Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Conventional wisdom tells us that coupledom and coworking go together about as well as ammonia and bleach. But in the case of bartenders Phoebe Esmon and Christian Gaal, the byproduct of their overlapping personal and professional relationships is one of Philadelphia's most cerebral cocktail programs.
Esmon and Gaal, who are engaged, have tended bar together at a number of other Philly establishments, including Noble, Kennett and The Farmers' Cabinet. But it's at Emmanuelle, the NoLibs bar opened in late 2012 by PYT beef-patty impresario Tommy Up, that's allowed them to develop their first truly collaborative list.
Split into classics and new-school diversions, the erudite menu is indicative of their divergent but complementary styles. For starters, Gaal identifies his fiancée as a super-taster. "When she's going to approach something and evaluate it, she's looking for some different nuances I'm not going to pick up on," he says. "Phoebe's drinks tend to be more subtly layered than mine. Mine are a little bit more about tension."
Individually, Esmon starts with generalized lists of flavors and spirits, then develops a strategy for piecing them together, while Gaal often starts with nothing more than a name. Take the Hot Sicilian Widow, a phrase that came up in conversation while the couple strolled through South Philly. Gaal knew Averna amaro would be a good starting point, and figured it'd be served hot, "since we were already saying it." Warming spices and rum eventually came into play to turn the drink toward toddy territory.
That drink also features Esmon's own falernum, one of many homemade elements in play at Emmanuelle. Apricot-saffron shrub, vanilla and cardamom tinctures and zinfandel jelly are just a few of the from-scratch flavor vehicles informing cocktails. "It makes it possible to do exactly what I want," says Esmon, "if I make the [influential] element that goes into it."
The bartenders can and do go off-menu for regulars or guests with particular tastes, but both view their carefully crafted list as "a way of beginning a relationship," says Gaal. "When you first meet somebody, you don't grab them by the face and give them a nice kiss on the lips. That may happen at some point, but it's not how you start off. In that sense, the drinks on the list should be attractive and playful, without sticking your tongue down a person's throat."
Check out the slideshow for a preview of Emmanuelle's latest creations, where references to Shakespeare, French colonialism, and North African piracy are poured alongside pisco, damson plum liqueur and genever—no French kisses, unless you want one.