Owen and Ben

Tasting History: Classes at America Eats Tavern Offer
Rare Insight Into America’s Cocktail History

Owen and Ben

In 1806, a reader asked a Hudson newspaper to define the word ‘cocktail’ – it was a new word and the reader wanted clarification. Thanks to this simple request, American etymologists and historians were given explicit evidence of the common definition of a cocktail at that time: spirit, water, sugar, and bitters. And thanks to the efforts of a group of dedicated archivists, cocktail enthusiasts, and local businessmen, the roots of American cocktails are making a comeback right here in D.C.

Within a block’s walk of the Archives Metro stop, America Eats Tavern sits on a demure street with mostly anonymous buildings. Except for the red, white, and blue adornment, America Eats Tavern would be just as anonymous; indeed, in the coming months, this pop-up brainchild of ThinkFoodGroup’s José Andrés and the Foundation for the National Archives, will be shutting down in search of a new location. This may sound ominous – ThinkFoodGroup and Andrés are famous for such D.C. fine-dining establishments as Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya, and minibar – but the move has been in the works for months. Thanks to the popularity of the restaurant, America Eats Tavern was extended to remain open from the original six months to exactly one year: July 4th, 2011 to July 4th, 2012.

The concept is so simple in the abstract and yet difficult in its execution: take original source recipes from American history and serve them to modern Americans without dishonoring the recipe’s integrity or completely throwing customers for a loop. The menu not only lists each item with a price, but also date references and a small paragraph detailing the creation of each item (including the Maine Lobster Roll, Jonnycakes with Vermont Maple Syrup, Eggs a la Benedick, and even the demure Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich). The menu itself provides a mini history lesson for the customer while deciding which kind of catsup they want with their meal (eight different flavors available, including gooseberry, mushroom, and oyster). The best part is that America Eats Tavern puts its money where its mouth is (literally). Skillet Cornbread with Virginia Bacon and Egg with Sorghum Syrup is fantastic, perfectly balancing savory and sweet, and the simple deconstructed Pecan Pie is both surprising in its presentation as well as surprisingly indulgent.

The adherence to historical precedence extends beyond the food menu. In the last few months, America Eats Tavern opened up its doors on five Saturday afternoons (once a month, February through June) to host cocktail classes. Limiting the class size to a mere 15 people, the classes are geared towards highlighting each of the base spirits (brandy, rum, whiskey, gin, as well as the nebulous “punch” category) within the context of America’s culinary experience with each spirit. Thanks to the team of America Eats, I was able to sit in on one of their final classes; the spirit of the day was whiskey.

If you have a chance to take a class on whiskey with Owen Thomson, Lead Bartender of ThinkFoodGroup, Ben Wiley, Head Bartender at America Eats Tavern, and the team at America Eats Tavern, don’t hesitate. (Top photo, Owen on left, Ben on right). Owen’s knowledge of whiskey, particularly bourbon, was evident throughout the three hour class as was his enthusiasm for this oft-avoided spirit. (After the class, I showed several friends the cocktail list – each time, I was amused by the nervous reactions people have to bourbon and rye-based cocktails). Owen’s knowledge was well complemented by Ben, whose own knowledge of spirits, bitters, and cocktail-making was impressive. According to Ben, “You know how they say the best way to know something about nothing is to write about it? It’s the same thing with these classes.” But from the start, it was impossible to imagine that either Owen or Ben knew little about whiskey prior to preparing for this class.

With that in mind, the second thing to point out about cocktail classes with Owen and Ben is that a history lesson will accompany any and all drinking. With whiskey it’s uniquely American history and one that we’ve heard in bits and pieces, driven first by the turbulent relationship of Britain and the colonies, the Whiskey Rebellion, and then the ongoing tense relationship between distillers and the American government. These first years defined how the world came to experience American whiskey. The creation of bourbon, not only as a product of Bourbon County but as a spirit; the “accidental” aging of whiskey due to prolonged shipping time to locations overseas, which forever changed consumption whiskey from “white” unaged whiskey to the “brown” aged version prevalent today; the introduction of charred barrels as an essential part of the process; the emergence of corn-based whiskey after other grain-based whiskeys; the official defining of bourbon so as to be distinct from all other whiskeys. The appearances of bitters and grenadine were, in their own right, defining aspects of the development of the classic American cocktail.

