’re going to serve this one over hopefully a good cube of ice.
R: Yeah. If you have it.
T: But therefore, you don’t want to be — that risk of dilution as well if you’re putting something that’s 80 proof in there to begin with. You’re only enjoying half of this cocktail, I would imagine.
R: So it’s a good point that you raise. Any of our Old Fashioned style cocktails served on the big rock, this drink wants to mature. Your sip is not the same as mine. You can’t quantify a sip or qualify a sip, a quarter-ounce, an eighth of an ounce, a half-ounce, one ounce. Each sip that you take is unique to the individual who’s enjoying the cocktail. But for the most part, we’re not accepting the cocktail and slamming it down the gullet.
R: That’s not the way you drink an Old Fashioned at Dutch Kills.
R: Unless you’re a total savage. So you let the drink mature. And with that higher-ABV distillate, whether it be the rye or the applejack, it has an opportunity to do that. So we can talk about ice another time. But we often received a lot of critique for not stirring our Negronis, our Old Fashioneds and then straining them over the big ice. And our argument was always that the water content is too much at that point. So you let the heat transfer take place in the glass, you let the ice melt. Big ice melts slowly, obviously, but it makes your drink colder and your drink stays colder for a longer period of time, and you enjoy your sips as you enjoy them. But that drink matures in the glass and that’s what the intention was.
T: And also, I mean, who’s buying a fine bottle of rye and a fine bottle of applejack and sticking it in the fridge and saying, “I need to get this down to temperature first before I drink them neat?” No. That’s not what we’re doing. And the American Trilogy as a drink, it’s not that far removed from drinking spirits neat, right? That’s how the drink is supposed to be enjoyed.
R: Yeah. Ultimately, you don’t want to throw your pearls at swine, right? So to conjure this cocktail and use an inferior quality of ice that you have in your freezer or in a room temperature ice bin does not do justice to the spirits that are coming from these bottles that people have taken pains to distill to their standards that they set forth. So we respect every spirit in the bar, be it from the well or on the top shelf, with the finest caliber of frozen water that we can create. And that’s what it always was. That was the methodology from day one.
T: Fantastic. I’m going to say we’ve covered all the ingredients here, apart from maybe the Demerara, but you said how that came about. That was there.
R: Just to be different.
How to Make Richie Boccato’s American Trilogy
T: So how about we jump into the preparation and you talk us through it now as if you were making this drink in the studio today. And you said there, ingredients change, what’s available has changed. So maybe what your modern spec would be after considering this over this past week or so. Talk us through from start to finish.
R: Yeah. The deep reflection of the past week leading us up to this Thanksgiving holiday. So I believe we used the rough-cut Demerara brown sugar cube, unrefined. I believe the common brand was Roland that we had back in the day. I can remember the oval logo. So we would trim it so that it wasn’t too obnoxious and too big because you don’t want your drink to be too sweet. Ideally, your drink is balanced. And if you’re not working with perfectly square-
R: Right. And that’s okay, because these sugar cubes were like snowflakes. They were unique in shape, but uniform in service. So one brown sugar cube, and maybe the Demerara sugar or the turbinado, or the unrefined sugar variety that it was, added some depth to the cocktail that the white sugar could not. So sugar cube in your — we used a 12-ounce whiskey glass or Old Fashioned glass. So sugar cube in the glass, saturated with two dashes of bitters. The bitters were one-to-one Regans to Fee Brothers. And the controversial splash of soda. Why did we do that? People became upset about that gesture that we would do in our Old Fashioneds. And this is an infinitesimal, possibly less than an eighth of an ounce, strictly as a means by which you saturate the sugar cube, and it allows you to gently muddle that sugar cube with the bitters to create a granulated paste, nothing that would even indicate a wash line in the glass. Eighth of an ounce.
T: Nowhere near as much dilution as you would get if you were stirring this over ice and then serving it on the rock.
R: For sure. This is just but a, as you would say, but a wee gesture to crush the sugar cube and create this granulated paste on the bottom of the glass.
T: And also a calling card for the Milk & Honey family right there.
R: Yeah. We always did that. And this was heavily scrutinized and criticized. It was scandal, scandal, but really not so much because how upset could you really be over a splash of soda.
T: Also, when you’re doing it, I have done this at home, there’s a very enjoyable sensation when that water hits the sugar cube that’s already soaked up a little bit of bitters. It kind of fizzes, folds apart, you start making this paste. It’s a very enjoyable thing to do.
