Tales of the Cocktail: From Rye and Mount Vernon to Rebellion and Fern Bars


My favorite part of Tales of the Cocktail is the seminars. It’s possible to get too caught up in all the tasting rooms and the parties, the throngs of people spilling out of the Monteleone, the free drinks plied on you at every turn. I’ve only been doing this for three of their 11 years, but even I felt a little jaded this year when I walked up to the hotel to pick up my packet. This year I was determined to make it to all of my seminars, to take great notes, to use that dump bucket on the table if I had to.  And I mostly succeeded.

The unfortunate part of Tales is that if you live in New Orleans and have a normal job, it gets a little difficult to make it to the 10 AM seminar that comes with five cocktails. Not that I didn’t try, but there were a lot of things I had to miss due to normal life. The three seminars that I did make it to were fascinating, and by some scheduling miracle, I managed to give myself a chronological history of the cocktail in three distinct periods: Whiskey in George Washington’s Day, Paris in the 1920’s, and finally,“the dark ages of mixology,” 1960-1990ish.

As a history major in college and a SoFAB employee, I have realized that history learned through tangible, enjoyable means (like cocktails, food, and historical fiction romances) is a much different experience than history learned via lecture. While you may not get the whole story, you get to learn the details more intimately and you get a sense of what it might have actually been like to live in the past, to learn what people, not governments, were doing and thinking.

Mount Vernon. Photo by Ad Meskens.

Mount Vernon. Photo by Ad Meskens.

Why Rye? with Claire Smith, Nicole Austin and Allen Katz

My first seminar was all about rye, and we sampled everything from rye beer to Belvadere, which is made with rye, and discussed the rising popularity of rye. Apparently in places less blessed than New Orleans, it can be very difficult to obtain enough of the precious rye to satisfy thirsty New Yorkers and Chicagoans. Rye’s always been an option for distillers since it is a very hardy grain that grows in tough environments, making it especially useful in places like Russia and Poland where powerful spirits are always appreciated.

After a couple of straight sips and a cocktail or too, we were introduced to one very special “White Dog” or unaged rye whiskey that had been made at Mount Vernon. Nicole Austin, one of the distillers who helped produce this long lost product, led us through the process of how one makes whiskey in the historical theater that is Mount Vernon. First of all, she let us know that Washington was quite the savvy businessman, and when his Scottish farm manager suggested following the path of nearby farms by making whiskey to sell, he saw the wisdom of the scheme. The distillery became the largest in the country, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799 and becoming a great money maker for Washington. Unfortunately, the distillery burned in 1814 and was not really mentioned and definitely not restored until 2000. The panelists speculated that the pre and post Prohibition attitudes about alcohol conspired to keep this part of the first president’s life under wraps.

The distillery has now been restored to a historically accurate and functioning part of the Mount Vernon tour. The whiskey produced there is made with almost the same procedures as it was in Washington’s day (with a few extra safety measures), and is sold exclusively in the gift shop there. We got to taste a little sample of the whiskey from a couple of the only 100 or so bottles produced with each barrel. It was delicious, and oh so cool to taste something that was as true as can be to what people actually drank in the new America. http://www.mountvernon.org/visit-his-estate/plan-your-visit/distillery-amp-gristmill

Hemingway in an American Red Cross Ambulance in Italy, 1918, via Wikimedia Commons

Hemingway in an American Red Cross Ambulance in Italy, 1918, via Wikimedia Commons

Midnight in Paris: Cocktails of the Lost Generation with Philip Greene and Alexandre Gabriel

My next history lesson took place with Philip Greene, one of the founding members of the Museum of the American Cocktail and an avid drinks historian. He’s especially known for his book on Hemingway’s drinking habits, which factored into this seminar about Paris in the 1920s. This was a particularly interesting topic, because it focused not on America’s drinking culture, but on how Americans drinking in Paris managed to slightly change the Parisian drinking culture. I was also drawn to this seminar because of my fairly recent infatuation of reading the books of a few of the “Lost Generation” writers, especially Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Then there was also the movie, Midnight in Paris, which I immediately fell in love with. When Corey Stoll as Hemingway spoke his first lines, all sparse and macho, I laughed out loud with glee. So this was definitely a historical period of drinking I wanted to learn about from an expert.

All the ex-pats and authors who flocked to Paris demanded more than just apertifs and bitter things and wine, they wanted cocktails. Astute cafe owners began to experiment and cater to these Americans, and they started making whiskey sours, hot rum punches and Jack Roses, the drinks of the day. In one of the more famous bars, the “Jimmie Special” was invented, reputedly a cocktail so crazy it made women take their clothes off and caused men go insane. From the number of cell phones that went up when Philip showed the slide with the recipe on it, this particular cocktail will never go out of style. Here’s my iffy cell photo… points to anyone able to decipher and reproduce!

