We’re heading to the 8th Arrondissement for today’s cocktail, the Champs Élysées, and we’re exploring it with Wilmer Nolasco, head bartender at Leroy’s in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. More than just another use for that bottle of green Chartreuse, this is a bold yet refreshing four-ingredient shaken classic. Listen on to discover Nolasco’s Champs Élysées recipe
Wilmer Nolasco’s Champs Élysées Recipe
- 1 ½ ounces Cognac, such as Cognac Park VS
- ½ ounce green Chartreuse
- ½ ounce fresh lemon juice
- ⅓ ounce rich Demerara simple syrup (2:1)
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice.
- Shake until well chilled.
- Double strain into a chilled Nick & Nora glass.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: That’s always good to hear. All right, well, we’re good. We’re doing good in the studio. We’re going to kick it off. All right. It is the “Cocktail College” podcast. Pull out Google Maps folks. It’s the Champs Élysées. Wilmer Nolasco joining us today. That’s the cocktail and that’s the guest. Wilmer, thank you so much for joining us.
Wilmer Nolasco: Thanks for having me.
T: It’s a real pleasure to have you in the studio today. And beyond fashion boutiques, the Eiffel Tower, the City of Love, what is the first thing what you think about when you think about the Champs Élysées from a cocktail perspective, this drink?
W: For me, the thing that stands out about this drink is my personal connection to it. Going into it when I received the layout of all the drinks that you could choose from, I know it took us a couple tries to nail one down.
T: We’ve covered quite a few so far. Some of the big hitters have been done.
W: For sure, for sure. It’s interesting to me because it’s one of those drinks that means a lot to me on a personal level, but I don’t know so, so much about the history of it or even where the construct comes from. So it’s an interesting one to go for, but I am excited to talk about it.
T: Yeah, sometimes I think, look, we can try, and that there is a temptation when it comes to cocktails, to always try and get to the historical facts and the significance there. And we’ll cover that a little bit. But the fact of the matter is not every drink’s going to have that. And I’ve done my own research into this. This is a drink that I’ve enjoyed before. I’ve done my own research into that. Doesn’t seem to be a lot. We’ll get into it second. But first of all, what’s in this drink for those who are unfamiliar with it or who have never tried it?
W: So the components in this drink are pretty simple, straightforward. You’re looking at an aged Cognac, green Chartreuse, lemon, some sort of sweetener, typically simple syrup, and Angostura bitters.
T: Nice. Yeah. So one thing I do love about this is, it’s one of those drinks that, I would say, maybe not everyone’s heard of, maybe not everyone’s tried, but I would argue that if you’re into cocktails, you probably have all of those ingredients. Maybe you don’t have the Chartreuse or maybe you bought it for a better- known cocktail. I always like drinks as well where you get a little bit more mileage out of that kind of bottle. So this is a good one. I think this would be a good exploration for many today.
W: For sure. This being one of those drinks that has green Chartreuse as one of the components, typically a slightly higher-cost component. This one, according to the specification of it, sits in the half-an-ounce region. So you do get a little more mileage out of that product.
The History of the Champs Élysées
T: Yeah, yeah. And it is a fair amount there, maybe beyond just a bar spoon or whatever, a small modifier there. We’ll get into that. We’ll get into ingredients, we’ll get into ratios. First of all though, it’s not just a big road in Paris. What is it? What’s the history of the Champs Élysées?
W: So the history that I discovered on it, not super clear, but the first I knew of it was Joseph Schwartz bringing it back to prominence in 2003 at Milk and Honey. But originally it was written about in “Drinks Long and Short” in 1925.
T: And that’s not one of those books that… I mean that’s not Jerry Thomas or it’s not the Savoy, right? That is not one of those books that often comes up. Is that one you’ve looked into that much yourself? I know I haven’t. I know that was the first time probably that I’d ever come across this book when I researched this drink.
W: Same. Unfortunately, it’s not one of those books that I’ve personally heard of prior to starting to do my research on this drink, but it seems like a good book. This is definitely the one that is the standout drink-
T: From that book.
W: From that book.
T: And the name? There’s two French ingredients in there. Is that it? Is it that simple or is there anything else there? Do you have any theories there?
W: It’s hard to say, right? Because Chartreuse is alpine, right? Cognac is from the Cognac region, not quite where the Champs Élysées or the Arc de Triomphe are. So it’s a tough call. Sometimes I guess it’s a matter of taking two common ideas and, I guess, conflating one with the other.
T: All right. Here’s one for you, because the Champs Élysées, again, being this iconic part of one of the most iconic cities in the world, is this a better drink than the Sidecar? Sorry, this one’s coming out of left field, that question. What do you feel though? Better drink than the Sidecar? Because that’s one where we’re talking about all French components. Unless I’m getting that wrong. People are shouting at their headphones right now or the podcast, but I think that’s all, right? Cointreau, Cognac.
W: Yeah, lemon juice.
T: Lemon juice. Very similar in some respects.
W: In terms of construct, yeah, they follow the same structure. I’m not one to say one is better than the other. I think it’s a matter of preference.
T: You’d make a good politician.
W: I’m diplomatic in my approach. I try to be, as best as possible. No, if it’s me sitting down and having the drink or if it’s me standing across from a guest and having the conversation, understanding what they want, what they’re in the mood for, how adventurous they are. I might pick the Champs Élysées over the Sidecar.
