Sip, perchance, from the serious cocktail menu

Posted: January 19, 2012

THE cocktail menu is now taken as a given, almost an article of faith. If you go to anyplace with a liquor license and any sort of ambition above that of Bud Lights or Jagermeister shots, there's probably going to be one, usually with drinks costing in the double digits.

Go back only a decade or two, and you found very few places with cocktail menus. Just about the only places that had specialty cocktail menus were places like Chili's, Applebee's or other chains, with their cloying Mudslides and Appletinis and Cosmopolitans and gigantic Day-Glo Margaritas.

But the exploding upscale cocktail trend of the past five years has spawned a whole new tribe of cocktail geeks who insist on menus full of authentic, obscure and/or housemade ingredients, with inventive and clever drinks that still show an understanding of the classics.

I'm a member of this cocktail-geek tribe who's written a book on the topic, so I probably think more about drinks than most people. Still, even to me, the cocktail menu remains a very strange thing indeed. A cocktail menu is more about an experience, or a conversation, than just about what's being served. Two experiences over the past few weeks illustrate just what we're paying for when we order from a cocktail menu.

First, a friend of mine found herself at a T.G.I. Friday's during happy hour, perusing the cocktail menu. On it, she saw a drink called the Hemingway Daiquiri. And she was a little surprised to find the following description of this Hemingway Daiquiri: "X-Rated Liqueur, Skyy Infusions Citrus Vodka, ruby red syrup, and fresh lemon and lime juice. Made in the classic fashion: on crushed ice with the essence of grapefruit. Just as Ernest Hemingway drank it."

Now, my friend is enough of a cocktail aficionado to know that the Hemingway Daiquiri is a classic that the real, nonfictional Hemingway actually drank at El Floridita bar in pre-Fidel Castro Havana. It originally was made with a mix of fresh lime and grapefruit juices, a little bit of maraschino liqueur, and rum.

Yes, rum. Not flavored vodka. And I'm guessing if you'd tried to serve Hemingway something called X-Rated Fusion Liqueur ("a sensuous blend of ultrapremium French vodka and rich blood oranges, mingling with mangos and passion fruit"), you probably would've been punched in the face.

Anyway, my friend took a photo of the cocktail menu and Tweeted it, saying, "That is a bold-faced lie T.G.I. Friday's." Within minutes, the world's cocktail geek community on Twitter became enraged, denouncing T.G.I. Friday's. One suggested that T.G.I. Friday's cocktail menu - which included other travesties such as the Mudslide Martini, the German Chocolate Cake Sipper, and the Horny Agave 'Rita - must have been the work of "a war criminal."

Unsurprisingly, T.G.I. Friday's had no response and, as far as I know, their flair bartenders will still serve you as many vodka-based Hemingway Daiquiris as you can stomach.

I think, however, that the anger over the Hemingway Daiquiri illustrates the growing expectations and scrutiny that cocktail menus are beginning to receive - and why not? You might be paying more than $12 for a cocktail these days, so it'd better deliver some kind of worthwhile experience.

I was still thinking about T.G.I. Friday's cocktail menu this past week when I saw fanfare over the new winter cocktail menus at two of Philadelphia's premier cocktail joints, the Farmers' Cabinet and Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.

The local blogs have been abuzz over bartender Phoebe Esmon's Shakespeare-inspired list of eight original cocktails at Farmers' Cabinet, all $13, and all named after the Bard's verses ("Now is the winter of our discontent"). Two days later, I received a press release about the Franklin's new 30-drink winter menu (ranging from $12 to $15), touting it as "the most distinctive to date."

I tasted a decent portion of these two cocktail menus the other night. So what's hot? Well, rum, I'd say. It figured in 11 of the Franklin's 30 new cocktails. In particular, the Guyanese El Dorado brand rum has become the local mixologists' darling. Blanc (or "white") vermouth - significantly different flavor profile than dry or sweet vermouth - also is being used in interesting ways.

Some favorites were Esmon's Embark-ed Traveler (with gin, Damson plum liqueur, blanc vermouth, chardonnay eau de vie, and ginger and cardamom tincture) and A Two-Fold Operation (with genever, Calvados, Benedictine, sherry and bitters). On the Franklin's menu, I loved the Casino Soul (aged rum, Cynar and blanc vermouth) and Always Crashing the Same Car (apple brandy, Bonal, Chartreuse and bitters).

About the Franklin's new menu, bar manager Al Sotack is quoted as saying, "The menu, like all our menus, represents my curating the submissions of the staff."

Shakespeare? Curating? Ahem. Well, OK. There may be a point where the cocktail menu potentially veers toward preciousness. But I'll take that over a crappy, sugary fake Hemingway Daiquiri any day.


Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.

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