Cocktails of the Past

The subtle art of raising long-deceased spirits from the dead

Last year at Tales of the Cocktail, a large convention held each summer in New Orleans, the bartender Jamie Boudreau of Seattle began a presentation with a slide that read, “That Damn Eric Seed!” This seemed a little random. But Boudreau, an accomplished maker of obscure and antique cocktail ingredients, explained that he was a little aggravated with Seed for making some long-lost historic spirits commercially available, but not others, and generally complicating the cocktail enthusiast’s delicate ecosystem, which is now coping with the equivalent of an invasive species and accelerated evolution all at once.

Eric Seed doesn’t seem like someone who would intentionally disrupt anyone’s world. He’s a soft-spoken 39-year-old who, four years ago, founded a company called Haus Alpenz, which imports liquors that are difficult to find unless you travel great distances abroad or have a time machine. The first product Seed imported was a pine-flavored liqueur he got in the Austrian Alps and sold to upmarket bars in Colorado ski country. He has since added an Austrian walnut liqueur, two apricot-based spirits, and a French vermouth made precisely as it was in 1821. Sometimes importing is not enough—if he detects demand for a lost ingredient among cocktail aficionados but discovers the original is available only in a debased form, he’ll commission distillers to re-create it from old recipes, using improved ingredients and processes. That’s what he did with pimento dram, a Jamaican allspice liqueur that had been unavailable in the United States for years but is now made for him in Europe. It’s proved especially popular in exotic cocktails (also called “tiki drinks”), including the vastly rewarding Nui Nui.

I met Seed for cocktails and dinner one night last fall. He talks about himself only reluctantly, but he’s far more voluble when talking about what’s in his bottles, and how history and fickle trade patterns have influenced what we drink. Seed is the only person I’ve heard use the phrase Hanseatic League since I was in high school. That came up in a discussion of his Batavia Arrack, a pleasantly musty spirit distilled from sugarcane and red rice on the island of Java. It first appeared in the U.S. around the time the Dutch and the English were tussling over Manhattan, but it had been largely unavailable since Prohibition. Arrack is aromatic, with a roguish sensibility, and it’s often called for in 19th-century punch recipes. It’s also the base spirit of something called Swedish Punsch, a smoky liqueur used in vintage cocktails like the Doctor and the Diki-Diki.

Seed and I also sampled his Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, which some cocktail historians consider “the missing link”—the bridge between the sweeter Holland gin that launched the gin craze in the 18th century and the London Dry that typically goes in your martini today. Old Tom is sweeter and more robust than London Dry—“more botanically intense,” Seed says—and it avoids the angular, medicinal aftertaste.

One of Seed’s top sellers surprised me: Crème de Violette. This is an ethereal lavender-hued liqueur, with the fleeting, elusive taste and aroma of spring violets, from which it’s made. When it comes to drink, Americans rarely clamor for subtlety, but the demand for violet liqueur suggests that the home bar may be following the trajectory of the kitchen pantry. “There’s a growing sophistication in drink as there has been with food,” Seed says. Shelf space becomes scarcer, the invasive species begin to assert themselves, and cocktail life becomes more confounding.

The demand may also be driven by a latent curiosity about the celebrated Aviation cocktail, which first cropped up around 1916, at the dawn of the age of flight. The original recipe called for a touch of violet, but when the liqueur became impossible to procure, it was dropped from published recipes, and the Aviation became simply gin, lemon juice, and maraschino liqueur, with no hint of the azure sky that inspired it. But now it’s back, and getting attention in some tony precincts. I enjoyed one recently at Arnaud’s French 75 in New Orleans, a comfortably dusky bar of dark wood, quarter-size hexagonal floor tiles, and Edith Piaf in the background. On the first sip it was a bright, refreshing elixir that recalled a spring evening, lifting me gently out of the confines of place. By the second sip I was vowing to add Crème de Violette to my inventory. And by the third I was damning Eric Seed for complicating my life.