T: It’s maybe a little bit more interesting, or maybe you stand more of a chance of grabbing their attention or exciting them because it’s not one. Which is a good point here, because this is not a drink I often see on menus. Very rarely and don’t hear it called out too often. That’s not the case for yourself though, in your bar. This is one that you have on your menu. Do you want to talk to us about that, the thought process for putting that on there and then also your first experience with the Champs Élysées?
W: Yeah, the choice with adding the Champs Élysées to the menu over at Leroy’s was a matter of, for me, being able to use that classic section to highlight drinks that are classics to those that know. While using it as a means of exposing guests to other classics. Not the usual, not your Manhattan, not your Sidecar, not necessarily your Daiquiri, all things that are delicious in their own right, but just a little different. Something that’ll expose our guests to something new.
T: I think that’s a great point just about bars and bar menus in general, right? I love having a section of proprietary drinks and also a section of classics. Do you need to put an Old Fashioned on there? Of course. Maybe not everyone feels comfortable asking for a drink that’s not on the menu. In 2022, I think we can expect that most bars can make an Old Fashioned and probably without too many riffs. So I think highlighting these other classics, that are classics but lesser known, I love that. Because it also allows people to gradually dip their toe in and explore new things.
W: For us, it’s using that classic section to encourage our guests to delve deeper into the realm of classic drinks. They’re meant to achieve two different things. One, with our staff, exposing them to those drinks, educating them without necessarily just hammering down on random drinks. Say we’ve run Pineapple Daiquiris, Paper Planes. Now we’re going to go ahead and do the Champs Élysées. It’s an educational tool for me. Conversely, for me, if a guest sees, “Oh, Champs Élysées, what’s that? Mmm. Classic? Okay, maybe I can start ordering other classics.” It’s meant to encourage them. There’s a reason why I have a Dirty Martini on the menu. I’m not doing anything different to it. I’m making it right, I’m making it consistent, so that people know, “Yeah, okay, I am comfortable here. They know what’s going on. I can order with comfort.”
T: And I think there’s something subconscious just about the word classic as well. Must be a classic for a reason.
W: Of course, it’s classic for a reason, as you just said. It’s been made over and over. It’s stood the test of time.
T: Yeah, for sure. And there’s always a reason for that. Sometimes not always a good reason, but there’s always a reason for that.
W: That’s true.
T: What about your first experience with this drink, though? Do you remember where that was and how you felt when you were ordering that one?
W: Yeah, my first time with that drink was, I don’t remember exactly when, but it was one of my first bartending jobs. My bar mentor at the time — my always bar mentor — this guy, he took me to Little Branch and he was so excited to expose me, introduce me to this drink. So I didn’t order anything. We went up to the bar. It was my first time there and it was Little Branch. It was big, it was exciting, it was intimidating. And I guess a few minutes later a drink showed up in my hand in a beautiful sour glass. And that was the first time, and I probably had a few more than I should have that night after that.
T: It’s always a good sign.
W: I guess so. I guess so. It’s the mark of a good drink, right?
T: Of course. The fact that you immediately want to order another one before you’ve even finished it.
T: And the fact that you maybe order a third even though you know you shouldn’t.
T: It’s my endless dilemma with Martinis.
W: Ah, I Can’t.
T: That’s the first Martini you mentioned today. Probably not the last.
W: That’s fine.
T: Comes up a lot. It’s so funny you say that as well, though. And this is going to lead us nicely, I hope, into the next thing that I want to talk about here. But my first experience with the Champs Élysées myself was at Attaboy and you know how it goes there, no menu. So it’s based on recommendations and I think they do do, “Do you spicy? What spirit are you looking for?” Whatever. I don’t know whether I sound like a prick asking for things like this or whether they appreciate it. But I was like, “Look, I’ve got a very specific request.” I think I was on a bit of a Last Word kick at the time or something, and I was like, “Can you make me something that follows a similar template to the Last Word, but is not the Paper Plane or Naked and Famous” or, I believe Division Bell was the other one that is in that line. I think I was quoting that one. Anyway, the Champs Élysées arrived and it was incredible. I loved it. I liked it. That was the first time I’d come across it. I still have the note in my phone. Do you know what I mean? If a drink makes it into the notes section, that’s always a good sign. But yeah. How much is this really in that Last Word template? Because we’re going to get into ratios and recipes and stuff, but just a spoiler alert, this is not the three- quarter, three-quarter, three-quarter, three-quarter, right? Do you agree with that or does that seem to you like a logical recommendation from them? When I asked for that?
W: It’s a tough read because yeah, as mentioned, it’s not part of that now classic understanding of the three- quarter, the four component, three-quarter split cocktail. I think for them, just following what you relayed just now, I think it’s a testament to their customer service standards. They understood you. They recognized and acknowledged the guest and the guest knowledge base very quickly. You said Division Bell, you said Last Word. This person knows what they’re talking about. Let’s do something cool because we can take them, and maybe it doesn’t a hundred percent follow that format, but it’s okay because we can have this conversation on a slightly different level with this person and they’ll get it. They’ll vibe with that.
T: And it’s a four-ingredient drink, so if you’re not counting bitters, it works on that front.
W: That’s true.
T: And I definitely ordered a second. I was running late for dinner. I was like, I think I got time for one more. So it passed that test.
W: One of the focuses for me when I’m constructing menus and drinks for menus nowadays, it’s how often will a guest have a repeat order on this drink? It says a lot that you went ahead and had more than one of those.
T: Was very well executed. Tough one when it comes to four ingredients, I think we spoke about this maybe in the Last Word episode or maybe in the Corpse Reviver, but four ingredients. It’s like, where do you start? Where’s the anchor of this drink for you? So if you’re looking for your own spec, if you’re looking for the balance point, where do you start there and what are the biggest challenges when it comes to balancing these four very different ingredients?