With a few of these facts in perspective, Owen and Ben smoothly led the class into the preparation of the first drink of the afternoon – a pillar of every summer garden party and an appropriate cocktail for the afternoon of the Kentucky Derby: the Mint Julep.

Mint Julep

2 ½ oz. Bourbon, ½ oz. Simple Syrup, 10-12 Mint Leaves

Lightly press mint leaves around a julep glass and toss out, fill with crushed ice and pour in bourbon and syrup. Garnish with mint sprig.

When asked if anyone present hadn’t had a Mint Julep before, one woman offered that she had, but didn’t believe it counted: it had been “frozen like a margarita and bright green.” The entire class shuddered in sympathy, and the woman was reassured by Owen and Ben that today, she would be tasting a real Mint Julep.

Common folk lore says that Mint Juleps were a “gentleman’s cocktail” for several reasons. The preparation of the cocktail itself was time consuming – both Owen (in photo above) and Ben were lightly bruising or ‘pressing’ mint leaves for approximately 15 minutes. Only the upper class would have the money and resources to pay someone else (i.e a servant) to prepare the drink – as Owen and Ben put it, “no one would spend this much time making a drink for themselves.” In addition, for a long time ice was a rare and expensive luxury – a fact brought up multiple times during the class. The use of fresh crushed ice (as opposed to ice cubes) in the Mint Julep was to allow the ice to melt slowly; as a sipping drink, the Julep was meant to be savored over time while being slightly diluted with water. Smaller ice cubes could serve the same purpose, when recreating this classic cocktail from home; since the cocktail was served in metal cups with metal straws, the crushed ice worked as advertised, melting ever so slowly. Historically, the Mint Julep and many other cocktails were considered “breakfast drinks” – after long nights of drinking pure, unadulterated spirits, in the morning it was appropriate to “mix the liquor” with bitters, sugar, and the like. It was no surprise that Americans were perceived as perpetual drunkards by Europeans.

The highlight of this first cocktail was the reading of J. Soule Smith’s own Mint Julep recipe from The mint julep, the very dream of drinks: from the old receipt of Soule Smith, down in Lexington, Ky. It is a recipe, but only in the most basic of interpretations – the slim book reads like an ode to spirits with innuendos aplenty: “the zenith of man’s pleasure” elicited more than a few giggles from listeners. Owen told us of Chris McMillian, a New Orleans landmark in his own right, who is legendary for his cocktail-making skills and especially for his spot-on recitation of Smith’s classic recipe. If you ever visit McMillian at Bar Uncommon in New Orleans, tell him you’ve never had a Mint Julep and you’ll get the rare honor of listening to his rendition of Smith’s recipe while he mixes the signature cocktail. While Ben prepared our cocktails, Owen read the recipe to the entire class. A mixture of recipe, humor, and poetry, it completely set the lighthearted mood for the entire afternoon.

As the first cocktail served to the class, the expectation would usually be that it ease everyone into the more complex and less diluted drinks to come. However, I applaud the decision by Owen and Ben to start the class off with a bang: the Mint Julep is an easily recognized cocktail that is not often served outside of the context of the Kentucky Derby, Southern garden parties, or occasions that warrant seersucker pants. The Julep was as advertised: bourbon outperformed the simple syrup and the mint faded subtly to the background. In fact, some Mint Julep recipes exclude mint except in the garnishing. In all, the Julep was well complemented by the crushed ice that slowly melted through this first course – perfect for sipping as we watched and listened to the preparation of our next drink.