R: It’s a ritual.
T: It is a ritual.
R: It’s part of the ritual. That’s it. And would it be too dry otherwise? Would the cocktail fail as a result of the lack of soda? I don’t think so, but I do think it helps bind the ingredients in this initial stage. So you’ve got your sugar cube, a couple dashes of bitters, a gentle splash of soda. You muddle. No need to over muddle. You do not have to do more than just crush the cube to make that granulated paste. You see a lot of bartenders ringing the bell with the muddler in their glass. Not that it’s dangerous, but there’s really no need to knock around inside your whiskey glass with your muddler, because should you break the glass, it’s not the best thing that could happen in the middle of a shift. You might not cut yourself, but you’ll break a glass. You have to make a new cocktail. If you are left with nine granules of sugar and bitters on the bottom of your muddler, then so be it. No need to ring the bell. Don’t knock around the glass with your muddler. It’s unnecessary.
T: Yeah. Also, you’re making a racket.
R: You’re making a racket. And then you’re potentially causing irreparable harm to yourself and your coworkers.
T: Not worth the risk.
R: Not worth it. So you’ve done your muddling. From here on in, it couldn’t get any easier. This is perhaps one of the most enjoyable cocktails to make, because at this point, you’re one-to-one, you’re equal parts, it’s your rye and your applejack. You would add preferably a large cold rock.
T: And these days, sorry, just to confirm, you’re going with Michter’s and you’re going with Laird’s?
R: That would be the one that I enjoyed the most this past week at Dutch Kills.
R: Yeah. That was a good combination.
T: Great combo.
R: It was quite enjoyable. And so, that’s what I would recommend to all of our listeners this evening. And if that’s not available to you and you want to go old school, Overholt was the way it was made. And this should be, for the record, tale of the tape, the way it was intended to be.
T: Also, one thing I forgot to mention there, too, just another one to sell it for the whiskey geeks out there, they stopped chill-filtering their products too.
T: So you can expect a bit more viscosity on that or some of that mouthfeel. I don’t know. I mean, it’s a good sign for a brand that, to my knowledge, spends zero marketing dollars on anything and nothing. It just exists there, if not on the bottom shelf or close to it.
R: Similar to how Laird’s does not have this dramatic marketing tendencies.
R: So those worked well together maybe for that reason. And there was this thing about the rye, the Old Overholt, and the bonded Laird’s applejack that gave it this candy sensation. Made you think you were about to maybe have some salt water taffy, maybe, on the boardwalk in Monmouth County down there.
R: Shout-out to all of our people from Jersey who were listening in and-
T: Feeling proud about the heritage.
R: That’s right. About their state’s glorious spirit. But I do think that from that point now you’ve got your ice, you’re going to stir gently 15 times, no more than that. And a long orange twist, express the oils. We do kind of a four count and then around the glass. And then Robert is your mother’s brother, as they say.
T: Bob’s your uncle. Fanny is your mother’s sister. I forget. No. No. Anyway, there we go. Phenomenal. That was the American Trilogy. Any final thoughts there on that cocktail before we move into the next section of the show, or Thanksgiving in general? I mean, for the diehards out there listening today as this comes out celebrating Thanksgiving. Hey. First of all, cheers. Where does this rank in the realm of drinking holidays in America?
R: I suppose it’s up there for the simple fact that you have many people gathering together, and for whatever reason, family gatherings and gatherings of friends always should be considered a glorious and beautiful occasion. Historical references aside, it is the gathering that should be important. And although Thanksgiving is not a particularly special occasion to me personally, I respect that to many others it is. And I think that it should be, whether it be a Monday in June or a Thursday in November, being with those whom you love and sharing a cocktail such as this is of paramount importance. I will not designate this to be the official cocktail of the Thanksgiving holiday but if you-
T: No. I’ve done that for you.
R: If you enjoy one or two, then I support that. I second that motion.
T: Well, also as well, just that you speak about that there, too, this being America. We can hearken back to the original definition of the cocktail. And I mean, quite like the Old Fashioned, this fits that definition 100 percent.
R: It’s a bittered sling for sure. It has all the ingredients, it checks all those boxes.
T: Nice. My memory of my first-ever Thanksgiving here in the U.S. A member that joined us at the dinner table, perhaps somewhat early in their drinking career, polished off a bottle of Baileys Red Velvet over the course of the dinner. That didn’t end well for anyone. Don’t do that today. If you’re listening to this right now, do not do that.