W: For me, it starts when it comes to those cocktails, treat it as an experiment. Identify what the controls are before you can identify what the variables are. With something like a Champs Élysées in your control, the thing that is non-negotiable is your green Chartreuse. I think you could follow that up by saying that lemon juice is probably the second non-negotiable, which allows the base spirit, your Cognac, your biggest measure, to be your biggest variable. So that’s how you can start playing with the drink. That’s how you can start playing with the concept. That’s how you can develop your own theory behind how to execute that style of drink. So I think it’s a great platform. I think it’s a good template for that.
T: I love that idea of what are your non-negotiables. I love that because it’s like, unless you’re trying to create a riff on this, like you said, lemon juice is a non-negotiable, unless you’re trying to add or deduct something else and we’re going in a different direction. But also Chartreuse, there are those bottles out there that you’re like, it has to be this one in this drink.
W: And I don’t think there are too many drinks that are stringent, I think, and Negroni is one of them.
T: It’s a Campari cocktail.
W: It’s a Campari cocktail first. Then you play around with the sweet vermouth. Then you can choose which gin you think might work best for that application. But the non-negotiable is the Campari.
T: Also, I just want to say thank you for agreeing with that. That’s long been my point. And it’s long been my point of contention there. The Campari is not a gin cocktail. I don’t care what anyone says. You can use many gins. We’ve covered this before in the Negroni episode, but it’s not a gin cocktail.
W: No. And I think, again, for me it’s so easy to agree with you because of my outlook on where can you play around with the structure of the drink and where is it not allowed or where does it not allow itself to be riffed upon? Unless you’re going to follow the cocktail concept template and then work off of that, but yeah-
W: It’s a Campari cocktail.
T: And the Champs Élysées is a Cognac cocktail or maybe it’s a Chartreuse cocktail. Either way I guess you could argue that, but profile-wise, because it’s being made with an age spirit, but is this a refreshing drink? We know it’s a shaken drink, or you can guess it’s a shaken drink because it contains fresh citrus. Is it a fresh profile? Is it maybe slightly more broody than drinks of that ilk? Where does this lie in your mind?
W: I have to say that, for me, it stands firmly within the idea of a refreshing cocktail. Is it going to be as light and as bright on its feet as — rather as bright and as light on its feet as something like a Daiquiri? Like a Gimlet? No. I think certain aspects of it serve to that cause, though. Cognac, age spirit, a little rounder, green Chartreuse, notorious for being 110 proof, big body, lots of flavor. Herbaceous, bracing. Lemon juice? Not as acid-forward as your lime. So while you do have some components that, again, aren’t stand-alone, the lightest, brightest on their feet. Brightest, lightest on their feet, I keep saying that backwards. Once you take them into this application of the Champs Élysées and you’re adding some ice and shaking it, aerating it, livening it up, it’s a light refreshing drink at the end of the day to me.
T: Yeah, it’s one of those that maybe packs a bit more punch, like you say, than a Daiquiri or whatnot. Maybe it’s one of those, someone regularly drinks brown spirits, but they ask you at the bar, “It’s a hot day today, I want to have something refreshing. But I don’t really like gin, I don’t like rum.” I think this is a great one. If you’ve already played your Paper Plane card, maybe. I don’t know.
W: Yeah, I had a moment with a guest just this week, a regular of ours. They come in pretty often, want to say a minimum of two to three times a week. And the guy likes drinks, he likes his cocktails, he likes variety. And he was at the end of his night and he says, “I want one more, give me something a little different.” I had you in mind. I had the episode in mind. So I fired up a Champs Élysées.
W: He had three.
T: Maybe that should be the tagline for this drink. It’s like you can never order fewer than three. Unlike the Martini, where you should never order three. That’s mention No. 2. Yeah. What a great drink it is. Anything else you want to chat about, the profile or what you’re looking for from a finished version of this drink, or should we bang out the ingredients?
W: Finished version of this drink? I would say I’m looking for there to be just a masterful balance between the Cognac that the bar is using — that comes into play heavily — and just the freshness of the ingredients. It’s one of those drinks that I think that, because of the nature of how it’s produced, you have very little wiggle room when you’re making it to spec.
T: And this may be, I don’t know, don’t know whether this is overly reductive or whether this is not something you can answer. But when we talk about balance in a cocktail with four ingredients, five maybe, are you looking to identify each one of those ingredients in their own way and in their own proportion, or are you looking for something that comes together as one, ideally greater than the sum of its parts?
W: Absolutely. Especially with something like this. Again, touching back on the individual flavor profiles of the components, again, being that rounder, richer Cognac. Again, same with the green Chartreuse being such a big, bold spirit, I think it’s one of those drinks where it’s far greater than the sum of its parts when put together.
The Ingredients in Wilmer Nolasco’s Champs Élysées
T: Ideally, yeah, I think that’s always where we’re hoping to arrive with cocktails, but I think it’s so difficult. And again, especially when you got all these competing flavors. Let’s get into those ingredients now, though.
T: Start with Cognac?
W: Yeah. So Cognac being the base spirit, if we’re speaking personal preference. I’m looking for something that’s about two-year aged, Cognac VS, green Chartreuse, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, Angostura bitters.
