Every five years or so for the last 25 years, somebody has declared that "cocktail culture is back!"; but unfortunately, it's almost always the culture that's underscored, not the cocktail. The people who embodied cocktail culture (the first time round) took their cocktails very seriously, many if not most to excess. And because writers were a key part of the Prohibition-era cocktail mix, cocktails and excess got written about—a lot.
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It wasn't just the Scotts and Zeldas and their innumerable Jazz Age wanna-bes that turned what started as a preprandial pick-me-up into the main course for an all-night binge; the otherwise very respectable E.B. White used to meet weekend guests at the train with a huge shakerful of martinis. The most memorable of the notorious 1930s fun couples was the ménage of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, whose boozy love affair was idealized in Hammett's detective novel The Thin Man and immortalized by Hollywood in the slim figures of William Powell and Myrna Loy. If that pair (real-life or fantasy) had resurfaced in the last quarter of the 20th century and discovered that they were expected to drink flavored vodkas or cosmos, they would have booked their tickets back to the past posthaste.
I don't want to go on record as another failed herald of a renaissance of sophisticated boozing, but on evidence accumulated in just the last few months, I would be remiss not to call attention to two new establishments offering the old cocktail experience straight, no chaser—no pedestrian live entertainment, no faux-deco decor, no showy, useless wall o' bottles, no Tom Cruise–y mixing tricks behind the bar, no high-definition TVs set permanently to ESPN. Just drinks. Good drinks.
ANY DECENT BAR offers a selection of good spirits. Only serious cocktail bars are willing to take on the daily chore of creating the other essential ingredients of a great cocktail: the freshly squeezed juices, a homemade syrup, the different grades of ice required for different drinks, and the garnishes crafted for flavor as well as looks. When a cocktail is assembled from ingredients this good, it becomes dangerous. It tastes great; it tastes like it's probably good for you; it doesn't taste intoxicating, just exhilarating. One's not enough. Two's not too much. Three . . . is this really my third? Who's driving? Where's the car? Who are you?
One of the notable new cocktail spots, the Great Nabob (819 Fifth Ave. N, 206-281-9850, www.thegreatnabob.com), could easily be mistaken for a neighborhood tavern. Though in the newly upscaling East Uptown area, its decor is comfy-funky tavern style. And you can buy a beer if you like. Heck, you can even play pool. But a mere look at the cocktail list, with its classics redolent of the prewar and speakeasy eras, should signal you that something special is up, and the execution of the drinks more than lives up to the evocation. Nabob owner Devlin McGill is one of the new generation of mixologists that approaches the art as a kind of sacred calling. He keeps copies of Dale DeGroff's The Craft of the Cocktail and Mardee Haidin Reagan's The Bartender's Best Friend behind the bar for ready reference and is more than happy to engage with his customers on the fine points of blends, bitters, and recipe variations.
Even newer and more starkly focused on the art of enhancing alcohol is Suite 410, tucked into a previously undistinguished downtown block (410 Stewart St., 206-624-9911) between Fourth and Fifth avenues. The small, all-black room is comfortably but starkly appointed, an austere environment for the serious business of getting sauced. Open only a few weeks, the place is already a magnet for fanciers of well-assembled potations, and for good reason. To put together the drinks menu, owner Maxwell Borthwick went for the gold, giving mixologist Ryan Magarian of the Kathy Casey Food Studios carte blanche to create a double-whammy lineup. Half the bill is made up of legendary but hard to find standards—a Pisco sour (Peruvian Muscat brandy, lemon, bitters, whipped egg white), the Savoy Hotel's signature Casino (gin, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters), an honest-to-God mint julep. Literary lush Ernest Hemingway is said to be the source for El Floridita, a version of the daiquiri made from light rum, lime, and grapefruit, and half a dozen more.
On the "exclusive" side of the menu, Magarian has not exactly exceeded himself—that title still goes to his smoked-tenderloin-garnished horseradish vodka at Kirkland's Jäger—but for Suite 410 the cocktails are less bizarre than their names suggest. Hot Mango Love spices mango vodka with jalapeño and peach flavors; the Añejo Manhattan blends old tequila, sweet vermouth, and bitters into a remarkably sharp yet smooth flavor profile; and yes, though Dashiell and Lillian might have scoffed at it, the sliver of chocolate sausage wrapped round a marinated sour cherry works perfectly as a garnish.