Don’t call it a Cognac Manhattan: On today’s episode, we explore the Harvard with the esteemed bartender, author, and leading craft spirits authority Thad Vogler, who’s also the founder of San Francisco’s Bar Agricole. Listen on to discover Volger’s Harvard recipe.
Thad Vogler’s Harvard Recipe
- 1 ½ ounces Cognac, such as Cognac Dudognon
- 1 ½ ounce Italian sweet Vermouth, such as Bordiga Rosso
- 1 bar spoon maraschino liqueur, such as Leopold Brother’s
- 1 bar spoon gum syrup
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice.
- Stir until well chilled.
- Strain into a chilled coupe glass.
- Garnish with an orange twist.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: All right, let’s do it. We’re kicking it off. It’s the “Cocktail College” Podcast coming at you from both coasts today. Myself here, Tim McKirdy, in New York. And I’m thrilled to be joined by Thad Vogler, who’s over there on the West Coast. It’s very early there in San Francisco. How’s it going?
Thad Vogler: Hello. It’s great. Yeah, it’s a beautiful morning, second cup of coffee. Good.
TM: Nice. I didn’t ask you that. Usually when we’re getting guests’ levels beforehand, and we’re just figuring out things on the mic here, I’m like, “How did you take your coffee this morning?” Sometimes we get some crazy bastards out there who are like, “I don’t drink coffee.” But I’m glad to hear you’re on your second.
TV: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Big coffee fan. If I were going to do it again, I might even be in the coffee business.
TM: I mean there’s a lot of similarities. Obviously they are things that you drink. Or maybe it’s a bit closer to wine. But have you ever done a coffee cupping experience?
TV: For sure. I love it. Yeah, I love it.
TM: Right. I figured that’s probably a stupid question. Yeah. I find that very similar to tasting wine. I don’t know, there’s something very meditative about it.
TV: Yeah, it is meditative. Yeah. And I think that with coffee, issues of dilution and temperature and acidity. It just gets — wine as well, but it all gets kind of stripped away. And yeah, good baristas make great bartenders for sure. That’s for sure. That making this exactly the same thing, a combination of water and solid, hundreds of times a day. They get really tunneled into those questions of concentration, and dilution, and temperature, and acidity, and sugar. So amazing.
TM: Repeated actions certainly.
TM: Yeah. I can see that.
TV: And a pleasant lack of ego with baristas compared to bartenders because that whole facet of creation is removed. Like no one’s coming up with recipes, though I suppose they’re coming up with different ratios of water and things like that.
TM: So we haven’t had the starista yet. That one’s yet to come. Celebrity barista. Well you know what, it’s good that we’re getting intellectual right now about coffee because today’s cocktail is the Harvard. So how’d you like that little transition?
TV: Incredible. You’re keeping us on track.
TM: That’s it. Our work is done here today. No, but it is the Harvard cocktail. Obviously the university will be universally known, but the cocktail? How about you outline for us what’s in it? For those who have never heard of it or never tried one or who’s maybe their memory’s lacking a little on this one.
TV: Yeah, absolutely. Never really found a steady rotation that I’ve seen in a lot of different bars. I mean, in its first manifestation or written, it’s Cognac, vermouth — sweet vermouth, Italian vermouth — Angostura bitters, and soda water. So it’s sort of a Brandy Manhattan with a splash of soda. And that’s the first version of it in writing is “Modern American Drinks,” the Holland House book, which is 1895. And it’s that time where seltzer is an amazing ingredient in the late 19th century. So a splash of seltzer then would be very, very special. Seltzer is ubiquitous now and doesn’t have that kind of shine, you know what I mean? So it’s funny, but it’s like I say, it’s something, it’s something special. So sort of like another of my favorite cocktails is the Boothby, which is a great San Francisco drink. And that is basically a Manhattan, a rich Manhattan with a float of Champagne. And that’s from the early 20th century. So that addition of effervescence. So that’s the first version of it.
TM: Yeah. And interesting, basically like you say, like a brandy or a Cognac Manhattan. I guess it speaks a lot to America at that time. I don’t know, I’m going to test your wine knowledge here. Are we talking pre-phylloxera there? I mean, would there still have been a good supply of Cognac at the time in the U.S.? Because we know a lot of those early cocktails may have been Cognac based and then phylloxera comes along in Europe and kind of wipes out brandy stocks. Or do you think folks were using American brandy?
TV: No, definitely calls for Cognac. And yeah, that would’ve been. So yeah, it would’ve been a more affordable, more common ingredient then. That’s a good point. It’s a really good point.
TM: It’s interesting isn’t it? As well though that, I mean, we’ll get into modern specs. But for all intents and purposes, as you mentioned, this is a Cognac Manhattan, but it’s not really one that gets called out a lot, I don’t feel like. Or even if you didn’t know this cocktail, I’ve never really had the urge to say, “You know what? I’m going to make a Manhattan today, but I’m going to use Cognac instead.” I don’t know. I find that interesting.
TV: I agree, I agree. Well it was born of necessity. There’s the backstory for us. I don’t know if you want to get into it yet.
The History of the Harvard
TM: Yeah, let’s do it.
TV: Yeah, I mean speaking of wine and speaking of grower spirits, we sort of about 15 years ago, I mean, our thing is sourcing. Where recipe is fascinating and endless and important in talking about mixed drinks, but we, our rabbit hole is sourcing, looking for more and more particular kinds of spirits. And honestly more wine-like spirits, spirits that were more tied to their agricultural origins than a brand. So we got really into brandy. French brandies honestly were where we got started most of all. So Armagnacs were probably our favorites. But working with small growers, doing not the big houses of Cognac, but sort of grower- producer Cognacs. And of course also Calvados, we love. Apple brandy from Normandy.