T: So a couple of non-negotiables there, but we’ll dive into them a little bit more. When you say Cognac VS, okay. We’ve spoken about this for other Cognac cocktails before, but what is it about that younger aged style that attracts you for this drink? Is it price point, profile, the fact that it’s lighter and maybe jives well with the rest of the ingredients better than something heavily aged, or is it maybe just the combination of all of those?
W: Well, looking at it from a business operation perspective, less-aged products typically equal less expensive. Especially with something like green Chartreuse at play as well, that’s in the range of your $60, $65 a bottle depending on where you’re shopping from. In terms of the age statement on the Cognac, I do like something that’s younger age statement because it is a lighter body, typically, which so much as we speak about non-negotiables and things being done to specification at all times, I always think that it is up to the bartender that is working with the components, with the ingredients, putting the things together, to decipher and determine how they’re putting the drink together and making sure that it makes sense in the tin before it’s shaken in the glass after it’s shaken as well.
T: And I think even if money were no object here, if you’re just looking, okay, you have free reign over your bar or VinePair’s bar here and it’s like choose whichever Cognac you want in the world, I just don’t imagine that an XO works well with the rest of the ingredients here. It’s too heavy, it’s too decadent and aged. Right?
W: Yeah. And again, you’re seeking balance when you’re putting these things together, and unfortunately, or rather fortunately in some cases, because it would throw the balance off so, so much, having such an aggressively aged Cognac just doesn’t make sense. And it’s not, don’t try it, it’s just try it so you can see what works best for you. Maybe more aged with a split Cognac, maybe splitting the bases between an XO and something different. Doesn’t have to be Cognac. Maybe you split it with an Armagnac.
W: That could also make sense.
T: I do feel like as well, though, yeah, if you’re going full XO you’re more approaching savory versus fresh fruit. This to me, just looking at the ingredients, thinking about the flavor profile, we’re looking for more of that fruitiness rather than getting into savory notes and whatnot. Right?
W: Yeah. And those savory, more aged fruit, more cooked fruit flavor profiles do tend to come out with the longer aging process just by nature of the product being in contact with that wood in the barrel for such an extended period of time and it just doesn’t always work.
T: Do you have any Cognac brands that you want to highlight here that you think are good for this, or just as a well for VS and cocktails? Any go-tos for you?
W: Yeah, the one that we offer in the well right now is Cognac Park. It’s a VS, two-year aged, good price point, delicious Cognac. Does exactly what it needs to do.
T: Do you know what ABV that is? Probably 40.
W: I think it’s 40.
T: If it’s not, it’ll be 43. I only ask because I’m not expecting to know this off the top of your head, but I do find it interesting that Cognac really is one of those categories where, across the board, you’re hitting 40 or 43, whereas if I’m mixing gin at 43, I’m not interested, or even bourbon.
W: Yeah. But I think that this drink, in particular, is one of those examples where you have to be mindful of how much body the green Chartreuse is bringing into the equation. Where I’m on your side of things, say, for example, not to deviate from the path of the Champs Élysées cocktail, but a Manhattan for me has to be made with hundred-proof whiskey.
W: It just has to be. Otherwise it’s lacking in the body category for me.
T: And let’s talk about that too, because we’re getting body. ABV is body, for the most part. It’s not an alcoholic burn. If the spirit’s well made. It’s also calories, but who cares about that? Body’s also coming from sugar. There’s simple syrup in this drink, there’s residual sugar, a ton of it in Chartreuse as well. So you’re right, we don’t want this drink getting too flabby.
W: No, no. When there’s too much sugar involved, especially residual sugar, I feel like you start getting drinks that come off, and in this drink in particular because of the Cognac and the lemon and the green Chartreuse and the bitters, it already does look a little… It’s not the most appealing-looking drink in the glass. Right?
T: It’s a good point.
W: So in the case of using a Cognac that’s lower in proof, say that 40 percent, 80 proof, you want that, because you just want the body and the flavor. Rather, you’d want that younger fruit, that bright flavor from that lower age statement Cognac coming through, playing that leading role that’s going to hold hands with the Chartreuse to carry through whatever was missing from the body of the Cognac.
T: And we’ve said this before, when it comes to drinks such as the Sidecar, the Lemon Drop, even the Margarita, basically anything with Cointreau, just because this is a shaken drink, let’s not forget that, like you said, Chartreuse having the ABV that it does, this is a boozy cocktail despite the fact it’s shaken.
W: Yeah, absolutely. This isn’t one of those drinks to be taken lightly, for lack of a better term, just because it’s shaken. Chartreuse is still 110 proof.
T: Yeah. Yeah. Packs a punch. We know that’s non-negotiable. I don’t think we need to cover anything else with Chartreuse, unless you have any final thoughts on that ingredient.
W: No, no.
T: No. It’s wonderful.
W: It’s delicious. It’s always there for you when you need it. Unless it’s out of stock.
T: And don’t even bother trying to get vintage bottles these days. That market is done. That’s already been discovered.
W: That’s been exhausted.
T: Yeah. Lemon juice. We know fresh is best. It’s an ingredient that comes up maybe every other show, every third show, depending on what we’re covering. Any thoughts you have on lemon juice? Any original thoughts you have on lemon juice you’d like to throw into the mixer here?
W: No particular thoughts on lemon juice or citrus in general. Look, it’s Thursday, press the juice, make sure it’s fresh, put it in a bottle. Service starts at 4. Outside of that, and this is more so me speaking personally with you, but I love it when people have the ambition to make bitters and stuff like that. Angostura does a fantastic job.
T: It’s true, it’s true.
W: And I love it.
T: You got to manage your resources.
W: And your own expectations.
