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Classic cocktails like the Sidecar and the Old Fashioned, and authentic ingredients for them, used to be tough to come by. But thanks to a resurgence in cocktail culture, many forgotten recipes and obscure spirits are available at local bars and liquor stores across the country and in the D.C. region. We consider the history — and future — of the cocktail, and what spirits trends say about our culture and others.
- Derek Brown Co-owner, The Passenger (DC); co-founder, DC Craft Bartender's Guild
Photo Gallery: Classic Cocktails And Ingredients
Derek Brown’s Recipes
Pickin’ Punch (created by Derek Brown)
1 1/2 bottles of Dark Rum
1 bottle Applejack
1/2 bottle Blended Scotch
1 lb. Fine Demerara Sugar
2 Peels of Lemon
2 cups of apple cider
6 cups of sparkling water
Garnish with apple slices and cinnamon sticks
Muddle lemon peels with sugar and then pour in apple cider. Stir in rum, Applejack and Scotch; chill for two hours in refrigerator. Serve in bowl over large ice block. Add chilled sparkling water.
Put sugar in food processor and blend until fine.
Champs Élysées (classic)
1 oz. Cognac
1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
1/2 oz. Yellow Chartreuse*
1/2 oz. Simple Syrup
Dash Aromatic Bitters
Combine ingredients with ice, shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon peel.
Yellow Chartreuse is substituted here for Green Chartreuse. Both work well, but I prefer the honey, sweeter tones of Yellow Chartreuse in the Champs Élysées.
Adonis Cocktail (classic)
2 oz. Dry Amontillado Sherry
1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
Dash orange bitters
Combine ingredients together with ice in a mixing glass, stir and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a thin orange peel.
MR. KOJO NNAMDITo paraphrase tell me what you drink and I will tell you what you are. You can learn a lot about a culture by considering what and how it imbibes. American tastes and trends have changed over the generations with many a modern tippler eschewing the bottled sour mixes, alco-pops and manufactured flavors that were once popular in favor of storied spirits, centuries of old recipes and authentic ingredients.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to guide us through the cocktail culture of yesterday and today is Derek Brown. He's a bartender and co-owner of The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He's also a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and serves on the Board of Directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. Derek, good to see you again.
MR. DEREK BROWNHow are you, Kojo?
NNAMDIAnd since we were talking about athletes and Olympics you mentioned in the break that there was a famous cocktail that was named after a famous French athlete.
BROWNYeah, there's now a few that they're going to go back and start taking away medals from athletes who were drinking great cocktails during that time.
BROWNYeah, there was a famous French Fencer named Lucien Gaudin and he sort of dominated the 1920s in fencing. And so he has a cocktail named after him that is really very delicious.
NNAMDIThe Lucien Gaudin cocktail?
BROWNThat's correct, yeah.
NNAMDIWhat is it made of?
BROWNIt's got gin, Campari, Cointreau and vermouth so it's sort of like a Nigroni, if you've ever had one of those, a little bit bitter, a little bit sweet, a little bit sort of botanical or herbaceous.
NNAMDIWell, the next time I'll see you I'll be saying here's to you Lucien Gaudin. At one point and for a long time a cocktail had a pretty narrow definition. What was it and how do you define it today?
BROWNYeah, actually it's funny because the cocktail that we think about as being the first cocktail, or at least the first definition appears in a paper in 1806 in New York -- in Claverack, N.Y. The paper was called the Balancing Columbian Repository. And it was during a political contest actually in Claverack that they defined the cocktail. And it was composed of spirits of any kind, bitters, sugar and water. So that's very similar to what we would call an Old Fashion.
BROWNHowever, if you really look at the history and you look at kind of what that is, you know, that sort of mixture of sweet and sour of the potent beverage, you could go back into history -- you could go back all the way to, you know, this sort of Epipaleolithic era and see people are drinking beverages that are similar to that. I mean, it turns out that they were drinking something similar to beertails where they were grain -- fermented grains with fruits and botanicals and that sort of thing. So really humanity has had a long love affair with mixed drinks.
