Bartenders are getting into the game, not only producing high-quality bar ingredients for themselves but for wider audiences.
As Jonathan Miles wrote in Sunday's New York Times, the vintage-cocktail renaissance has a few drawbacks. While this interest in the drinks of yesteryear has led to the revival of once-lost favorites such as the Aviation and the Corpse Reviver #2, assembling some of these cocktails can still be frustrating. He writes:
It's the ingredients that can get really arcane: ground gentian, capillaire, raspberry syrup, tansy, ambergris, gum syrup. Throw in some eye of newt and toe of frog and you've got the cauldron from 'Macbeth.'
Fortunately for those who love vintage drinks, it's easier to find the once defunct or simply unavailable ingredients. Several years ago, importer Eric Seed began sourcing hard-to-find spirits and liqueurs such as Batavia arrack, all-spice dram and crème de violette through his company, Haus Alpenz. These products are now available in select markets nationwide.
Rob Cooper, the creator of St. Germain elderflower liqueur, is in the process of filling another (admittedly slim) void on the back bar by re-introducing Crème Yvette, a style of violet-and-vanilla liqueur that was in fashion around the time Marconi was tinkering with his wireless.
But an interesting recent phenomenon is the number of bartenders who are getting into the game, not only producing high-quality bar ingredients for themselves—and in some cases, re-creating defunct bitters and liqueurs—but for wider audiences as side businesses too.
German bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck formed The Bitter Truth a couple of years ago. Their company produces artisan bitters (including the incredibly tasty Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters, based on a recipe from the 1860s) and liqueurs that are now found in bars around the world.
In Scotland, bartender Adam Elmegirab has recreated Boker's Bitters, a style of bitters that was very popular around the turn of the last century but hasn't been produced since the 1920s. He is now shipping packages to bars from Australia to the Pacific Northwest.
Likewise, Seattle bartender Jamie Boudreau has a version of Boker's Bitters along with a cherry bitters that should be on the market in the next few months under his "Boudreau's Bitters" line of ingredients.
And as Miles notes in his column, San Francisco bartender Jennifer Colliau recently launched her business, Small Hand Foods, which produces items such as pineapple gomme syrup, grenadine, and orgeat. Made from fresh ingredients, they're lightyears better than the commercial versions found in supermarkets (in cases where commercial versions even exist).
The world of the cocktail bar still lags behind restaurant kitchens in terms of fresh, high-quality flavors and ingredients, but bartenders such as these are working hard to reverse that. Are there any products behind the bar that you wouldn't mind seeing replaced by better-quality ingredients, or are there things you'd like to have when mixing drinks that just don't seem to exist on store shelves?
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.