The Straw that Stirs the Drink

How does a drink menu stand out? It’s a constant topic in this space, as the cocktail revolution continues to overturn conventions and set new standards, only to do so all over again. Let a hundred flowers bloom, said the old Chinese mass murderer Mao, meaning, more or less, it’s your thing, do what you wanna do.

In Hollywood at Sadie, the director of spirits, Giovanni Martinez, has built a loyal following of cocktail enthusiasts, and this fall, he mixed in new and old under four rubrics: shaken, stirred, seasonal and classics. While the ingredients he employs – date-infused balsamic vinegar, white pepper and cardamom infused Dolin Blanc Vermouth, lavender-infused honey, for instance – are all particular enough to make an impact, it’s the final drink that counts.

The date-infusion shows up in the “Stirred” section of the menu, with Mount Gay Black Rum and lemon-clove Syrup to become the Velvet. In the “Seasonal” section is The Brass Rail - Martell Cognac, Blackwell's Jamaican Rum, allspice dram, lemon and spiced syrup. Also seasonal: The Combination - Chivas 12 year old Scotch, Italian vermouth, pear syrup and Miracle Mile Toasted Pecan Bitters.

All lovely, but we look for unusual and intriguing here at Mix, and he accommodates us with This Is Not A Pipe, his homage to surrealist pioneer Renee Magritte. Made in a Port pipe glass and based on the pousse-café layered cocktail, it’s a three-layer wonder. His recipe calls for warm Galliano in the first layer, then slightly less warm Frangelico, and finally a cold layer Bosom Caresser, the old classic drink made with egg yolk, and updated here with coconut syrup and Mount Gay Rum.

Here’s what he says: “By layering these ingredients in the port pipe (a drinking vessel that dates backs to 1600's Germany that allows you to drink from the bottom of the glass), we were able to create a specific order for each flavor, texture, and temperature.” And the name? One of Rene Magritte’s best known paintings is of a pipe accompanied with the text, “This is Not a Pipe.” And while the glass in which this drink is served looks like a pipe, it ain’t. So there’s that.

The drink is off-menu, and he’ll only be making six each night. So it may not be a pipe for you at all.

In Oakland, Pican’s drink menu is bourbon-focused, but not only the kind stocked with rare and unusual selections. Cocktails, too, have a distinctly Kentucky and Tennessee influence, seen in the Black Hand - Wild Turkey 81, basil, balsamic syrup and ginger beer – and the Tennessee Margarita – George Dickel No. 12, Cointreau, lime juice and agave nectar – among others. But it’s the brunch quaffer that’s a response to the challenge and a response to the standard Bloody Mary’s dominance. Starting with a 38 ounce Mason jar, we’re talking grilled heirloom tomato juice, housemade steak sauce; Tito’s Vodka, bbq shrimp and Creole-spiced bacon, with 101 proof Fighting Cock. Yeeehah!

How else to stand out? How about a drink menu that changes every night? That’s what Vessel 2.0 offers. The new version of the Seattle drink temple reopened in September and co-owner Jim Romdall has let the inmates run the asylum completely, with a new menu each night based on the bartender’s skills and whimsy. That does something that is both forward thinking and old-fashioned: making the bartender’s skills, not only in drink design and execution, but also in overall hospitality, the centerpiece of the bar. Something tells me the menus will be important, but not as much as the other intangibles that can’t be taught.

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