TM: Oh yeah.
TV: So we got really into these spirits. And I don’t know, it was about 15 years ago, 20 years ago, it just sort of hit, it sort of became clear that American whiskey was going to replace vodka as the most popular. I mean within sort of cocktail circles. And I don’t know, I love American whiskey. I think when it’s priced correctly, it’s an incredible value. I think Wild Turkey 101 is one of my favorite cocktail mixing spirits, sensibly priced and great. But at the same time, American whiskey, it’s all about oak, right? So it’s all about that blast, it has to be aged in new oak. So it’s all about that blast of charred oak. And the base materials of the whiskey are often secondary, sort of commodity-quality corn, and whatever’s in the mash bill, distilled to a relatively high alcohol by volume. And so you’re not getting that kind of beery grainy quality of the base so much. More and more, I think kind of geeky whiskeys are being made that way, but-
TM: Grain to glass.
TM: Can I just complain here for a second about “grain to glass” as a phrase?
TV: Yeah, horrible.
TM: Everything ends up in the glass, that’s why you’re making it.
TV: Yeah, it’s horrible. It’s horrible. I agree. Yeah, I get inadvertently allied with that whole, that’s almost as bad as, what is it? Farm to bottle? Is that it? Yeah.
TM: Farm, yeah.
TV: Farm to bottle.
TM: Farm to bottle.
TM: I’m sorry it doesn’t just end in the bottle, if you want to be completely accurate. But I don’t want to take this down a couple of tones.
TV: Farm to toilet.
TM: Nose to tail.
TV: Farm to estuary. Yeah.
TM: No, I should know, whatever.
TV: Yeah. So anyway, it was just like charred oak, charred oak, charred oak. And mixing with that and pouring that constantly. I mean Scotch, probably historically Scotch has been my favorite. In my 20s and 30s, I loved Scotch. And then Scotch kind of underwent a similar consolidation of Scotch and the grain being sourced internationally. And then malting happening at central facilities. And it stopped being in that kind of beautiful grain-forward thing. And more and more, like all spirits, more and more of a designed kind of industrialized flavor. Where you’re turning dials and getting this kind of… You taste Laphroaig or Lagavulin 30 years ago, much more subtle and interesting. And then Diageo takes them on. And it’s sort of like California Zinfandel where they became this kind of-
TM: Well, yeah.
TV: Almost exaggeration. Or IPAs where it’s just like, “Let’s make it as peaty and as sweet.” And so kind of subtlety falls out of the glass. All right.
TM: Or bourbon with your alcohol.
TM: And if you don’t mind me jumping in here, though.
TM: I think it really is. It’s kind of similar to that wine conversation, if you will. This is a conversation about oak as much as the base ingredients for the spirit. Yeah, bourbon, as you rightly mentioned, or American whiskey, has to be charred new American oak. Whereas you’re looking at Cognac, it might be used barrels. It’s certainly going to be European oak by law. It’s more subtle, it’s not as in your face as American oak. And Scotch, to your point, too, as well, where you’re using for the most part, before the world became obsessed with finishing everything and sherry so that it tasted so sweet, which I do love some of those bottles. But using already used oak is going to have less of an influence on the final spirit. So I don’t know. Listening to you talk about those things, I find it fascinating that this is a discussion we can arrive upon through the lens of the Harvard, because I think that really is what we’re talking about here.
TV: Yeah, fair enough, way to get us back on course. So at any rate you can see the things I’m interested in.
TM: Yeah, I do.
TV: But yeah, so you’re in a shay, or what they call a rickhouse over there and you’re tasting through a small producer. And like you say, you’ve got second-, third-filled barrels. You’ve got small, large. Whereas in an American rickhouse, it’s just like boom, it’s just acres of 53-gallon alligator char. But so the whole question of oak and barrel. So we’re trying to get a small, truly small batch, like one or two barrels mixed. Or even a single-barrel bottling. And working with people that’ll sell us something that’s five, six, seven years old. And anyway, that’s what we’re super interested in. So then we end up with these spirits that are generally exclusives, or we’ll split a barrel with someone else, or what a lot of people do. So then we found ourselves looking for brandy recipes. Or you know what I mean? So going through all the books. And I mean like you, we’d encountered the Harvard and probably wouldn’t have been able to recreate it for you from memory. But yeah, looking through the usual stack of books that everyone was looking through 10, 15 years ago as they were all coming back into print. Or people were passing around PDFs. So I’ve never heard his name said out loud actually. Kappeler, “Modern American Drinks.” That recipe calls for a two-to-one Cognac to sweet vermouth, and Angostura and soda. And then I didn’t love the soda aspect. And then actually, the same drink shows up in “Savoy” without soda. That’s an old bartender trick. I mean everyone’s passing these recipes around. And as we know, everyone adds their own nuance to recipes and that’s what happens today. I mean bartenders are also self-obsessed, we’re always going to have our own version of it. And we’re lazy, intellectually lazy. It’s not necessarily going to be committed to the historicity of the drink. But at any rate, finding it in the “Savoy” without seltzer. And then I think it shows up in a couple other books. And no two recipes are identical. So then you get a kind of, I’m going to give you some latitude, and you’re kind of in an area. So you freed us up to mess around with recipes. Basically it’s an improved cocktail, right? We see the addition of vermouth, which is a cocktail being a sweet-bitter spirit. Sweet generally in the form of just a syrup. And again it’s cool to think at a time earlier in the 19th century where just ice, just having a drink cold, would be remarkable. And just having a spirit from another country would be remarkable. And that it’s sort of dialing into these early drinks technologies that we all take for granted now. They were so, so special. So at any rate, the original cocktails, the improved cocktail becomes the addition of sort of an aromatic component, usually vermouth, to get that extra kind of tier of complexity.