R: I will not, and I will not advise anyone to recreate that episode.
T: Yeah. Yeah. That was one to move beyond, but drink what you want.
R: Be in good company.
T: Be present.
Getting to Know Richie Boccato
T: Be present. All right. We’re going to do it. We got five new questions for you as we do for our returning guests here. Returning friends.
R: Yeah. I will freestyle to the best of my abilities.
T: He hasn’t seen these questions today.
R: No. I did not prepare for school.
T: When you’re giving the lecture at college, you don’t need to prepare.
R: Oh, yeah. I hope that my age, my stature, and my tenure behind the bar will carry me through this interview.
T: We’ll see. You’re five questions away from finding out.
T: Question number one. Which spirits category are you currently most excited about from a personal or professional perspective?
R: Oh. As we mentioned earlier, I will say the Clairin. I think that’s a place where I am very excited to visit as far as the spirits category. I’m pretty excited there.
T: Might have a little something for you after we wrap up this one.
R: No doubt. Yeah. I do enjoy that category as a whole, right now, especially this time of year. It’s really interesting.
T: Let’s shout out to a friend here, Jan Warren.
R: No doubt.
T: The fine people at La Maison and Velier. If you’re in New York City, they’ve got some phenomenal products within that realm, have they not?
R: Yeah. Probably top-ranking as far as that’s concerned, and how I was certainly introduced. And it goes without saying that Jan and I have a great history and friendship together that predated the American Trilogy.
R: Yeah. And we enjoy that friendship to this day, and spoke today as a matter of fact. And so, we even had a recent dinner together where we were tasting things that are not entirely dissimilar from Clairin, but some really wild sotol varietals and some interesting mezcal. And shout-out to Claro in Brooklyn where I attended junior high school just a few blocks away and could not have imagined that I’d be eating and drinking such amazing things 30 years later, 35 years later.
T: It’s a hard life.
R: Yeah. But to answer your original question, Clairin is definitely something special.
T: Very nice. Question number two. What was the last drink you had that wowed you?
R: This is easy. I discovered very recently that I enjoy sake and tonic.
R: Just a surprise to me. Very strange surprise. But this is not a fancy cocktail. This is not something I enjoyed at a exalted-
T: Bespoke. Yeah.
R: Yeah. Special cocktail bar. But I went to see a show and drank a sake and tonic. The show was incredible. Shout-out to the band, New York Grimeys at Special Club. Great experience, sake and tonic.
T: Nice. Going to try that one.
R: It was dope.
T: Sounds amazing.
T: Number three here for you. What’s one book you would recommend that every alcohol and cocktail enthusiast should own a copy of?
R: May I ask a question to follow up to the question? Is this a book that is related to spirits and no.
T: Doesn’t need to be a recipe book. It can be related. It can also be a complete work of fiction.
R: Well, with regard to alcohol and spirits enthusiasts and what should they own? Two very random books come to mind for no good reason. “Here Is New York” by E.B. White. It’s a very short essay from 1946. I think I might have even mentioned this the last time I was here. I don’t recall. But to me, that sums up the true experience of this city and this town, and who we are, and the fabric of what this place is meant to be, and those of us who come here from all points, north, south, east, west, to be in this place. So that’s one that I would always recommend. And that’s one that we used to recommend at Milk & Honey back in the day too.
T: So there you go.
R: Yeah. “Here Is New York”, E.B. White. Very brief essay written, I believe, in a sweltering single room occupancy hotel room with no air-conditioning, which also somewhat captures the zeitgeist of-
T: The New York experience right there.
T: Nice. Question number four. Penultimate one for you. If you could appear in one movie scene where alcohol plays a prominent role, which one would it be, and who would you like to play?
R: This is so easy. This is so easy. Okay. “Mean Streets,” 1973.
T: Okay. Tell us about that.
R: The answer would be anyone. It would be Johnny Boy, of course, brilliantly portrayed by Robert De Niro. Charlie, Harvey Keitel’s protagonist in the film, or even Tony the bartender, whose name I believe was David Proval. And I still can’t remember the character who played Hyman Roth, which has been in the back of my mind for this entire time. But as a young man in New York City growing up, and will preface this by saying as a teenager, my introduction to the fraternal brotherhood of the great — shout out to John Fante, by the way. So getting back to our literary references. John Fante, also someone who I think needs to be read more often. I remember drinking 40s and quarts of Ballantine ale in the streets and subways of New York City. And when I finally graduated from that level of imbibing and inebriation, which we do not condone, we do not condone-
T: No. Not here on this show.