NNAMDIAnd of course before 1803 alcohol in fact predates humans so it's quite likely that from the very beginning we were drinking some kind of mixed drinks.
BROWNThat's right. And I like to put it this way. If you -- it's exactly correct that humans don't need to exist to create alcohol. A ripe fruit could fall from a tree, hit the ground, yeast or sacrimiacese (sp?) would start eating the sugars and it would create alcohol, ethanol and CO2. And so if that was a ripe white peach it'd basically be a balenia (sp?), a sort of proto cocktail.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Do you enjoy classic cocktails? What's your favorite? 800-433-8850. Is this current movement back to classic cocktails and reintroduction of spirits that have been tough to get a trend, or do you think it's just the new normal?
BROWNWell, again, I mean, this idea of cocktails goes back a long way. Now fortunately we've become a little more sophisticated in our design of cocktails and especially in the 19th century in the United States you saw this rise of classic cocktails. Now prohibition kind of put some screws on that, you know. It turns out that we didn't have access to the same type of bartending.
BROWNI mean, really, bartending during prohibition was illegal. So that sort of changed the landscape of bartending and what spirits were available to us.
NNAMDIStunted its development if you will.
BROWNThat's absolutely correct. It's almost as if you ban chefs, you know. So -- and all the recipes are lost. Fortunately, some people had written books, and some of the bartenders had gone overseas, and you had bartenders who were in Europe and in Cuba and in South America who were continuing the craft. And this came back to the United States, and actually, I think over time has come to this moment where we're in a sort of, I guess, you know, not just a golden age of cocktails, but a platinum age of cocktails.
NNAMDIA classic cocktail renaissance. 800-433-8850. Are you trying for something new or old as the case may be when you order drinks? Do you prefer or do you prefer your old standbys? If so, what are they? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. We're talking with Derek Brown. He is a bartender and co-owner of The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington D.C. Derek is also a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild. He serves on the board of directors for the museum of the American Cocktail.
NNAMDIDerek, if you've been in or walked past a liquor store lately, you've noticed a proliferation of flavored vodkas, whipped cream, caramel, Swedish fish, even peanut butter and jelly. To what do you attribute this trend and how does it differ from the resurgence of classic well-crafted cocktails?
BROWNWell, I think it's -- unfortunately, it's pretty horrible. I hate to be so, you know, so negative, but the reality is that something like whipped cream vodka is the exact opposite of a well-made cocktail.
BROWNIt's based on some kind of, you know, nostalgic childhood flavors, and I've always said that any cocktail that suitable for children or pets is not a good cocktail.
NNAMDIHow about peanut butter and jelly?
BROWNI mean, I love peanut butter and jelly too. I think, you know, peanut butter and jelly...
NNAMDII can't imagine it in a cocktail.
BROWN...marshmallow, Swedish fish, all of these have their place, and they are delicious, and I wouldn't say something was bad just because it was extra delicious, but in these cases you're talking about flavor packets, you're talking about not authentic or real flavors, and it's just craft consumerism to be honest with you.
NNAMDIBut you've also been known to say that not everything traditional is necessarily good. It's my understanding that you and your team had a Parisian cocktail book with a recipe for a punch that called for calves' foot jelly.
BROWNRight. And so on one side you have, you know, these, you know, sort of like kiddy-flavored vodkas that are popping up, and then on the other side you have these classic cocktails, and it turns out that all of the classic cocktails are not necessarily great, and those processes that we use the make them might be redundant for if there's new processes that are easier to use. For instance, we made a punch that had calves' foot jelly in it.
BROWNWe got really excited about that. We were like, oh, let's try this out. And believe me, hunting down calves feet was not an easy task for a bartender. So we go and we find this, we make it, and we realize it's just gelatin. You know, in the end we could have just gotten Knox gelatin and be done with it, but it's nice to go through that process so we kind of understand what's great about these cocktails and what works and what is better use new methods.
NNAMDIHow often do you try cocktail recipes from oh, a century ago or decades ago and you say to yourself, you know, I know why they don't drink these anymore.