TM: And if we can, if I can play devil’s advocate here for a moment.
TV: Yeah, please.
TM: If we are using this to compare, I guess, the Manhattan versus the Harvard. Because you can look at some of those classic drinks where people are like, “Well, this was originally made with Cognac.” Say, for example, like the Sazerac. And you can say, “Okay, was it rye or American whiskey?” And I’ll be honest, I do not prefer Cognac for a Sazerac than rye whiskey. But if you compare Manhattan side by side against the Harvard, you can say, “Well if you’re looking purely at ingredients, we’re talking grapes with grapes.” In the case of the Harvard versus grain and full oak and grapes for the Manhattan. I don’t know. So maybe you can be like, it fits more naturally.
TV: I think so. I think there’s something to that. Yeah. I think that those kinds of tensions or clashes, I mean, drinks are such simple little machines, that often if you’re engineering out things that might be not so apparent initially. But it’s just the accumulation of 10, 15, 20 little decisions. And yeah, I mean, I think that might be one of those sort of intangibles that shows up in the drink for sure. Yeah, for sure. That’s a great point.
TM: Yes, and that led you to, I would assume then what, putting it on your menu? Or studying this drink? Because it fit into your philosophy of looking for these spirits with more, I guess we use the word terroir, you can debate that. Maybe it’s a topic for another day, but the idea of terroir. You were looking for vehicles to showcase those spirits.
TV: Yeah, exactly right. And I think terroir, in that it would include the wood of the vat fermentation and all the microbial life. And I think I feel safe saying that the still and the wash tongues or whatever, it all kind of, distilleries definitely have their own terroir, though it’s not strictly the mineral content of the earth that grew the base material. But at any rate, so you’ve got it. So here we have a drink that could be anything. And so we end up, speaking of the Manhattan, I mean it has aromatic bitters and syrup and vermouth. It sort of ends up being, love the Manhattan cocktail as opposed to the Manhattan. Which generally you’ll see versions of it with a little bit of Curaçao, or a little bit of maraschino in addition to the bitters and the vermouth. It just becomes a kind of a little added nuance. So we end up, basically whatever, we’re always going to have the Harvard on the menu. And it’ll be with a different brandy. And it’ll generally be with a brandy that’s in limited supply. Or it’s a recipe. Because we’ve seen it in so many different versions, the recipe, like I say, we feel safe having a little latitude and kind of tweaking, tweaking, tweaking. So it’s one we’ll rework. Maybe it’ll be equal parts Italian vermouth and Armagnac or Cognac or California brandy. Maybe that ratio will change. And yeah, so we’re generally kind of reworking it. But it’s becoming some version of a brandy Manhattan cocktail is basically what it ends up being. But that’s the thing about recipes, especially when you’re coming out of the “Savoy” and there are these hyper-simple, perfectly fixed ratios. Every drink is shaken and strained. And this is 100 years ago and spirits are spirits, and citrus, and everything’s inherently different then than it is now. And you can’t really adhere perfectly to 19th-century, early 20th-century recipes. So that’s the little secret that people that don’t make a lot of drinks may not know.
TM: And then what about, you mentioned that you will do multiple versions of this. Or maybe you’ll tweak things depending upon the spirit and where that’s coming from. But generally speaking, what is the flavor profile, the aromatic profile that you’re expecting if you order a Harvard?
TV: I mean, the aromatic profile is that you get the beautiful, grape-borne qualities of the vermouth, and the grape-borne qualities of the brandy. I mean the difficulty with, if you’re not dealing with the large Cognac houses that just pump caramel into their spirits. And you’re really having and dealing with a Cognac that’s like no added caramel, it’s going to be pale in color, it’s going to be drier, much drier than an American, so an American whiskey. So that can be one of the things to contend with working with grower Cognacs or small-producer Cognacs. People are so used to that, we’re so used to that big concentrated hit of sugar from new oak that you get in brandy drinks, that this is a more subtle, less sweet, less concentrated, arguably kind of more wine-like version of a Brandy Manhattan. I mean, sorry, of a Whiskey Manhattan. Sorry. Go ahead.
TM: Yeah, and you mentioned those. I mean I’m all in with you there on that lighter style of Cognac, maybe a drier finish. Does that maybe inform us of why you see some recipes or some versions of this recipe with gum syrup?
TM: In the past.
TM: Yeah, right. You just don’t need it in a Manhattan, right?
TV: That is exactly right. Exactly right. Yeah. Which is hilarious because more and more people end up throwing that right on the Cognac. Because yeah, I mean the world becomes more and more accustomed to that sweetness. Yeah, exactly right. And that becomes, I mean, I think we generally, we’ll have more vermouth to give it a little bit more richness and add a different sweetening component. For us, it’s just like we have a set of favorites that we really rely on, that we really love. And often we were lucky enough to help develop or be a part of developing, like the Leopold Brothers maraschino, we really love. Because again, it’s not so sweet. It’s not using industrial sweeteners and essences, it’s just a really beautiful, simple, natural product. And maybe adding… We also have a proprietary Curaçao, it’s a California Curaçao that’s also not as sweet. But so at any rate, augmenting the drink, like in the Manhattan cocktail, with a bar spoon of maraschino to add a little richness, is what we’re doing right now.
