As with most things culinary, when you look for cutting edge innovation and trendsetting in America, two cities immediately appear at the top of any list – New York and San Francisco (DC…not so much, although things are improving on that front). Luckily for me, I had planned trips to both of those locations in back to back weeks in July, giving me a rare opportunity to experience (potentially) some of the great cocktail locations in America in a very short period of time. My first stop – New York, which has close to a dozen locations which have garnered interest and accolades within the cocktail and culinary community (not to mention the standard imbibing community). With the plan being to spend a week there, I figured that would give me ample opportunity to hit at least a couple of these locations and document what I found. Turns out a couple was in fact all I had time for, but the time spent at both locations - The Pegu Club and Flatiron Lounge - was about as well spent as one interested in cocktails could hope for.
The Pegu Club, located on West Houston in Soho, has a sterling reputation for the cocktails mixed there, as well as for those who mix them. Named after a famous British colonial officer's club in Burma, the bar and lounge, located up a flight of steps straight off the street, has an appropriately Eurasian feel to it - the wooden screens, dark and polished wood, and low slung furniture create an atmosphere of refined yet restrained elegance. Everything in the narrow, long space running along Houston Street is designed to be both comforting, but at the same time elevate the mood and heighten the senses - this isn't a place to slug back a shot of Jack with a Bud Light chaser (although there's nothing wrong with that).
Bottles of all kinds were lined up behind the bar - Cynar, Sazerac Rye, Green and Yellow Chartreuse, Plymouth Sloe Gin, Zwack. Bottles both common and exotic were contained behind asian-inspired screens which were made to mimic the same style of screens difusing the light coming through the north facing windows. This was a lounge, but absent the typical pretension associated with someplace identifying itself as one - this was a "club," but one everyone is invited to join.
I arrived on a Monday afternoon, only having been off the train from DC long enough to drop my stuff off at the hotel and catch the A Train to Soho. The room was almost completely empty except for one gentleman sipping a drink in a very well appointed suit. The bar filled out, but only slightly, as the afternoon wore on - I learned that Eben Klemm (beverage director of the B.R. Guest restaurant group), sat for a drink or two Taking my place at the bar, I looked at the cocktail menu and ordered their signature cocktail (always a good place to start) - the Pegu Club. London dry gin, orange curacao, lime juice, and angostura and orange bitters are shaken vigorously and then strained into a cocktail coupe. Tart, refreshing, slightly sweet, you could envision sitting on the porch in the humid heat of Burma having tray after tray of these delivered for your pleasure.
2oz London dry gin
3/4 oz orange curacao
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
2 dashes each of Angostura and orange bitters
Shake with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge
The creation of this cocktail embodied everything I look for in a place that creates quality cocktails. My bartender, Yale, was extremely friendly and very willing to chat (I am sure at least partially because there was hardly anyone else in the place). The bar filled out, but only slightly, as the afternoon wore on - while chatting with Yale about ice and the most efficient shaking techniques (some think it makes a difference - others don't), I learned that Eben Klemm (beverage director of the B.R. Guest restaurant group), sat for a drink or two a couple of seats away. He had evidently been on a panel discussion about that very subject (dilution, temp, ice structure, etc) in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail. That's the kind of thing an actual raport with the bartender will get you - interesting tidbits about regular customers or facts about the craft that you wouldn't get elsewhere.
Yale's method for making the cocktails I enjoyed that afternoon were consistent, classic, and extremely professional. All of the quality cocktail places I have been to in the last year or so have the same characteristics:
- alcohol amounts are measured, not free poured
- shaken drinks are just that - shaken, HARD
- ingredients are absolutely fresh - fruit, juices, even bitters, tonics, and sodas are made on site or acquired form the highest quality vendors
- as the drink is strained into your glass, the pour is ended with a crisp snap of the wrist
- not necessary, but a nice detail - ice is cracked in hand with a barspoon in a discriminating way (i.e. would throw ice out if not cracked properly). Again, attention to detail and experience of the customer at the bar.
- the bartender taste tests your drink (with a straw, not a sip) before giving it to you. That indicates to me a desire for quality control and excellence - you can trust a drink that passes this test to taste as it should
- the bartender is engaging with the customers - even when slammed, he/she will always have a smile and a few words with a new customer sitting down at the bar
For my next cocktail, I asked Yale to come up with something she really liked. Proclaiming herself to be a "rye girl" (big points there), she mixed up a Red Hook - Rittenhouse 100 Rye, maraschino liqueur, and Punt a Mes, stirred, with a brandied cherry for a garnish. Boozy drink, with a great balance of sweetness and depth which rye imparts to almost any drink.
2 oz Rittenhouse 100 Rye Whiskey
1/2 oz Punt e Mes
1/2 oz maraschino liqueur
Shake with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass
At this point, there was a shift change at the bar, and Dell took over the helm of the place. I learned later that I was being served by one of the most highly regarded bartenders in NYC - and it was soon clear why that was.