Old Fashioned

2 oz. Bourbon or Rye, ¼ oz. Simple Syrup, 3 dashes Angostura

Combine in rocks glass, add ice, and stir. Garnish with an orange peel (bourbon) or lemon peel (rye).

The Old Fashioned whipped up by Owen and Ben was, according to them, “not the fruit salad version of the 1980s.” Taking a few minutes to lament the devolution of the classic drink, Owen offered his perspective on the Old Fashioned: it is the “quintessential definition of a cocktail,” and the “old-fashioned cocktail” that he envisioned cranky old men asking for at the bar when faced with unwanted, watered down, overly complex drinks. “It’s that old school drink.” Along with the Mint Julep, the Old Fashioned serves as a good bellwether drink for any new bar; if the bartender can serve a proper Old Fashioned, you can trust that she or he can mix up any other cocktail you might request.

Following on the heels of the crushed ice discussion with the Mint Julep, with an Old Fashioned a large chunk of ice is the best approach. In a time when iceboxes were the norm, hacking off a chunk for serving with cocktails wouldn’t been difficult. Since watering down the drink is not the objective with the Old Fashioned as it was with the Mint Julep, getting a few larger cube ice trays isn’t a bad idea for the whiskey enthusiast. One attendee asked about whiskey stones, the small soapstone cubes that can be stored in the freezer and used as substitute “ice cubes” without the ramifications of dilution. Beyond personal preference (and whiskey is all about personal preference), whiskey stones are not recommended by Owen and Ben: most classic cocktail recipes require the introduction of ice/water, so using whiskey stones defeats the purpose.

In addition, the recipe used by Owen and Ben called for simple syrup and bitters; alternative recipes might substitute a sugar cube that has been soaked in bitters instead, but fully dissolving sugar in a glass with ice is a challenge for any bartender. Part of the afternoon’s discussion included the elusive subject of bitters – which ones are best, what basic kinds or brands should be stocked by the home bartender, and where to locate the rare bitters often called for in classic cocktails. Owen and Ben’s advice: don’t be afraid to buy bitters or experiment with bitters. For locating some of the obscure bitters, they recommended an excellent online store, The Meadow. According to them, their general rule is to stock the bar with ten times as much bitters as vodka. “Not flavored vodkas, though,” quipped Ben.

When our Old Fashioned cocktails were placed down in front of us, I was pleasantly surprised. With such a simple recipe (three ingredients), this cocktail was incredibly fresh and sweet. The lemon peel garnish added a touch of citrus to balance out the rye, while also creating balance in the presentation. Having never ventured into the Old Fashioned world of cocktails, I am now a convert. Cranky old men and I have something in common, I suppose.

(In my own little version of Owen’s bellwether experiment, I ordered an Old Fashioned at the bar I currently frequent about once a week. When a maraschino cherry and an orange slice made their way into the glass and were beaten into a bright red pulp right in front of me, I fully accepted that once you’ve tasted the real thing you can’t go back.)

The Manhattan

2 oz. Rye or Bourbon, 1 oz. Sweet Vermouth, 2 dashes Angostura

Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

In describing their approach to the Manhattan, Owen reiterated the historical focus of America Eats: “Our goal was to find the most original interpretation of the recipe, and not screw it up.” The Manhattan is such a classic that most have tried it at least once, even if it’s to decide they hate it. Owen cited the Manhattan as another example of a “test” drink for a new bar; if he can’t get a read off of the bar, he’ll order a Manhattan and watch the bartender closely.

The most in-depth conversation I’ve ever heard about vermouth, in my entire life, started up when an offhand comment was made about vermouth’s integral role in the proper execution of a Manhattan. Not only do Manhattans come in several flavors (depending on if sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, or a mixture of both are used), but the type of vermouth can alter the recipe. According to Owen, during his time at Bourbon, they developed seven different recipes for Manhattans – each one based on which vermouth was being used. Recommended vermouths according to Owen and Ben: Carpano for its quality and strength of flavor (which can also be a negative, if improperly mixed), as well as Dolan for its mildness and smoothness (the house vermouth for America Eats Tavern, for this exact reason).