The Ingredients in Thad Vogler’s Harvard
TM: And how about we get into each of those categories now, too? Because we’ve touched upon different ingredients, Cognac obviously being one of them. Yeah, I think it’s a great point that you mentioned just off the bat, though, that oftentimes what people are buying and mass market, yeah, these will be kind of artificially colored. Or sweetness is not what you would expect from the age of the spirit, the amount of time that it’s spent in the barrel. It sounds like that’s not therefore the style of Cognac that you’re looking for here. You mentioned small producers. If I can break Cognac down into maybe very, overly simplify the category, I tend to find that regardless of age, I do find two different styles, one being lighter, maybe more floral and fruity. Another heading towards that more kind of dried fruits, nuts, richer, more decadent. Which of those styles would you be reaching for personally for this drink?
TV: Well, I mean, generally when you talk about dried fruit or nougat or Rancio, those are generally going to be older, more expensive. So I think we’re generally dealing with lighter, younger, to mix in drinks, younger spirits that have a little less age. So yeah, definitely more getting into the aromas of the grape spirit, more floral to use your word there. That style is definitely the one we’re working with more.
TM: And is that purely a cost consideration? Because obviously younger is going to be cheaper, relatively speaking. Or is it also because you think that profile works better in a mixed drink?
TV: I mean it’s both. It’s both. Definitely both. I mean we’re drawn to those spirits because once you start to get in, and I think the whole public is, I’m old enough that I was making Cosmopolitans for years. And then it’s been watching the consuming public get more and more interested in spirits. And so bourbon ends up being, it’s not so complicated. Generally you’re not getting the sense of that grain generally. But then we see people getting into rye. And rye, you’re seeing, “Ah, this is rye versus corn.” It’s generally a little spicier. You’re more engaged in the base material. You’re tasting what it’s made from, which based arguably from Prohibition to, like, 2005, no one wanted. People got in the habit of a drink being something that disguises the flavor of their medicine. So I think what people call the “cocktail renaissance” is when we’re coming back into contact and appreciation of bitter flavors, the flavors of the spirits, spirit-driven drinks. And then with that, so people become interested in rye, then we see agave spirits now. We see people are into really heady, flavorful, small-producer, destilados, declassified mezcals. Really filthy, interesting fermentation and simple distillation. So people, now you see people are getting more and more into just tasting. That’s all about, well this agave piña that was roasted and caramelized and fermented. And people are really into getting more and more into what those base ingredients impart to the spirit.
TM: I think that’s a great way to phrase it, or haven’t heard it kind of positioned that way. But the idea of this cocktail renaissance being about a return to appreciation of the base spirit. Rather than trying to cover that up, as you say, cover up your medicine, in a way. I think that really is it. And I’d never considered it that way. It’s interesting that some of those drinks are now coming back, though. I mean you mentioned the Cosmo. We’ve seen something of a second coming — or a third coming, actually — for that drink these days. Then the Espresso Martini. Again, I don’t know where that fits into this conversation because I think we might be regressing with drinks like that. There’s nothing wrong with them, but maybe there is some regression going on there right now.
TV: Yeah, is it? I mean I’ve been at, I have a 3-year-old, so I’ve been sort of realizing I’ve sort of been out of it. And obviously Covid, I feel a little disconnected from whatever trends. But yeah, I’ve been asking, was that ironic? And I guess it really wasn’t, the Espresso Martini rebirth.
TM: Well I mean if you ask Alanis Morisette, everything’s ironic, so I don’t know. Sorry.
TV: That’s all right.
TM: It’s probably Alanis Morisette ironic. Yeah. No, no, I don’t know. We’ve spoken about this before and something I scratched my head about, which is this celebration of ’90s culture right now, in particular fashion. I don’t know why that is the decade that we’ve currently chosen. I don’t think it was a great time for fashion. But again, maybe that’s because I’m a millennial. And nor was it the best time for drinks, probably; see the popular Martini and Cosmo.
TV: I mean, it’s when I cut my teeth. The ’90s is when I got stuck in this trade. And I mean, just having a wall of vodka behind me. And making just endless, like Absolut Citron splash of cranberry, Absolut Cosmos, Citron Cosmo. Grey Goose L’Orange, tonic, splash of orange. It just was this endless, endless. So you’d be putting up these rounds that were like 10 vodka drinks, each one subtly augmented with something. And knowing in the mid-’90s, what a Sazerac was and drinking whiskey. And it just felt incredibly lucky that there was this whole shift that came out.
TM: And to your point earlier, I mean, I think that it only kind of agrees with your argument. The fact that prior to this, if you wanted to make… We talk a lot about how rye whiskey, basically you had two brands available to you, maybe three, when probably I would imagine at the time that you were starting out. And now just look how exciting rye is as a category. That probably speaks to the point of rediscovering cocktails by showcasing base spirits. And if there’s more demand for base spirits from the bartending community, then people are going to make it. And look at that incredible landscape that we have now.
TV: Yeah, I mean I definitely, I think we hit the high water mark. And I mean I’m firmly X and I think, what do we call what comes after you? Z? Is that what it is? I mean, I think that this most recent generation, I don’t know, I think we’ve sort of seen a return to… Well, I think a lot about the vape pen, you know what I mean? And White Claw. And it becomes, we’re sort of returning to the kind of cynical, drug delivery system, you know what I mean?
TM: We ran an article this week, if you’re listening to this when it comes out, but on VinePair about the vodka water. Now this was a phenomenon I had no idea about. But people are out there and they’re saying, “You know what, I’m just going to drink vodka with water because soda’s too bloating and all I want is an alcohol delivery system.” And I’m like, I just don’t think… We all like getting buzzed. I don’t think we should deny that as a part of why we drink, but really, vodka and water.