T: Hundred percent. But it’s great that you’re doing it. What’s the payoff, though? Who cares? Is that bringing people in the door? Again, this is not to do people down that are doing it. I think it’s phenomenal, if you have the time, if you have the resources, the staff, whatever the cost, Angostura does a great job. I think it’s understanding limitations.
W: And not denouncing anyone’s efforts to get these things done. Because I think they’re fantastic efforts, and I’ve come across a couple of homemade bitters that are fantastic. But then you sit there and you ask, what’s the process? And after 10 days you just lose interest. It’s like, “Oh gosh.”
T: Yeah, it’s a lot.
W: What’s my return on this effort? In this labor?
T: Two dashes in a couple of drinks. Interesting. But yeah, lemon. Let’s not overthink it.
W: We can’t. Fresh is best. Do it day of, do it right.
T: Yeah. Pulp or no pulp.
W: Oh gosh. Strain it please.
T: You strain it?
W: Strain it. Double strain it.
T: What’s the thinking there?
W: Less obstruction.
W: Just no obstruction.
T: So when it’s coming out of your bottle, when you’re picking up that bottle in service, it’s good to go.
W: Of course. That aside, I guess I’d never thought about it like this before, just because the idea of pulp being in the bottle was never something I thought about. But I guess there’s a measure of juice still within those little individual pulp buds that are next to impossible to account for. For me it’s a matter of efficiency of service.
T: Yeah, a hundred percent. Yeah. No, I made a cocktail for a bartender not too long ago and I didn’t strain my lemon juice and I got told off.
T: I enjoyed it. Simple syrup. Are we going one to one here?
W: If we’re following the recipe, yes. One to one.
T: And are you going one to one at Leroy’s?
W: I’m going to go two to one. We’re going to go two to one, and we’re actually going to go with a different type of sugar. We’re going to go with Demerara.
T: Talk to us about that. Demerara.
W: Yeah. I’m not the biggest fan of simple syrup. I’m not the biggest fan of one-to-one simple syrup. If we’re going to be adding sugar to a drink in an effort, what’s the idea behind adding sugar? It’s to add richness, roundness. If you’re using cooking terminology, sugar is to cocktails what fat is to cooking. So you’re looking to have a fuller product, a richer product. So if you’re going to do that, and not to mention the caloric intake as well, you may as well make it worthwhile, introduce some sort of flavor component, which is my biggest issue with just simple syrup, is that it doesn’t necessarily add flavor. It adds body but doesn’t add flavor.
T: Right. So the vodka of the sweetening world.
W: Yeah, I guess so.
T: Right? Whereas Demerara would be something barrel-aged.
W: Something tasty.
T: Rum probably. Let’s be honest.
W: Yeah, yeah, I am.
W: Probably a nice St. Lucian rum.
T: Yeah, but I’ve thought about this. Yeah, because it’s like, all right. Yeah. This is an area where you can, if you choose to, introduce flavor rather than just sweetness and body and it works. You feel like Demerara works with the rest of those components?
W: I think so. I think so. And the idea with going with Demerara here is honestly to push up the Cognac, because it is such a low-age-statement Cognac, that is so much lighter in body and so much more fruit- driven. We want a little bit of sugar to come and help pick it up in conjunction with that green Chartreuse. So that’s why we made the decision to go with Demerara for this one.
T: And Angostura? Who comes up with this drink and says, “We’ve got four ingredients, tough to balance, but you know what? We’re going to just finish it off with Angostura?”
W: Who doesn’t? Look at my spec sheets, they’re notorious for having weird amounts of Angostura, always. And then I’ll put, whatever number it is, two dashes, then you watch me make the drink and there’s like five. Why’d you put two?
T: It’s the old garlic clove, butter, right? All right, I’m going to take this off for a quick detour here. Most recipes, when it says two garlic cloves, honestly speaking, two’s enough. I hate people that have made it their personality, that they’re like, “Oh yeah, the recipe calls for two garlic clothes and I add two heads.” Don’t do that. I say this as a former chef. Stop doing that, people. That is not a personality and it’s just wrong. You know what I mean? I’m not saying that through the lens of your Angostura here, but it’s something I think about a lot. It’s a big Twitter flex.
W: I get it, I get that. But we’re not going-
T: No, Angostura not that. Right? Angostura is the cracked black pepper of the cocktail. And you know what? I’m all for just pulling out the massive mill and just going for it, right? Yeah, exactly. We’re doing that here in the studio. So that’s a better comparison. But it made me think of garlic and I like to put these thoughts out there because, yeah, just getting them off my chest.
W: But even still, I think it’s a matter of restraint, right? I don’t think the garlic head is the example that applies the best?
T: Yeah, it’s not the right example.
W: But the crack black pepper one is sensational as an example. Because so much is it’s a fun add-on, you need restraint at all times. So that’s a fantastic metaphor.
T: The pepper, because again, look, it comes down to basically how much you can take as an individual and how much you’re willing to take. In the case of black pepper, if you go for those five, six turns, I’m not going to worry about getting in an elevator with you. Now in the garlic, I am. I’m just saying, there’s consequences. Oh, we’ll move on from this point. So it’s exclusively Ango you’re using for this?
W: Yeah. Yeah. If I’m using some sort of aromatic bitter, I know there are other brands that have created other styles or other types of aromatic bitters. But if I’m at the bar, and I’m making the drink and I have an option, if I have the choice, it’ll be Angostura.
