Perhaps Time magazine should announce the cocktail as its Person of the Year, because in 2010 it became one of the most ascendant culinary trends. We also saw significant trends within the cocktail scene, including the rebirth of Tiki culture, the inclusion of spirit-specific bars, and an internationalist approach to drinks, which mixed the traditions of various nations and cultures: spiked Champurrado, Coquitos, and Punschglühbowle anyone?
In such an environment, it became harder and harder to distinguish oneself as a mixologist. But that didn't stop anyone from trying. Earlier in the year, GQ put out a list of the top 25 cocktail bars in the United States, and more recently Tasting Table did a round up of the best cocktails in New York, San Francisco and Chicago (ahem, where's D.C. and L.A.?). I have my own list of great cocktails, but I decided to write about only the best cocktail experiences I've had this year. Drinking a well-made cocktail is one thing, but when you add to that some element of wow or wonder, the drink is seared in your memory for a lifetime.
5. Sazerac—Paul Gustins, Tujague's, New Orleans
Paul is a well-noted master of grump. Yet after meeting him I quickly realized that he's one of the last remaining bartenders who will tell you how it is and isn't entreated by management to coddle guests. Besides, he was more than gracious to me and made one of the most authentic Sazerac recipes I've ever had in a city that recently named the Sazerac its official cocktail, in a bar with over 150 years of history. My sweetheart's Sazerac, Chantal Tseng's, remains my favorite, but the ambiance of Tujague's, coupled with an authentic and genuine approach, made number five on my list a no-brainer. My advice if you order a Sazerac: Be nice. Paul is only really a grump to those who deserve it.
4. Cosmo—Dale Degroff, National Repeal Day Ball 2010, Washington, D.C.
The Cosmopolitan became a joke among bartenders. After countless suburban housewives rushed to emulate the glamour and inter-independence of the women of Sex and the City, you could almost mouth the words before she said it as some "Miranda" sat down at your bar. Restaurants came up with their own signature Cosmos that often ladled fruit upon fraud, as they served overly sweet versions. Yet it all began with bartending legend Dale Degroff. Before it was a joke, it was a cocktail. He cribbed the recipe from Cheryl Cook in the 1980s and standardized it, adding a flamed orange peel for show. It's still not my favorite drink, but when Dale serves you one, as he did at the national Repeal Day Ball this December, you realize that when done well it exudes as much charm as its codifier.
3. Appetizer à l'Italienne—Josey Packard, Drink, Boston
Sitting at Drink is unique in itself. The bar is just a bar, the whole length of the space. It's not overly ornate—the drinks and bartending are the stars. And the star of the stars: Josey Packard. Actually, Drink oozes talent, including bartending greats Misty Kalkofen and John Gersten, to name a couple, but I happened to be sitting at Josey's bar that night when my fellow bartender, Katie Nelson, asked for a vermouth-based cocktail. Glad she did. What she got was the Appetizer à l'Italienne. We passed it around with wonder and amazement. The recipe was taken from an issue of Imbibe and features the notoriously hard-to-tame ingredient Fernet Branca. I sat in awe of the Fernet-tamer, Josey Packard, and vowed to visit Boston more often.
2. Zombie—Enzo Lim, Painkiller, New York
I have to admit that I found the Painkiller space awkward at first. It was a hot summer day and the bar was packed tighter than crushed ice in a Julep the first time I went. I had no intention of returning anytime soon, but when a friend asked about new hot bars in New York—"hot' in the Paris Hilton sense of the word and not by way of temperature—I suggested Painkiller. Painkiller had received many accolades in the press and I had cooled off by October. Behind the bar was Enzo Lim, who, when I asked him for a Zombie, rattled off the recipes by year (multiple recipes exist). The drink I got was pleasantly and purposely strong, the very model of a Zombie. My friends ordered Piña Coladas, equally good. I then realized why the bar was packed in the first place and just embraced the fun.
1. Gin and Tonic—Adam Bernbach, Estadio, Washington, D.C.
Adam Bernbach is one of Washington, D.C.'s top bar minds, so when I ordered his Gin and Tonic I expected it to be good but I didn't expect what I got: a light orange liquid, squeezed into a rocks glass with two massive ice cubes, garnished with an orange peel and mint. I thought my friend and mixological colleague had lost his mind. Then I nearly lost mine. The drink's playful presentation, flavor symmetry, and underlying complexity elevated the common highball beyond what I would have ever expected. Call it the thinking man's Gin and Tonic: made of Old Raj gin, a peculiar high-octane gin that incorporates unusual botanicals like saffron, with a housemade tonic water made from orange zest, thyme, bay leaves, and red cinchona bark. Drinking it along with tapas, watching old soccer games in the pristine, new Estadio, I quickly jotted down a note: "best cocktail experience I've had this year," and it was never supplanted.
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