We'll Drink to That: Pre-Prohibition cocktails
Long ago, before appletinis ruled the bar scene and Diet Coke was an acceptable mixer for a drink, the American cocktail was a product of perfected technique and carefully selected ingredients with as much character and originality as the bartender who mixed it. To learn the secret to mixing classic, pre-Prohibition-era cocktails, and to understand why they’re making a comeback in bars and restaurants after the heyday of the Cosmopolitan, I went to the experts: the knowing cocktail artisans of Vera Pizzeria on Lexington Avenue.
Vera’s a homey joint with lovely brick walls and cozy, romantic lighting, but it’s the bartenders that make the experience. Dapperly clad in ties and vests and as passionate about the art of mixing as they are skilled, these folks know a good cocktail.
“The only bad Sazeracs I’ve ever had were busy Sazeracs,” bartender Marshall Scheuttle explains as he mixes me my favorite drink, taking careful time with every step from tossing the cup in the air to coat it with absinthe to lovingly twisting a beautifully spiraled lemon peel around every part of the rim. Watching him work is a form of entertainment in itself. When I ask him for the secret to mixing the classics, he answers:
“Technique and simplicity.” The flawless, balanced, and wonderfully complex beverage before me is the result of this marriage, and though he’s made it just the way I like it—with Sazerac Rye whiskey and real absinthe rather than Herbsaint—it’s still unlike any other I’ve had.
I ask Scheuttle and bar manager Jon Karel for their favorite drink to make, and they have the same instant answer: the Manhattan. “They’re so simple that to get it right, to improve it, is to improve your technique or get nicer and nicer stuff to put in,” says Karel. “There’s something really Zen about it. You’ll never make the best one.”
Karel’s eyes light up when he talks about the pre-Prohibition palate. “They didn’t have things like Coca Cola Classic and Gatorade to over-saturate the palate,” he says. “Bitter wasn’t a bad flavor, just an identifiable flavor. To get in that mindset, the tastes, the smells, is the only way to time travel.”
Another unique aspect of pre-Prohibition drinks? Packing a serious wallop. “You have to showcase the spirit. Don’t hide the spirit,” Karel instructs, adding that such drinks require quality well liquor since the booze is front and center. He hands me his Manhattan, a powerhouse of a drink adorned with real cherries, not the bright candy-sweet monstrosities throwing most Manhattans out of whack. That’s a deliberate statement.
Karel says the principles of the movement toward food made from local, fresh ingredients have spurred the classic cocktail trend. He points out, “If a chef tried to pull what bartenders pull—a haphazard mix of cheap ingredients—they’d be outta here. I say, hold bartenders to the same standard.” The best well liquor, the best vermouth, the best cherries, the freshest ice made from filtered water––Karel explains that a fine drink is like a fine meal, made from the most flavorful ingredients and balancing the components perfectly. “There’s no limit to the combinations and how intense you can get tweaking a little more of this, a little less of that,” he says. “To me, that’s the crux of it.”
He hands me a house special, the Saint Germain, made not with St. Germaine liqueur but with green Chartreuse, grapefruit juice, and meringue. It’s like drinking a cloud, and with one sip I’m back in time. “When Prohibition happened, bartenders traveled to other countries to continue their trade, and they brought the world our cocktail culture,” he explains. “When you think about it, that’s our only uniquely American tradition, and that’s what we’re trying to bring back.”
220 Lexington Avenue, Buffalo; (716) 551-662
Julia Burke writes frequently for Spree about drinks and more.