Also, to the considerable dismay of more than a few attendees (myself included), vermouth goes bad! Once opened, dry vermouth has a shelf life of approximately three days while sweet vermouth will last about a week. Refrigeration will help extend the life of that 750ml bottle sitting in your liquor cabinet, but Owen and Ben pointed out that unless you are using vermouth in large quantities (like at America Eats Tavern) the best way to satisfy your martini craving without breaking the bank is to purchase the mini bottles of vermouth commonly available at stores. In addition, since vermouth is a fortified wine, it is appropriate for sipping on its own – if you find yourself in possession of a half bottle after that big party, try it.

But back to the Manhattan. A classic stirred cocktail (never, ever to be shaken), it should be silky smooth on the tongue. Our cocktails were almost darkly sweet, with strong bourbon flavors accompanied with a hint of bitters and cherry. Without the extra air from shaking in a cocktail shaker, these Manhattans were easy sipping drinks and an excellent third course. The presentation in a vintage-style champagne glass was pure perfection, with the homemade cherry as garnish. If the class took nothing else away from this cocktail, it was the homemade brandied cherry floating blissfully at the bottom of each glass. Homemade by Owen once a year (“everyone seems to find something else to do that day”), he pits between 12-15 flats of cherries, mixes them with baking spices, and cans them with a mixture of alcohol. These homemade beauties put bright red maraschino cherries to shame, and it might be enough to inspire any industrious home bartender to learn the art of canning.

Ward 8

2 oz. Rye Whiskey, ¾ oz. Lemon, ¾ oz. Orange, ¼ oz. Grenadine

Shake and strain over ice. Garnish with cherry.

The one cocktail of the afternoon that I was not familiar with, the Ward 8, was probably the most surprising. Not only is there a folk story behind the Ward 8, but the cocktail itself stood apart from the rest of the class’s lineup of nose-filling whiskey concoctions. The folk tale behind the cocktail: Martin Lomasney, a Boston politician in the 1890s, was running for a spot on the Massachusetts General Court. He requested a special cocktail for his victory party and named it in honor of Ward 8, the district that clinched his victory – even though the victory party was held the night before the election. Of course, this is one story behind the cocktail, which our intrepid (and certainly hardworking) teachers were in the midst of preparing and serving up as the class wound down.

The most distinctive feature of the Ward 8 wasn’t just that it had a citrus base – slightly sour, but still bright from fresh lemon juice and sweet thanks fresh orange juice – but with the addition of a little bit of grenadine it was a pleasant shade of pale coral. It was an unlikely color for a cocktail that successfully hides 2 oz. of rye below the surface. The only shaken cocktail, there was a pleasant frothiness in each glass and it had a lighter mouthfeel. I had trouble reconciling the folk lore of Martin Lomasney, hardhitting Boston politician, with this (frankly) pink cocktail. It seems more appropriate as a party cocktail for summer nights, not for backroom political dealings. As a completely new cocktail, I am looking forward to introducing it to my whiskey-drinking friends – an attitude that I’m sure Owen and Ben would enjoy hearing from all their attendees.

The danger of walking into any cocktail class is the expectation: as an attendee, will you be preparing cocktails yourself, watching and listening while others prepare cocktails, or merely chatting with neighbors while you are served specially made cocktails? Luckily, the team at America Eats Tavern put their own spin on the classic cocktail class; while staying true to the tradition of demonstrating proper cocktail-making technique, both Owen and Ben entered the class well prepared to present and discuss the back-stories of whiskey, rye, and especially bourbon in the context of American history. To replicate the entire class in mere words would be a disservice to the experience Owen and Ben created for us. One can only hope that America Eats Tavern will not only find a new location after July 4th, but also the insightful leadership team of ThinkFoodGroup and America Eats Tavern will offer these cocktail classes again and again and again.

Useful links:

America Eats Tavern

ThinkFoodGroup

Bar UnCommon in New Orleans

The Meadow

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