BROWNThat's right. Yeah. That's happened in quite a few cocktails that we sort of mix it up based on this old recipe that we found or unearthed and you say, you know what, this is just disgusting. It doesn't work. And sometimes it's because it wasn't a good cocktail, and sometimes it's because we don't have access to the exact same ingredients. You see something like champagne, which we think of as dry today...
BROWN...was historically sweeter. So it may be that the ingredients that we use today have changed.
NNAMDIBack -- onto the telephones now. We will start with Kara in Silver Spring, Md. Kara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARAHi, Kojo. First of all, just want to say that both I and my 13-year-old daughter love your show. She listens to it whenever she's not in school. And I just wanted to say that I've been a bartender at a Latin bar in D.C. for the past six years, but I really aspire to is to be an expert mixologist along the lines of a Derek Brown.
KARAAnd so I just wanted to know can you recommend any courses for me to take or any certification program that I can really raise my skill level and start to craft cocktails like you?
BROWNAbsolutely. First, it's important to know that there are so many great Latin American cocktails. And so if you work in a place that's themed around that, it's perfect, whether it's the classic margarita or a pisco punch or what have you. In terms of what you can do to learn more, there are lots of programs out there, training programs, and one in particular that's excellent, it's called the Beverage Alcohol Resource Program, and its taught by people like Dale DeGroff who is a mentor mine who really helped the resurgence of classic cocktails.
BROWNAnd if you find that program, it's actually kind of shortened called Bar Smarts. So you could find that. Dale DeGroff has a cocktail book called "The Craft of the Cocktail," which I think is very excellent, and fortunately there's all these great blogs online where you can fine people talking about classic cocktails and their method. I wrote for several years for The Atlantic, and if you go, I think on the Kojo website, you can actually see a link to some of the articles where I just talk about basic things like, you know, sweeteners or, you know, how to use different spirits and I think that that will be helpful.
BROWNHopefully, you can learn a little bit from that. And otherwise, just come down and have a drink with us.
NNAMDIYou can see that link, Kara, at our website as Derek indicated at kojoshow.org. Derek and I have been trying to get together so that he can teach me a few things about mixology, and we still have a date to do that, and make sure you tell your 13-year-old, that it will be at least eight years before she can start thinking about mixing cocktails. But Kara, thank you very much for your call.
KARAThank you. Bye bye.
BROWNThank you, Kara.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Keith in Silver Spring who says, "Let's get this straight. A martini in gin or vodka with or without vermouth, and an olive. It is not flavored, not colored, not adulterated in any way period." Correct?
BROWNThat is correct. And if I didn't have the headset on, I'd jump up cheering.
NNAMDIThank you very much for that email. To what lengths are bartenders and even home mixologists willing to go in order to get their hands on tough-to-find ingredients for a cocktail?
BROWNYeah. That's sort of the interesting thing is that you go back and you see these recipes and there's all these extinct, you know, sort of ingredients, stuff like Amer Picon, or some kind of celery bitters. And fortunately, we're seeing more of those products within market, but people are making their own products, and some people are bringing them back from overseas. So it's interesting that it's become this sort of like, you know, underground trade in betters and different kinds of vermouths and things that are hard to find or you have to make yourself.
NNAMDIOnto Chris in Falls Church, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISOh, thank you. Big fan of your show, Kojo.
CHRISI enjoy exotic drinks. You know, we used to go tiki bars when I was a little kid and so we'd look at the menus and stuff, and I just couldn't wait until I was old enough. But I found myself drinking a lot of rum-based drinks and it's hard to find those bartenders who are still around from that time. I know there's one out in Sterling at Chang's. This summer I traveled up to Massachusetts and I went looking for tiki bars for an old bartender up there to try something new, and I was pleasantly surprised, but it's hard it seems to find bartenders who know how to make a good mai tai or a zombie.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Derek?
BROWNYeah. That is very difficult. And the thing is, those recipes were so sort of bastardized over time to the point where you see them just being grenadine and syrupy and, you know, but I think that with this reclamation of sort of classic cocktails, you're seeing people going back to tiki cocktails because they're great...
NNAMDIYou have Tiki Tuesday at The Passenger, don't you?