TV: Yeah, it’s come. It’s so utilitarian. But I mean it seems like it’s sort of like, yeah, the vibe is kind of like, “What will we drink on Mars?” You know what I mean? I think just the delivery systems.
TM: It will be little sashays of solid alcohol, just add water.
TV: Exactly. Yeah. What will tax the supply chain least?
TM: Have we found what we’re up there yet, by the way? How are we doing with that?
TV: You’ll have to ask someone else. If I were 28 and standing behind the bar, I’d manufacture some bullsh*t answer for you, that’s for sure.
TM: All right, though. But I guess I should bring this back to Cognac in a way for the Harvard. It is the base spirit here. So you spoke about you’re going for a lighter version there, or a lesser-aged one. Are there any, no pressure to, but are there any brands in particular. You said you like to go for something a lot more exclusive where you might be buying a barrel or sharing a barrel. But what about next tier up from that? Small producer, but who you think is doing things the right way, and you can generally find in the U.S. if you go looking for it?
TV: Yeah, this is where we’re difficult, and this is where spirits are difficult because everyone wants that middle-size producer for under $50 that’s pretty good. And that kind of middle’s fallen out. I mean consolidation is a really… Anyway, it’s really real and it’s hard not to end up sounding kind of joyless. But in terms of buying spirits for the last 25 years, it’s like watching consolidation happen. And watching people buy and sell brands, like in fashion. And there’s no obligation to make things in the same way. So what’s in the bottle now with a certain label, it was not in the bottle 10 years ago. Like tequila, bourbon. Entirely different stills will produce the same spirit and it’s all marketing and label.
TM: Sometimes it can be for the better, but generally speaking, yeah, the quality.
TV: Yeah, for sure. So I will say that we work with an importer and he’s in Chicago, New York, Dallas, more and more. And there’s more. I mean there’s kind of this great, this consolidation where there’s less and less sort of small-production stuff. But then there’s also greater, there’s a kind of calcifying audience that really is committed. So there is ironically growing demand while it’s disappearing from the planet. But look for Charles Neil selections and there’s a Cognac producer called Dudognon, D-U-D-O-G-N-O-N.
TM: That’s the brand I was going to call out.
TM: I was going to ask you.
TV: Yeah, I mean I’m stoked to see how many places I see their stuff. And they were a small producer. Like in Cognac, there’s real security in just selling every year to the big houses, and 99 percent of small producers do. But these folks bottle under their own label and sell under their own label. No added caramel, no added color, which really is almost unheard of. So yeah, Dudognon is great.
TM: And what about American brandy there, too? Because I’m keen to hear your thoughts there. Is this a like-for-like substitution? Or do you tend to find… I mean, obviously it’s a case-by-case basis. But if we can try and speak in some general terms, are you getting the same profile as a Cognac? Or are you maybe adjusting this recipe when you’re opting for that domestically made brandy? Because there are small rumblings of comebacks and whatnot. I still feel like it’s very, very small production. But yeah, how do you feel there?
TV: It’s hard to, I mean I would say that all spirits run to… Basically any brown spirit that’s not true rye or true bourbon, where you’re literally not allowed to add anything, which is actually one very, very cool thing about American whiskey. Pretty much any brown spirit out there, 99 percent is going to have added caramel, glycerin, caramel color. And I mean for us, it’s just trying to find stuff that doesn’t have those additives is a big part of it. And that’s again, that’s spirits’ dirty secret, like “mahogany-colored prestige.” That’s what everyone wants their brown spirit to look like. So if you’re heady, it sounds like you’re interested in this kind of thing as well. You might like a really pale Islay Scotch that has no, definitely has no caramel, nothing added. So you get this just, blast of grain and there’s not this preponderance of charred oak and sugar, you know what I mean? But just like everything, getting sugar out of your drink. So it’s like — I’m digressing, forgive me. But basically the last 15 years, we’ve just been… Like, we just launched a vermouth, an Italian vermouth, we’re working with Bordiga. And we’re like, “We want a vermouth without caramel added, without industrial beet sugar.” Which is that just incredibly sweet, bleached out, which beets sugar is in everything European. It’s just like a notch above corn syrup. It’s just this really sweet, industrially extracted sugar, which started happening in the 19th century. So it’s a little less industrial than corn sweetener. But it’s just this bland, it has no connotative flavor. So it’s like Nebbiolo, real cane sugar, no extracts, no added caramel, just getting a vermouth. So we developed that. And then the maraschino, the Curaçao. Making our own bitters because Angostura has tons of caramel in it. I think Peychaud’s has food coloring and corn syrup. And it’s just like, it ends up being so much work to just get crap out of your drink. And then there’s no obligation to advertise what’s in the spirit. So everything has caramel, glycerin, whatever, color. So blah, blah, blah. So basically anything we can find that doesn’t have crap in it. So that’s to say that in California brandy, you’re going to be… I mean the Korbel and the big ones that everyone sees, those are just totally stepped on. Which is to say, in answering your question, what are you looking for in a California brandy? Or what would the profile be? The profile of every brown spirit’s going to be sweet. Very, very little sense of what it’s made from. If most people, if you go to California brandy, an aged molasses-based rum, a sort of large scale American whiskey. And they taste all three, they’re not going to say, “That’s from grapes, that’s from grain, that’s from sugar byproduct.” You know what I mean? It all tastes like that kind of brown spirit, sweet mahogany, you know what I mean?
TM: Yeah. And I feel like in this respect, maybe the best way to go if you’re buying and you may not be able to taste it, depending on the store, go with your eyes, then. I mean if something doesn’t have an age statement, chances are it’s going to be young. And if it’s young, chances are it should look a lot lighter than you’re used to from that age, isn’t it?