How to Make Wilmer Nolasco’s Champs Élysée
T: It’s a great ingredient. Now how about we walk through the preparation of this drink? Imagine we’re at Leroy’s right now. You’re making it for us. Go for your recipe, your specs. Doesn’t have to be the classic. And if you can talk us through step by step, ingredient by ingredient, with quantities, you’re making this the perfect version of this drink in your eyes.
W: Yeah, sure. For us. Well, if I’m standing at the bar and I’m making the drink for you, I’m going to grab the small tin. I remember from the Corpse Reviver episode, you applauded the small tin build, only because it makes the most sense.
W: Right? Small tin, start with dashes. I execute my recipes opposite of how I write them. So I write them base spirit, modifier, citrus, sugar, bitters. I expect myself and my bar team to build from the bottom up, which is to say least expensive, leading into the most expensive, biggest pour. So you order the drink, grab the small tin, start with Ango, pick up a third-ounce measure of Demerara, that rich two-to-one Demerara. We’re going half an ounce of lemon, half an ounce green Chartreuse, and an ounce and a half of that Cognac Park, a two-year-aged Cognac. Add some cold draft to the tin. Every drink is different. So every drink tends to get a different amount of ice. Seal it, shake it, double strain it, Hawthorne fine strainer, as it should be. Glassware probably a Nick & Nora.
T: Nick & Nora?
W: I like that glass.
T: And this isn’t going to get too big. What’s a Nick & Nora? Five to six ounces. Yeah, we’re good on that. Right? You’re hitting, you’re getting close.
W: You’re hitting the wash line. Right? As long as you give it a good shake with proper ice, you account for your dilution. I think the build on this is going to be 3 and a third.
W: Is that true?
W: Three and a third? One and a half Cognac, half Chartreuse.
T: Three and a third. Yeah.
W: Three and a third? After shaking, you get… What do you get? Somewhere in the realm of one and a quarter to one and a half ounces of dilution. You do the math.
T: Yeah. Five ounces. Yeah. Nice.
W: It’s nice.
W: If you get a good shake, good aeration, that negative space at the top of the glass gets filled by that foamy, finished drink, that’s aesthetically appealing to the guest.
T: Yeah, for sure.
W: Then you just serve it as fast as possible.
T: No garnish.
W: No, no.
T: I don’t want a garnish on this one.
W: Me either. I’ve seen them with lemon twists. I think they’re obstructive, personally.
T: Especially in a Nick & Nora glass. Anything beyond a little olive on a pick, I’m not sure I want a garnish in a Nick & Nora.
W: It looks weird.
T: Yeah, it does.
W: I think it looks strange.
T: Otherwise it’s an overly manicured twist. And then it’s like, what are we doing this for?
W: Right. Which I’m all for. Yeah. Make it nice.
T: No, yeah, of course, but it’s like if you’re not able to, I don’t know, I’m just complaining here today. It’s getting close to lunchtime. Yeah. Serve it as quick as possible. Not the most visually appealing drink when it comes to the color itself.
W: That’s the reason why you have to hit the express button. And by express I don’t mean the expression of the garnish, I mean the, get it out as fast as possible. Once the aeration starts to dissipate from the glass, now it starts to settle in and you get that muddy looking finished product.
T: Hopefully that Nick & Nora is coming from the freezer too, maybe as well it’s going to be frosted on the outside.
W: If you’re going to do it, do it. Right.
W: And if you don’t have the means of, or in our case, we don’t always have the real estate for that freezer. Ice the glass.
W: Doesn’t take much. Doesn’t take long. And the guest always appreciates it too. Always appreciates it.
T: It’s the little touches. That’s what this business is all about. Any final thoughts here on the Champs Élysées?
W: I hope that my words on it, our conversation on it, helps to shed some more light to the drink and helps to popularize it a little bit more. I think it’s a fantastic drink, and I hope just people get to experience it more. And I hope more bartenders start using this as one of those drinks that they fall back on.
T: Yeah. I want to see this on more classics menus. I want more people drinking this one. Curveball question that just came to my mind right now. Before we move on to the next section, is there another cocktail or another well-known cocktail that’s named after a street? There must be. Is that even the name of the street in Paris or is it just known as the Champs Élysées? I don’t know.
W: Isn’t the Champs Élysées the-
T: It’s just the-
W: It’s the end of the avenue where the Arc de Triomphe is, right?
T: No, it’s the avenue itself, is it not?
W: I believe so.
T: Yeah. Well…
W: Then it ends at Arc de Triomphe.
T: We know more about cocktails on this show than we do about general geography, I guess.
W: I guess so.
T: Manhattan, I guess, if you want to say there is a Manhattan Avenue but nah. Nah.
W: They’re neighborhood cocktails, no?
T: Neighborhood cocktails. Yeah.
W: I know. Who got on that trend? Who named a Red Hook a Red Hook?
T: I forget. That’s a fairly modern one, though.
T: Yeah. The Brooklyn, I don’t know.
T: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. One that I’ve always wanted to get to the bottom of and never been able to is what is a Staten Island? Because it’s the only one that doesn’t have a recognized cocktail or widely recognized cocktail. I’d like to see someone come up with that.
W: So it hasn’t been made yet.
T: It hasn’t, but I’d like to go to Staten Island one day and just ask people, is there such a cocktail?
W: Let’s get Pete Davidson on the line.
W: Right. We’ll chat with him, we’ll see what his take is on it.
T: Yeah, I’m sure it’s wonderful. I’m sure it’s enlightening.
W: Is he an unpopular opinion now?
T: Pete Davidson?
W: Yeah. Right.