BROWNThat's exactly right. Tiki Tuesdays at The Passenger, so you can come visit us for that. But it turns out that these great cocktails, you know, are classic. They are delicious, and they're fun, and that's the thing that's so great about cocktails is that you can experience history, you can have this great experience with them. It's serious in the sense it has a great context to it, but it's also fun and enjoyable.
NNAMDILet's talk about some of the spirits that -- and by the way, thank you for your call, Chris. Some of the spirits that seem to be enjoying or are on the verge of a comeback. Sherry has a kind of old-fashioned reputation or maybe closely associated with cooking more than it is with drinking. How are you and other bartenders giving sherry new life?
BROWNWell, yeah. Exactly. Sherry was the first wine to be brought to the new world. It was a staple in colonial America. It was integral in cocktails up through prohibition, and it even was popular up until the 1980s when it became sort of like Harvey's Bristol Cream and these like sweet sherries really overtook people's knowledge of sherry. And bartenders see -- they go back in the recipes and they see sherry, and they go well, what kind of sherry.
BROWNAnd it turns out that 90 percent of it is dry and very complex, and I've spent the last two years going to (word?) where sherry is made, and going to the different bodegas and learning what sherry is from the people who make it, and I can tell you it's one of the most beautiful and interesting and complex wines in the world. So people's vision of it is that their grandmother drank it, right? And I think that that's the bad rap that it's got, and hopefully us bartenders and us spirits educators can go out there and have people try it and reintroduce it to the United States.
NNAMDIOne European staple that you're excited about are aperitifs and degistifs. Tell us a little about how they're traditionally enjoyed.
BROWNRight. And that's a beautiful part of dining in general. You know, we -- I think as a culture we need to sit down and enjoy ourselves more often. I think sometimes we have such busy hurried lives that are very difficult, and it's important to sit down and enjoy oneself at a meal. And so an aperitif, pero, the word -- the Latin root means to open up. It begins a meal. And by having something like a nice aperitif like pinot (unintelligible) from cognac, or (word?) or even just a cocktail, it really starts and sets a new kind of way of drinking than what we're used to.
BROWNAnd we can carry that throughout the meal and have nice wines with it, and finish off with a digestif like fernet branca or something that helps us to, you know, relax.
NNAMDIWell, some people think you don't necessarily have to go that far away to find ingredients for your cocktail. Here is Laurence in Sterling, Va. Laurence, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAURENCEHi Kojo. Love the discussion today. One of the things that I was wondering if the speaker would talk about if he looked into some of the local distilled spirits and liquors in the northern Virginia area. One of my personal favorites is the Catoctin Creek out in Purcellville makes a fantastic gin with a rye base.
BROWNYeah. I love Catoctin Creek and I think they're doing great stuff, and furthermore, and now I'm being inclusive of the suburbs as well, is that I call Washington D.C. drink city, all right? It's full of some of the greatest cocktails, some of the greatest bartenders, and some of the greatest producers, and you have people like Catoctin Creek, and guess what? Now you have distillery in Washington D.C., the first legal distillery is Green Hat Gin.
BROWNSo I absolutely encourage people to spend time visiting these places, learning about it and seeing what local producers are doing because it's really special and it's something that is easier than getting a plane ticket to go...
NNAMDIAnd you know we had the Catoctin people on our show, was it this past June I think? This past December 7th of last year, Laurence, so you might want to go into our archives and check for that broadcast. We move on now to Carrie in Baltimore, Md. Carrie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARRIEHi. My father has always made a Manhattan with bianco vermouth.
CARRIEAnd it's like three-and-a-half parts of vermouth to five parts of whiskey, and I don't know anybody else who makes it like that, but everybody I have turned onto it has absolutely loved it. And it doesn't really matter what kind of whiskey it is. Have you ever tried one with bianco?
BROWNYou know what? I have, but not at that ratio, and not solely bianco. Sometimes I'll mix a bianco with a dry as well. But that sounds delicious. Honestly, if you get that -- the right bianco or blanc vermouth, it's really excellent. There's one that -- the original blanc vermouth or bianco vermouth comes from Chambery in France. It's called Dolin D-O-L-I-N. It's perfect, and I could see that -- in fact, maybe tonight I'll mix one up. That's great advice.