TV: Yeah, I totally agree. If an aged spirit is light in color, I’m inclined toward it. I think odds are it’s going to be more interesting. Yeah, definitely.
TM: I mean that can go the other way as well, though. This is a digression, but some of the earlier iterations of craft American whiskey, I will say were released early.
TV: Yeah, in 3-gallon barrels. Yeah. That’s so true.
TM: But I think again, yeah, I don’t know. Also, I think there’s examples of where we’ve seen producers putting out stuff that’s two years old that will blow your mind. And I’m like, “Okay, maybe it’s not all about the age.” You were mentioning a vermouth project there that you’ve been working on. If we do transition into that part of the drink. Okay. I think you’ve told us enough to let us know that ideally, you’re not going to be using some of the bigger producers here because they likely contain additives. But just pure style, what kind of vermouth are you looking for this? I’m assuming it’s sweet, but are you going Italian, French?
TV: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. Italian. I mean, yeah, we really like the Dolin, Bordiga, those off the shelf are, I guess Chambery, right? What used to be this kind of independent state that was across the border of France and Italy and the Alps. So there’s a style of vermouth that happens in that area. That is the kind of the Italian version of it, Bordiga, and the French version of it, Dolin, both are lighter bodied, a little bit more wine-like. Both of those brands are really good. So Bordiga are friends of ours. And like I say that we’ve just worked up a vermouth with them that’s unique to us. And Tabelog will be available on our website Nov. 7. Anyway, there’s something like… This is a great conversation. And in terms of drinks, I mean, here we see journalists, writers, people like yourself. The truth is out that it’s not that hard to make good drinks. You know what I mean? The idea of the bartender being the one? And Covid really took this all the way home. People are making great drinks at home. And in terms of making recommendations for what to buy to make drinks, I would say start with a cool spirit. If you’re working at home, you can get something a little bit more, get a $60, $70, $80, even $100 bottle of spirit. Get some really beautiful sugar and a beautiful vermouth. And you have to remember you’re going to get 15 out of that. So people will buy a $20, $30 bottle of wine and not think twice. But when they see a $100 bottle of spirits, it’s like, “Well, hold on.” But you’re going to get 15, 20 drinks out of that. So it ends up being $1 per drink thing. It’s about the same.
TV: So for me, I’m very Northern California. I’m very ingredient-driven food. Get some beautiful lettuce, get a nice tomato, some nice olive oil, some nice salt, some nice pepper, some nice vinegar, and make a salad. You know what I mean? So for me, drinks are very much that way. Start with something, some beautiful stuff. And look at the books and you’ll see that there’s about three drinks that were ever made. And it’s just plug, play, and balance. Like we were saying about coffee, mess around with acidity and sweetness and concentration and dilution and temperature, and just make drinks. And the thing about recipes that was cool, is it’s like music. If you’re in this business — and I know you can relate — you can read a recipe and if it’s like green chartreuse, Rittenhouse Rye, aromatic bitters, Peychaud’s bitters, it’s like reading a piece of music. You don’t have to taste that drink because you can read it and you can read the ratios. And you can know exactly what it’s going to taste like.
TM: Oh, 100 percent.
TV: And one thing is that’s cool, that’s why recipes are so cool. But it’s also large branding has kind of seized on the recipe. Because that’s why you have Negroni Week. And it’s like Campari. And these things that are, we call them Casio drinks, like a Casio keyboard, where it’s like this oooo. It’s like this perfectly, I’m not a musician so I shouldn’t be talking about music. But it’s like you play a note and it’s like it’s on pitch and whatever. And it’s a perfect note, but it’s kind of this engineered kind of tinny, not incredible flavor. So for us, like Peychaud and Angostura and Campari and Aperol. They all have sweeteners and they’re all very engineered flavors. So there’s this kind of suite of 30, 40 ingredients that everyone’s using and it’s super cool. Because I can read a recipe and be like, “Oh, I bet if… Oh, that has Laphroaig and this and that. Oh, I can taste that and it’s fun.” You know what I mean? But that’s sort of recipe-driven drink- making. And then that’d be like, well you’re making a Waldorf salad and you need this and that and this and that and this, and there you have your kind of archetypal canonical salad. Or you can go to the market and grab a few things and you can mess around. You know what I mean?
TM: You can be ingredient-driven.
TV: Yeah, exactly, and we thought it would catch on and it hasn’t. Because that was what was so funny about the drinks renaissance, there was this five-year moment where brands were kind of out in the cold, and bartenders were determining the culture more and bringing back old recipes. And then, boom. Brands figured it out and now you’ve got Negroni week and blah and blah. And it’s like they’re cementing the brand’s relationship to historicity. So especially old, whatever, Benedictine, which is owned by Bacardi, actually. And it’s just like they’re trading on historicity and their inclusion in old recipes becomes a part of that. So there’s a whole kind of. Anyway, thank God I’m on a podcast for people who are interested in this kind of thing because it’s obviously…
TM: No, I think it’s fascinating conversations. And definitely I appreciate it, too, because on the one hand, I feel like we could have started this episode and gone, “Well, the Harvard, it’s a Cognac Manhattan, good job. See you next week, guys.”
TV: Yeah, exactly.
TM: I appreciate it and I’m sure the listeners will, too, as well, because I think a lot of these conversations are the bedrock of how this movement has evolved. And like you say, there’s very cynical ways to look at certain things, but there’s also many things to be celebrated, too. So that’s the world these days anyway.
TV: Absolutely. I mean, it’s just like you look at the “Savoy,” and it’s like, it’s about 30 ingredients. And there’s just endless combinations of base spirit with Italian or French vermouth, and any number of aromatic components that were available. It’s like, yeah. Just at home, get a nice bottle of something, get a couple of vermouths and just mess around. I mean there’s no drink that hasn’t been made on some level.