Getting to Know Wilmer Nolasco
T: I don’t know. I watched his comedy recently to see what he was about. I don’t know. Interesting guy. He’s been in and out of the spotlight. We’ll tie it up there, though. We’ll move into the next section of the show here. Quick-hit questions to get to know yourself a little bit more today. Starting with question No. 1: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
W: I would say Amari enjoys the most real estate on the back bar. With the way that we went about, how we curated the cocktail program and even the back bar at Leroy’s, I let the staff and the guests dictate more the direction that we took it in. And the staff was the one that really did it. They took such an interest in these bitter-leaning cocktails. It started with the Paper Plane, because that was the first of the classics that we put on the menu, and they were all enamored by it. And we just continued to build upon that idea. And it was just them constantly requesting, “Hey, can we get this? Hey, can we get that?” So Italian Amari, mostly, we have back there.
T: When it comes to your stylistic preference, do you like some of those richer ones that maybe come from the south, or do you ones that are maybe a little bit more? I know that’s a generalization, but maybe the ones that come from the north that are a bit more Alpine in style? If you know what I mean? If you’re reaching for a glass at the end of the night, where are you going?
W: I feel like, for me, if I’m having an Amaro, Braulio is the one that always stands out to me. Mostly because it’s such a conundrum to work it into cocktails. It’s a little too close to Fernet, but it’s not Fernet.
W: I think it’s delicious.
T: It is delicious. I know it’s a popular one as well, for sure. Question No. 2: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
W: Their knowledge. Their own skill set. Learn to trust yourselves in what you’ve learned and the information that you’ve amassed over the years. I feel like one of the most interesting things that happens with bartenders, especially when they’re breaking into it, they’re excited, they’re motivated, that’s all they think about. And I think it’s so enlightening, because you see that motivation, you see that drive. Take comfort in making something simple and let it be delicious. Sometimes you see these younger bartenders, bar bartenders in general, they create these massive seven-, eight-, nine-component pickup cocktails. They’ve got a straw in the tin every quarter of an ounce. Why don’t you just make something that’s good, that’s stood the test of time. Talk with your guest. You might be surprised just how good a Cucumber Gimlet is, and they will be too. You’ll blow them away with the simplicity and the deliciousness behind it. You got it done. You got it done quick. And you got it done right.
T: And I think that’s a really important point to note too, which is, you as a bartender, when you’re creating drinks, might be thinking about trying to please someone on an intellectual level when it comes to other bartenders, right? 95 percent of your guests or more are not at that level. That’s the Cucumber Gimlet. Perfect example. It’s classic with a little twist. People are going to love it.
W: And again, it all goes back to allowing yourself, myself included, to fall back on that extensive knowledge base. All that information, again, that you’ve accrued, that you’ve amassed over the years. Just let that be the guiding force behind how you execute.
T: And this reminds me of, and I’m paraphrasing here — I might even be making some of it up, but that doesn’t bother me. The guidelines, unofficial guidelines, that I believe Robert Simonson talks about in his most recent book, “Modern Classics”. What should all modern classics have or what defines them? And some of the parameters he puts out there is, I think there shouldn’t be more than four ingredients in the drink. And all of the ingredients should be somewhat readily available. A drink can’t break into the modern classic realm if it contains something so esoteric or very difficult to prepare, syrup or something. It’s not going to get widespread recognition or love among bartenders.
W: I don’t know. How true is that really? Because-
W: It’s tough.
T: Yeah, no, I think so. But I think if you think about, for example, look, we spoke about the Paper Plane here. Yeah. There’s a couple ingredients in there that are not going to be available at your standard neighborhood liquor store, but you can get them, and there’s a bar in most parts of the country you can get them. Right?
T: Or I think about the Gold Rush. Yeah. It has a proprietary ingredient in it, right? A preparation. But it’s a simple honey syrup, right? Honey ginger syrup? I don’t know.
T: No, I’m conflating that. I’m confusing that with the Penicillin.
W: The Penicillin.
T: It’s another classic right there. But again, simple preparations that anyone even at home can make.
T: If you’re coming up with some amazing cola syrup, fantastic. Might not be a modern classic. Not all drinks need to be modern classics, but I’m just using that in terms of mass appeal and what breaks through.
W: Yeah. I guess in this day and age, with social media, it’s an interesting conversation because the reach for things now is so much greater, whereas these drinks that were originally conceptualized in the 1900s, they had to get into print, that had to get distributed. So the spread of information is so much slower, was so much slower, versus now. Yeah, four components make it good. I’m just having a hard time thinking about… What’s the last drink that you’ve sat down with that’s four to five components, tops? That’s completely, hard to say completely, right? But mostly an original concept?
T: I don’t think they need to be original concepts. And I think that’s where the Paper Plane is a great example, or Naked and Famous, taking that four ingredients at three-quarters. But yeah, no, If anything, I think it helps them if they’re riffs. But again, I don’t know, I don’t know whether, I don’t know when we see new modern classics emerge, just because so many of these things have been done. I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s an interesting one.
W: It is. It is.
T: Perhaps we’re beyond the modern era, who knows?
W: I hate to agree with you.
T: All right then. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
W: I don’t know if it’s something that I’ve received. So interestingly enough, I’m sober. I believe it’s been about 22 months. No booze. A piece of advice that I give everyone that works for me is to respect the product, respect what it does, respect what it can do, don’t abuse it.
W: That’s the biggest piece of advice that… I know the question was that I’ve received, but for me, it’s the best piece of advice that I can give. Respect the work, respect what it does, respect that product.