NNAMDICarrie, thank you very much for your call. You're inspiring Derek here. We move onto Gavin in Upper Marlboro, Md. Gavin, your turn.
GAVINHi, thanks. My girlfriend has family from Haiti and they apparently make this drink that is just called Cocktail.
GAVINAs far as we know, it's rum-based with lime juice, possibly sugar and bitters, and I was wondering if you had any more information on that.
BROWNWow, I don't. But that sounds like a great investigation. I think I'm off to Haiti soon.
NNAMDIWell, we went to Haiti in 2010, and I don't remember being offered anything that was just a cocktail. So maybe I need to go back and ask about that. Gavin, thank you very much for your call.
BROWNAnd I guess I will point out one other thing is that cocktail culture is one of the United States greatest contributions to the culinary world. And it's traveled everywhere. So when I went to Japan and I went to Tokyo, I could get a well-made Rickey there.
BROWNYou know, which is D.C.'s native cocktail.
BROWNIf I go to Cognac, they have a great cocktail bar there called Bar Luis, and they make classic American cocktails. And so all throughout the world you had this influence, and it continues to be there, and I think it's wonderful and hopefully this is part of that.
NNAMDIThank you, Gavin. Here now is Lance. Lance, your turn. Go ahead, please.
LANCEYes. I want to know does a mixed drink or cocktail taste differently after the first drink?
BROWNI think so. After the first three especially it tastes much better, but I think really what it is, is that once you're sort of saturating your palate, you definitely start to taste things differently, and that's maybe why there is an order classically to drinking throughout a meal. I've noticed that when I'm tasting, so that's why I often will, you know, if I'm just trying to analyze and taste a spirit, I will take two sips. The first sip is sort of wash out the last flavor, and the second sip is to really analyze and focus on the flavors of that particular spirit. But I think what you're saying is correct.
NNAMDIWe got email from Richard in Washington who says, "I love the movies from the 1930s such as 'The Thin Man.' Nick and Nora Charles always drink martinis, but from glasses much smaller than is common today. I certainly like the aquarium-on-a-stem martini glasses we get today, but when did that become common?"
BROWNYeah. And I think that that is one of the dangers of drinking today is that you can go in and have one drink and it's the equivalent of three drinks.
BROWNAnd that's a problem, because I think people need to know what they're drinking so that they can stay safe, and that they can understand what their consumption level is. So, the small cocktails of the past generally were at tops five ounces, you know. And that includes water as well. Remember, the original definition of a cocktail has water in it. So that's when you stir it with the ice. There's maybe an ounce, ounce-and-a half of water.
BROWNSo, you're talking about no more than one-and-a-half, two ounces of a base spirit, and that I think is very reasonable for a cocktail. If you're talking seven, eight ounces for a cocktail, then it's dangerous, at least in one sip.
NNAMDIOne of the details that seems to really matter in a cocktail though it may appear trivial is ice. Why is that so important?
BROWNWell, it's exactly what I said. The fact is that the cocktail contains water. That's how it becomes palatable and smooth. And so you're adding a great deal of water to it, and you have to, as a bartender, or home bartender, control the amount of water that you put into it, and understand that. So by using different types of ice, you can affect both the temperature, and you affect the level of water in it.
BROWNSo at the Columbia Room for instance, we do a certain percentage of our ice hand carved into large blocks, and that means that there's going to be less water on the surface of the ice when we mix with it.
NNAMDIIf I have the same cocktail, a martini, at The Passenger, would it taste exactly the same if I had it at the Columbia Room?
BROWNNot exactly the same. You see, my brother is the one who runs The Passenger primarily, and he does things a differently. Now, they're both great, if I don't say so myself, but I think that they are necessarily different, and people do enjoy different styles of cocktails and that's wonderful I think.
NNAMDIDerek Brown is bartender and co-owner of The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington D.C. He is also a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild and serves on the board of directors for the museum of the American Cocktail. Derek Brown, thank you for joining us.
BROWNThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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