It says something about the talents and reputation of Neal Bodenheimer, Kirk Estopinal, and Matthew Kohnke— best known for Cure in New Orleans—that they can open a bar entirely dedicated to 19th-century cocktails and have it be a runaway success. Cobblers and sherry cocktails and milk punches—"These ancient forms of drinks seem sort of bizarre to us," Kirk Estopinal told me, "but that's why we find them fascinating."
Bellocq launched late in 2011, the ground-floor bar of the Hotel Modern, a bit funny when you consider how resolutely throwback it is. A whole section of the menu is devoted to cobblers, a genre of cocktails with fruit over crushed ice; juleps, punches, and other 19th-century drinks fill in the list. "Cocktails right now are in their Rococo period," said Estopinal; "I'm more interested in an era a bit more toned down. This is such a dramatically different, stripped-down idea of a drink."
Estopinal showed me three of his favorite cocktails on the menu now; come take a look.
This cocktail reminds Estopinal of nigori, cloudy unfiltered Japanese sake. It's made from a base of La Gitana Manzanilla en rama, sherry that isn't filtered after it's drawn from the cask. "There's a moss that grows in sherry barrels, and usually it's fortified to kill the bacteria, but this isn't—it keeps some of the particulate in it." The sherry meets housemade orgeat and sugarcane spirit Batavia Arrack, and it's garnished with a cherry "whose syrup sort of wicks off into the cloudy top. I like that part."
"This is definitely a sherry drinker's cocktail."
Bonal Gentiane Quinine Cobbler
There are more than half a dozen cobblers on Bellocq's menu, but this is one of the best sellers. Tonic wine Bonal Gentiane-Quina is shaken with grapefruit zest and sugar, poured over crushed ice, and garnished with a huge spiral of grapefruit ("That's my garnish philosophy; what's in it goes on top, too"). Estopinal is particularly proud of the straw, a hollowed-out wheat stalk that predates plastic straws or even paper ones.
In terms of historical cocktails, you can't get much more throwback than milk punch; on Bellocq's menu, the "Mary Rockett Punch" is taken straight from a recipe found, according to Dave Wondrich's Punch, in a "tattered manuscript recipe book, the compilation of a good housewife named Mary Rockett, and dated 1711." When boiling milk is added to a punch of liquor, sugar, and lemon, "the solids break instantly," Estopinal told me, "and when you run the liquids out of that, the curds are like a giant filter. It can strip the color right out of brandy."
While Rockett's punch also appears on his menu, Estopinal decided that "if you can do brandy, you can do pisco." Made in the same manner, it's a drink of pisco, pineapple syrup, and lemon processed through milk in the same way. "A traditional pisco punch uses gum syrup, but using the milk method helps you achieve something sort of like that," in terms of the slightly thickened texture. Once you strain out those curds is a smooth, rich-tasting (but not creamy), nearly clear concoction. It's got a faint nuttiness and a sharp sour bite, but feels so silky on the tongue that it all balances out. And though the milk barely factors into the taste, it does amp up the acid; "You don't realize how much acid milk has until you make a totally sour punch."