R: Not one bit. But when I was finally able to enter into proper bars — I might not have been old enough to be there in the late 1980s, but I wanted to be there, and I wanted to drink 7 and 7 in the same exact bars where they were drinking 7 and 7 in “Mean Streets” with the red lights and the doo-wop and soul music, and the Motown. And that’s where I wanted to be. I got close a few times. I think we talked about this last time as well. There’s no more important bar to me in New York City than Sunny’s in Red Hook. And I was there about a week ago, and that was wonderful. But being in downtown Manhattan, what is now called NoHo or Soho or Little Italy, of course, was what would’ve taken place back then. But that’s where I would’ve wanted to be. 1973, “Mean Streets,” drinking 7 and 7. There’s that incredible scene where Harvey Keitel is actually — the camera follows him through the bar while he’s having a very good time and ultimately falls asleep on a table, I believe.
T: After my own heart.
R: That would be my bar scene that I would love to have been a part of.
T: I thought you might go back to “Godfather II.” The Daiquiri scene.
R: No. No. I would not have chosen such a refined choice. I think No. 2 is even way more left field, but let’s just say “Mean Streets.”
T: “Mean Streets.” It’s a good choice. Very true to yourself, I feel.
R: No doubt.
T: Last question today. Interested to hear your thoughts on this one. Which modern classic cocktail do you think is deserving of more recognition than it gets?
R: Modern classic cocktail?
T: Modern classic I’m saying here with air quotes. I mean, no one’s officially defining these. People have in books recently, but no one’s officially defining it. You know what I mean? I don’t want to say any in case it’s the one that you want to pick.
R: No. No. I would say that the Enzoni from Vincenzo Errico, which I believe he created this cocktail at Match Bar in 2000 shortly before he came to Milk & Honey in New York. So timeline, maybe a few years, but-
T: Mmhmm. Enzoni.
T: Proving your point here.
R: Right. So not necessarily a Negroni variation, but fresh grapes. The varietal is — of course, we would have to talk to Enzo about what he initially used. We used to use white grapes when we made it at Milk & Honey. Concords are fantastic if you can have them in season. It’s amazing. Fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, gin, Campari, shake, strain over a rock. And this is perhaps one of the most beautiful cocktails I’ve ever experienced. Enzo’s known for the Red Oak, of course. But I say that his Enzoni needs more props as a modern classic cocktail.
T: He’s back in Italy now, is that right?
R: That’s right. He’s at L’Artefatto on the island of Ischia. And I recently was at an amazing wedding that I officiated not far away, and I was communicating with him and thinking, “I’m going to find my way there.” But it didn’t quite happen. I was so close. I was very honored to have served with him at Milk & Honey and Little Branch and learned so much, and always appreciated his style and his elegance, and his demeanor above all.
T: Bonus here. Maybe yes, maybe not. But would the answer to this question be the same if the question were rephrased as which modern classic cocktail do you wish you’d invented? Maybe not?
R: The sake and tonic.
T: I think you just did. I think you just did.
R: I doubt it, but I was thoroughly impressed with that cocktail. So whoever invented that drink, I give you props and respect.
T: Mmhmm. Nice. Well, guess what, Richie? It’s Thanksgiving. People got football to watch, turkeys to baste.
R: Football meaning…
T: American football.
R: Okay. No. I couldn’t say.
T: Not soccer.
R: I couldn’t say anything about that. But there is football to watch, most certainly.
T: There’s football to watch.
R: On the world stage.
T: On the world stage. Yeah. Not going to say where, but it’s out there. The real one. I like soccer. I like football. Yeah.
R: The stakes are high.
T: Stakes are high right now. But thank you very much. It’s been a real pleasure having you back. And honestly, talking about this real American classic, the American Trilogy, I’m going to go and listen to some Elvis as well, the king.
R: We’ve got plenty of selections on the jukebox at Dutch Kills of many, many American classics. So let’s have one-
T: Saddle up to the bar.
T: Dutch Kills, couldn’t be better. Cheers, Richie.
R: I agree. Same. Thank you, Tim.
Okay, that was a lot of info, but here’s the good news. Every single episode of VinePair’s Cocktail College is also published on VinePair.com as a transcript. So you can check it out there all over again.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.