TM: We’ll finish the ingredient lineup for this one.
TV: Of course, of course, of course.
TM: And that would be the bitters. So Angostura, there we’re talking classically for this drink, it’s our seasoning.
TV: Yeah, I mean, like a lot of people, Angostura, which is the most famous aromatic bitter, like a lot of people, we make our own aromatic bitters. And we use the Charles Baker recipe.
TV: For our orange bitters and our aromatic. Yeah, very, very timeless, simple recipe. But yeah, Angostura’s good. Again, it’s going to give you that blast of sugar, you know what I mean?
How to Make Thad Volger’s Harvard
TM: Yeah. So here’s the cool thing about the next part of the episode here. You get to talk us through the preparation or the build of this drink for yourself in an ideal world. So you’re like, “This is if someone tasked me with making the best possible version of this cocktail, this is what I would go for. This would be my spec and this would be my ingredients.”
TV: I mean, like we were saying, making good drinks isn’t so hard. I think more and more people are just making them at home. But the one thing, the one advantage you have if you’re sort of in the business, is ice. So I mean a big part of making a drink in ideal circumstances is good ice. So we work with a Clinebell, which makes large 300 pound blocks of ice that we break down into larger chunks. So stirring the drink with a couple of really nice, three-inch, big bricks of ice, where you can get the drink nice and cold without over-diluting it, the way you might with ice you pull out of the freezer at home. So nice, hard, large ice with less surface area. And again, like we said, it sort of depends on which vermouth you use, which brand you use. But then I would start with equal parts Cognac, Italian vermouth, add a bar spoon of maraschino, Leopold Brothers maraschino is the one we love. A bar spoon of gum syrup. Again, we make our own gum syrup and gum syrup has that emulsifying gum arabic. So it just imparts a little thickness, a little texture and a little bit more sweetness to the drink. And then yeah, three dashes Angostura or aromatic. And there’s like Scrappy’s, and they’re all different kinds of, especially in New York. There’s a couple bitter stores that have… Mess around and try different brands of aromatic bitters. And again, look for the ones that are pale in color because they won’t have the added caramel. So yeah, three dashes of aromatic bitters and stir until, I don’t know, stir probably.
TM: And this being the kind of ideal scenario here, any preference on Cognac and vermouth brands? Like I said, maybe ones that people can find or maybe you’re going-
TV: Yeah, no, absolutely.
TM: “You know what, this is my ultimate version here.”
TV: The red Bordiga. Or there’s like some you’re seeing now the Mulassano Italian red vermouth from the bar in Torino by that name. Actually, that was made by Bordiga for the bar Mulassano. But that’s a really beautiful Italian, Torino-style red vermouth, Italian vermouth, sweet vermouth, whatever you want to call it. And then a nice, we’re not working with stemmed glasses as much, but a nice sort of thick-walled glass that you pull out of the freezer. So it’s got a nice, retaining tons of nice cold temperature from the freezer. And strain the drink into that glass. And then garnish with a zest of orange.
TM: Nice. Orange you’re going there. I’ve seen some lemon.
TV: Yeah, I mean I think with those Italian vermouths, oranges are kind of Christmas-y can be nice. But lemon’s fine, too. Lemon can be kind of cleaner, more acidic. Yeah, either.
TM: Nice. And then enjoy.
TV: Then please enjoy. Responsibly.
TM: Responsibly. Very nice. And so your glassware preference there, just briefly, is that based upon what you prefer to use at the bar, what you have at the bar? Or is there some deeper thinking going into not using stemmed glassware?
TV: It’s a combination of a number of things. I think like a lot of people, it got really that kind of 12, 13 years ago, the Nick & Nora that you were seeing. We all saw people using it in New York and then we all started using it. But I don’t know. The whole kind of Art Deco stemware, that whole aesthetic, just got a little tired of it. Also, the glasses are sort of thin. And a nice kind chunky glass that holds its temperature, that you pull out the freezer can be good. I had, I don’t know, six or seven years ago, finally went to Harry’s Bar in Venice and they serve their Martini in a little tumbler.
TM: I like the occasional tumbler Martini, I got to say.
TV: Yeah. So we’re kind of into tumblers lately. I’m sure that’ll change. But at home, definitely pulling a tumbler out of the freezer. But I mean it can also be fun if you have, whatever you like, the visual of a nice vintage glass. At home we all have those collections of eight, nine sort of one-offs that we found in vintage shops. And it can be nice to pull out a mixed bag of stem glasses out of the freezer. Just keep them in the freezer.
TM: Any final thoughts then on the Harvard before we move onto the final section of the show? Where we get to know you a little bit more as a drinker and a bartender. Or any other thoughts you just want to air out there? I mean, we put a lot out there today.
TV: No, I’m just a big proponent of making drinks at home. And get a nicer bottle. For the price of a round these days in San Francisco or New York, you can get it set up to make a couple weeks’ worth of really beautiful drinks. So yeah, get a couple books, get a couple bottles, and start messing around.
TM: I’m well with you on that one because I hate, hate this notion where people are like, “Oh, that’s sacrilege to put that spirit in a cocktail.”
TM: Probably a lot of people are basing that on price, but it’s like, if it costs that much, I expect it to hold up.
TV: Yeah. And I think that’s honestly because they’re used to it being mixed with other components that are crappy. Not to be a broken record, but if you’re putting in all of these mass-produced, complementary ingredients that have caramel, glycerin, flavored with extracts? Yeah, that would be a waste. But yeah, I just like to think about a salad with beautiful tomatoes or beautiful lettuce. If you have awesome olive oil and awesome salt, it’s going to be, why not? Why wouldn’t you have the best lettuce?
