Greg Boehm on Classic Cocktails in the Time of COVID - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Greg Boehm on Classic Cocktails in the Time of COVID

Greg Boehm has long had an eagle’s eye on what’s happening in the cocktail world. As the owner of barware company Cocktail Kingdom and New York bars including Katana Kitten, Boilermaker, The Cabinet and Mace (plus the now-shuttered Existing Conditions), Boehm stores a library’s worth of insight into what’s happening in the bar world at any given moment. With many of his bars open for service at limited capacity and running take-out service right now due to COVID-19, we caught up with Boehm to get his perspective on the what classic cocktails have to offer during difficult times and what under-the-radar recipes he suggests digging into if you’re mixing drinks at home.

Paul Clarke: Before there was Cocktail Kingdom, there was Mud Puddle Books. And you were reprinting some of the formative books in cocktail history. How have classic cocktails formed the basis for what we now see in the cocktail renaissance? Greg Boehm: You have to know the rules to break them, and classic cocktails led the way for that. For me, classics laid the foundation [for modern inventions] and created an understanding of balance in cocktails. Now modern bartenders have so many different kinds of base spirits and modifiers available, so they have an incredible opportunity to create new things, but the classic books are a great place to start because they use just a few basic ingredients.

There is a familiar aspect to many of these drinks now—they’re kind of like liquid comfort food. Do you agree? On a personal level, for me an Old Fashioned is a comfort drink, and during these unusual times, I’m working insane hours and harder than I have in 15 years, so at the end of the day my off switch is having an Old Fashioned. These are flavors we know and understand. When we’re not always guessing what we’re drinking, that is comforting.

A lot of people are looking for that comfort and familiarity right now. Something they can make in their kitchen or home bar. What kinds of essential classics can people easily turn to right now? There are so many variations on gin cocktails that are refreshing, like a gin fizz or silver fizz where you add egg white, but there’s an unusual one I like to pull out: the Bronx cocktail. It was a famous cocktail that really had its moment in the sun. Unfortunately the way it’s commonly served now is awful. People put orange juice in it—I’m not a fan of orange juice in my cocktails at all—but the original is from World’ Drinks and How to Mix Them by William T. Boothby in 1908. Or rather, the book was published in 1908, but he has another section in the back called Seductive American Cocktails in 1915, where he mentions this version of the Bronx. Instead of orange juice, it’s done Caipirinha-style, so you segment an orange and muddle it, so you get the oils from the skin and then add the same three ingredients, which are gin, sweet vermouth and dry vermouth. When done correctly, it’s really refreshing.

Once you start getting off of the familiar stuff, what are some of the more unexpected classics worth digging into? In our Cocktail Kingdom library we have over 3,000 cocktail books. I did an analysis to see which were the most common cocktails that appeared in the most books, and one of them that was incredibly popular was the Pineapple Julep. The Mint Julep was also very popular, but the Pineapple Julep appears in most classic cocktail books. I would love to see that come back.

How is it so different than what people might think of as a Julep? On page 217 of The Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide from 1905, a great book, it calls for the juice of two oranges, one gill of raspberry syrup, a gill of maraschino, one gill of Old Tom gin, and one quart of sparkling mozelle, plus one ripe pineapple, peeled, sliced, and cut up. Put all the materials in a glass bowl with shaved ice, serve in cocktail glasses and ornament with berries in season. It does make me wonder what their pineapples were like back then; From traveling now, we know a pineapple you get in a market in Hawaii is very different from one you’d get in a supermarket in New York. But yeah it’s one of those drinks that I’d like to see if it’s still popular today.

With the COVID-19 crisis still having a tremendous impact on bars and restaurants and their ability to function, depending on where you live some places are open for take-out, others in limited capacity, and others still not open at all. As a bar owner yourself, does the return of classic cocktails make sense from a cost perspective or the ease and simplicity for people to take drinks home? Classic cocktails are actually a bit difficult for delivery and to-go. A lot of classics are quite small and boozy and don’t lend themselves to this new culture. There is a lot of ceremony around classic cocktails that could be lost, too. Tiki cocktails are similar as they were often made behind closed doors—you didn’t see the bartender making your drinks because it was all about the presentation. I think there are some adaptations of those that might work if you think of tiki as classic cocktails, but in terms of the old classics like the Bamboo, Bijou, and Martinis for that matter, those might all be a little difficult to pull off right.

A lot of bars here in Seattle are doing things like Negronis and Martinis—they’re pre-diluted and pre-chilled, so you stick them in your freezer and pour them into a glass. There’s another place selling Lion’s Tails, batched in 375 mL, and you just shake it with ice when you get home. If you take a 20th Century Cocktail, with Lillet Blanc, creme de cacao and lemon juice, something like that could work well. We’re also seeing this cool thing where bars that are doing cocktail delivery are buying barware from us and selling that to customers so they have a basic shaker for when they bring the cocktail home with them.

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