Of course Paris didn’t take this intrusion completely in stride. American bars flourished, oui, but they were distinctly American bars, kept separate from the rest of the cafes of the city. The idea of cocktails, though, stuck a bit better. Drinks like the Sidecar, made with Cognac, lemon juice, and Cointreau were invented in Harry’s New York Bar, and soon became popular all over France. Though the drink is credited to an American bar, Cognac is a French product to the core, and this represented a comeback for the traditional liqueur. The grapes that made cognac and wine were decimated by the phylloera bug in the late 1800s throughout France, and other drinks like absinthe had taken over the market. By this time the plague had been controlled, but Philip Greene sees the Sidecar as the drink that really brought cognac back to relevance in the country.

Finally, we were served a delicious version of the classic Martini, made the French Citadelle Gin, dry vermouth, and orange bitters. To me, these simple, classic drinks really seemed to reflect the Lost Generation’s preferences for interesting, complex flavors made with just a few sparse ingredients.

The Dark Ages: Mixology, 1967-1988 with David Wondrich and Jeff Berry

In the last seminar I attended, I got caught up to modern day drinking, through the terrible blender years of the 60s-90s. Our wonderful leaders, David Wondrich and Jeff Berry first demoed a typical blender drink of the period, dumping in copious, unmeasured amounts of booze and ice and sugar, and blending it to snowball consistency. David assured us this was the correct way to make the drink, and then immediately passed it off to some poor soul in the front row.

Apparently, the blenders first introduced behind the bar around the 1930s were the top down, milkshake blender style, which was basically an electric swizzle stick. The craft bartenders of the day made delicious, well proportioned cocktails that were all the better from their brief time in the machine. Then the bottom blender showed up. These blenders were much more conducive to the dump and add ice method of mixing drinks, and people seemed to love having a huge mug of a frosty, slightly alcoholic neon beverage. If we go through the museum’s menu collection, I’m sure there are more than a few glossy menus featuring pictures of this style of drink.

According to Wondrich, other bad trends besides the blender conspired to create this “dark age.” There was a loss of history and tradition, mostly due to Prohibition’s disruption and young people’s rebellions. Technology created soda guns and the ability to produce and mass market time saving concoctions like sour mix and margarita “just add tequila” mixes. Bartenders were probably more than a little overwhelmed by all these time saving options, and I’m sure the owners saw a way to save a few bucks and make drinks faster, so laziness began to infiltrate the drinking establishments.

By TheCulinaryGeek from Chicago, USA (Strawberry Daiquiri 416  Uploaded by the wub) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By TheCulinaryGeek from Chicago, USA (Strawberry Daiquiri 416 Uploaded by the wub) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Another factor was a larger, cultural split between war veterans and their “hedonist” children. In terms of drinking, the older crowd wanted straight booze with as little fuss as necessary to numb their brains (i.e. the Martini of straight vodka and a nod to Italy), and the young hedonists who just wanted to party and drink fun, exciting things in new, exciting bars. This didn’t leave much middle ground for the classic crafted cocktails of the past. Young men AND women were now heading to bars to hang out, and in this new age of freedom, to hook up. The drinks didn’t really matter, as long as they tasted good, so pina coladas, fruit daiquiris and old school sweet drinks like grasshopers and stingers came into vogue. These are literally the drinks I grew up on! My parents loved making frozen margaritas with a variety of mixes, and they would always make me a virgin one until I got to accidentally try my first real one in high school… but that’s another story.

Around this time, there was also an interior design challenge known as the fern bar. Apparently, as women started to go out to bars, they weren’t too keen on having to patronize establishments that didn’t clean the floors, or glasses, or walls… So, a few bars started to add things that they thought women would be attracted to, like plants (I mean, I guess I like plants, but really?). Wondrich predicts a fern bar revival in the near future. I don’t see how he can be wrong.

Then came the punk age, which was a striped down rebellion. Kids were getting rid of the extraneous things like melody and pineapples, and getting down to the basics of drumbeats and whiskey. Wondrich credits the punk period with getting the bartending world ready for the revival of a cocktail culture, paving the way for the growing foodie movement to go back to strong, flavorful liquors and simple cocktails. And that brought us to Tales of the Cocktail today, where we sipped our Harvey Walbangers and pondered the demise and resurrection of the cocktail.


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