The Cocktail War

Food is always an extraordinary experience in New York City, but on my recent trip to attend the 3rd Annual International Chefs Congress with Trey Foshee, I found the cocktail culture in this acclaimed culinary Mecca equally exciting.

Just as there is a cultural war being waged between the passionate chefs of the new, more modern cuisine and the classics, so it goes with cocktails. It seems that New York City has a crush on the pre-prohibition style cocktail. Don't get me wrong, I've always been a fan of a good old-fashioned Manhattan, but I have never seen this kind of precision or dedication. At Death and Co. - a marvelous dark and beautiful space entered into through black velvet curtains - I enjoyed my first true, old-time tincture, perhaps the most wonderful blend of whiskey, bitters and sweet vermouth I've ever chanced upon my palate. My eyes now open to this entrancing trend backward I immediately began thinking about how to share this culture with my friends and patrons back in San Diego.

On the flip side comes new innovation, in this case ice. A west coast martini, once shaken, will melt down the ice to approximately 2 oz. of water mixed into the finished product. A company called Kold-Draft has developed nearly perfect ice cubes that take time to dilute the cocktail and deliver more chilling love than actual water yield. Imagine the ideal scotch cube that maintains the bulk of its area while keeping the liquor cool and not watering it down. That's my kind of ice!

Accompanied by Kate Krader of Food & Wine magazine, we checked out Apotheke in Chinatown where bar owner and mixologist Albert Trummer serves herbal infusions with a no substitute attitude that won me over. His micro-cilantro infused gin was both subtle and hypnotic, and the fact he has his own sugar cane press on site was really impressive. When Kate led us into a hot dog shop in the East Village after a globe trotting meal at Momofuku Ssam Bar, I thought maybe someone had not enjoyed enough beef tendon and headcheese. To my elated surprise, Kate led us inside a Londonesque telephone booth and closed the door, leading us through a hidden door at the back of the booth with a smile to PDT, a proverbial example of a speak-easy where the cocktail war moved on with delicate handling and mastery.

Along with nightly excursions, I also took part in several courses designed for the mixologist in all of us. Toby Maloney delivered a near-perfect soliloquy on making homemade bitters, while Junior Merino taught us layering techniques and how the kitchen can also come out to the bar. But I think I was most fascinated by the reintroduction of gin into my life. Audrey Saunders, owner and mixologist of The Pegu Club, reignited a lost pleasure for me introducing us to the world of gin, starting with its roots in Holland as Genever to the rippling effects of saffron brought into Ol Raj and the startling simplicity of Plymouth. After Audrey's presentation, and a final cocktail at her club, I can guarantee you'll find some New York-inspired mixed gin drinks gracing our menu.

There is no question the front lines in this underground war will soon hit the shores of California, as we set off to improve upon the ideas experienced during this year's Congress. Next time you are in the Modern Bar, I promise to pour you a taste of something familiar and yet, entirely new.