T: I think it’s a great point. I think across alcohol, not just bartenders, sommeliers as well, beer tenders. Why can’t I think? Cicerones? I don’t know. People that serve beer, just call them bartenders, I don’t know. But you know what I mean? There is a danger of thinking that because we work in this industry, that we are somehow immune to the dangers.
T: Or not immune, but maybe have a higher threshold. And I think it’s just a very personal case-by-case basis or whatever. But again, just because you work with alcohol doesn’t mean that you’re somehow more resistant to its effects.
W: No, and I think that that’s something that happens pretty easily with people that work in this industry. They think that they are somehow immune to the effects of the booze, of the alcohol, and it’s just not the case. I know myself, through my time of drinking, I would put drinks together, taste the drinks. “Oh, here’s a friend of mine, let’s have a shot. Shift’s over. Let me have a beer and a whiskey. What are we doing after? We’re going to the bar. I’m going to have another four.” Then I wake up the next morning wondering why I feel the way that I feel.
T: It’s as much just routine as it is anything else, the mindset. But yeah, no, I’ve seen in wine tastings, at wine events where some people don’t spit and they’re like, “Yeah, I don’t get drunk.” I’m sorry, everyone gets drunk. So yeah, I don’t know. I think that’s very worthy advice that you’re giving today here. So it doesn’t matter that you didn’t receive that, but I’m glad that we’re able to share it.
W: Yeah, I’m happy. I’m happy that I’m able to have the opportunity to share that. I think it’s important. I think it’s incredibly important.
T: A hundred percent.
W: I think now more so than ever, I think this industry presents itself as a viable career option for people. People that want to delve into this line of work more deeply, more seriously, it’s not just shaking drinks and putting up spec sheets. It’s a lot more to it than that. And if you allow yourself to grow within the field, I think that there is a lot of opportunity to grow, if you dedicate yourself to it.
T: And like you say as well, if you’re treating this as a career, if you’re starting out and you’re going, “This is my career.” Yeah, you want to be careful from the beginning. Don’t go hell for leather with the drinking because yeah, it’s risky business.
W: I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it happen. Lots of friends of mine, people that I’ve known, they start off in bartending and it goes well. And then it turns into another type of job in the field where they might be on the seller’s side of things. And then that turns into parties and events. And before you know it, you see the burnout. You see it, and it’s hard to recover from that.
T: I think it’s so important that we bring that up today. Appreciate you doing so.
W: Yeah, for sure.
T: Question No. 4 here: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
W: Man, I really, really enjoyed what they did at the NoMad. I really liked what they did. I think the room was beautiful, the level of service, the execution was just always top tier. I haven’t had the opportunity to visit too many of those world’s 50 best or the most highly regarded bars in the world. But man, I really enjoyed what the NoMad was putting out.
T: Yeah. And a lot of great bartenders came through that place as well.
T: It was a breeding ground, as it were. If we’re allowed to say that these days. F*ck. Who knows? We might edit. Last question.
W: All right.
T: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, it’s a hypothetical question here, what would you order or make?
W: Ooh, I can make it?
T: Yeah. I think you’re the first person that’s ever asked that. I always assume, some people are like, “I would like to make it.” But yeah, you can make it.
W: Oh. A Daiquiri.
W: Easy. Yeah. A Negroni would have been the other one.
T: If someone else is making it?
W: If someone’s making it for me. Oh yeah.
T: Nice little Campari cocktail, that one.
W: Oh yeah. There’s a reason why I felt so strongly about it. Oh God. I remember during my drinking days, Dear Irving was my favorite place to sit down and have a Negroni.
T: I never make it past the Gibson. I love the Gibson.
W: It’s a good one. They do it right.
T: They make a good Negroni.
T: What are they using? Tanq 10?
W: So when I sit at bars, I have a hard time going out. One, because I don’t drink anymore. But I’m always working and it’s probably the worst habit that I’ve developed over time. I’m watching. Where’s that scoop? Where are the jiggers? Did you build in the small tin? Why’d you shake so long? It’s so hard to break out of it. So now I just don’t look.
T: That’s good.
T: That’s good.
W: Yeah. So whatever they were using, it’s better that I don’t know.
T: And do you want to share your Daiquiri spec with us real quick?
W: Yeah. Yeah. For a Daiquiri, I would say just get yourself a nice white rum. You don’t have to pick anything too crazy. Please don’t pick Agricole. Just a standard white rum, fresh lime, simple syrup. Two ounces of white rum, one ounce of lime, three quarters of an ounce of simple syrup. Put it in Nick & Nora for me.
T: Nick and Nora.
T: No garnish.
W: No garnish. Keep the lime wedge off my drink.
T: Hold the lime.
W: I’m not going to use it. It serves no purpose. It shouldn’t be on the drink. That’s my thought.
T: Yeah, keep it out of there. Keep that kid out of there. Wilmer. Thank you so much, man. It’s been a real pleasure today.
W: Yeah, total pleasure, man. Thank you so much for having me.
T: The pleasure’s all ours, but I’m going to get myself on Google Maps now and figure out what the deal is with this Champs Élysées business.
W: Same. I was going to say, you’re going to get on Google Maps and come visit us.
T: Then I’m going straight from there to Leroy’s and I’m going for the real deal.
W: It’ll be a long trip if you go to Champs Élysées first.
T: Maybe they named the street after the cocktail. Who knows?
T: We’ll figure it out.
W: We’ll share one together and then we’ll figure it out.
T: Cheers, brother.
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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.