TM: Oh, also it’s like, all right, we all love a fresh tomato, but if you buy the best tomatoes you can come across at the market, and you’re like, “Tonight I’m making a red sauce for some pasta or whatever.” No one’s going to turn around to you and say, “That’s sacrilege, what are you doing?”
TV: Right, exactly.
TM: They should hold up.
TV: Yeah, I totally agree. Yeah, it’s just like that. So really beautiful ingredients mixed with other beautiful ingredients are going to be great.
Getting to Know Thad Vogler
TM: Nice. All right then let’s do it. Let’s get into the five final questions here to finish the show. Feeling ready?
TV: Yeah, I think so.
TM: All right, let’s go. Let’s kick it off with question No. 1: Which style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
TV: Well, yeah, grape-based brandies. Lots of those as discussed. So Armagnacs and Cognacs. We work exclusively with a couple California producers. Yeah, so lots of those.
TM: I’m assuming you’re very pretty happy then that, you know how everything has to be the next something? This brand is the next Pappy. Or guess what? Armagnac is the next bourbon.
TM: How happy are you about that?
TV: Ah, it’s mixed. It’s mixed. I thought the market was going in that direction, and sort of like coffee and chocolate, there was going to be a third wave of spirits where people were really into single-origin spirits. But it hasn’t happened as much as I anticipated.
TM: I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen “The Sopranos,” or maybe you might have even given it re-watch during the pandemic. I know a lot of people did there. But I myself was one of them, and found it funny that Artie, the chef, I mean, this will mean nothing to you if you haven’t seen the show. But the chef buys into this scam, and it was an Armagnac brand that he puts money up for. And they’re like, “Oh, yeah, it’s going to be the next vodka.” And I was like, “Wow, I thought this was relatively new where people are talking about how cool Armagnac is.” But that was the late 90s, the early 2000s. So they’re ahead of their time there.
TV: Wow, no, I haven’t seen that. That’s incredible. That’s incredible.
TM: Yeah, it was kind of funny.
TV: That is.
TM: All right. Moving on to question No. 2: Which ingredient or tool do you believe is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
TV: Well, I mean, I’m sure the obvious answer is ice. But I think — I imagine, I mean — I’ve heard people say that a number of times. Yeah, I mean ice, but that’s no secret these days. I mean, really beautiful ice. It’s just like using a nice gas range to cook instead of an electric one. It just, it’s everything. It’s probably arguably more important than the ingredients. So not a secret, ice. And then maybe if I were going to try to think of something people haven’t heard, humility. I think humility. Understanding that bartending is not hard. With a few principles in place, anyone can do it.
TM: Nice. I think there are two great candidates there. Yeah, like that ice, that’s maybe the one thing that is different about bars and people’s home bars. So if you can start doing that at home, you really do propel yourself to the next level. Good ones.
TV: It’s true. Yeah, it’s true.
TM: Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
TV: God, I don’t know why the thing that comes to mind is not good advice. It’s just such funny advice and it’s so indicative of this business. But it was a guy, when I was first opening my own place, a guy I worked with for a long time, a mentor, someone very successful. He said, “Don’t pay them until they’re going to sue you.” Anyways. Terrible, terrible advice. But it was just funny, just like this business, the restaurant business is brutal. Bar business is brutal. But let’s see.
TM: I mean, that’s a funny one, though. And you know what?
TM: Many people do live by that in the industry.
TV: Yeah. Sadly. But I think, yeah, I mean, just don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face and hair back there. That just is a huge one.
TM: Got it.
TV: Think about your hands. I mean, that’s the thing about Japanese bartending is they understand that their hands are kitchen tools. And they’re always using tongs and they’re just that kind of immaculate. That’s kind of the thing that separates Japanese bartenders from American ones often, is that level of cleanliness and hygiene and performance. Anyway, that.
TM: Nice. I like that.
TM: Definitely a new one for us. Question No. 4 here: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, which one would it be?
TV: I mean, I just have a real emotional relationship with El Floridita in Havana. I lived in Havana for about nine months once, and I’ve been there many, many times. And I don’t know, that bar is just this little time capsule. Yeah, probably that’s the first one that comes to mind.
TV: That has to be the choice.
TM: That’s a pretty iconic choice right there.
TM: All right then, final question for us today. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
TV: Again, I just have to trust the first answer that comes to mind, is Ti’ Punch.
TM: Wonderful drink.
TM: Going out with a little bit of customization there.
TV: Yeah, it is so raw and elemental, you know what I mean? And no two are the same. And yeah, I mean, rhum agricole is kind of the spirit that got me thinking about things like, “Wow, what? This tastes crazy. Why does it taste this way?” It got me further into the glass. So real emotional relationship with agricole rhum and Ti’ Punch.
TM: It’s an intellectual category for sure. And it’s been an intellectual episode today.
TV: I’m sorry.
TM: Not only because the cocktail has been the Harvard. Thad, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a real pleasure. And yeah, really interesting conversation here.
TV: Likewise, likewise. It was really, really, really fun to talk to you. You know a great deal and your perspective is super interesting. So thank you.
TM: I appreciate it. And yeah, next time I’m over there on the West Coast. Or otherwise, vice versa, but I’m sure I’ll probably be out there first, looking forward to raising a glass.
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.
If you enjoy listening to the show anywhere near as much as we enjoy making it, go ahead and hit subscribe, and please leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts — whether that’s Apple, Spotify, or Stitcher. And please tell your friends.
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.