You've heard them before. "Shaken, not stirred." "Straight up or on the rocks?" "Make mine a double." "Cocktail crowd." "Cocktail hour." "Cocktail nation."
But what about "cocktail revolution?" It started back in the '90s. America had just wandered its way through the '70s and '80s, an era of Fern Bars and sickly-sweet drinks that did more to dissuade serious imbibers than Prohibition half a decade earlier. Generation X was finding its footing, and a little innovation called the Internet was starting to make people rich. Suddenly, leisure suits and Mai Tais, leg warmers and Jell-O shots didn't seem like the hip way to spend an evening. But sitting at a bar holding a transparent drink called the Martini conveyed distinction. It was sophisticated, worldly, retro, pop-culturally relevant and perhaps most importantly, extremely good.
Before long, old Esquival recordings and new bands like Combustible Edison were helping to establish a scene, with its aesthetic firmly rooted in a time almost a century earlier. A time referred to as "The Golden Age of American Drinking."
Paul Harrington knows a lot about this era. While the name itself comes from writer H. L. Menken, there are those in the know who would credit Harrington with firmly establishing the vanguard that would bring the spirit of the era back. His initial battlefield was San Francisco, where he worked his way up from waiter to bartender, lured by a conviction that there must be some purpose to those bottles behind the bar other than lending atmosphere. Before long, a group of writers had discovered his bar, and the drinks that he was building. Some talks with them, and Wired's cocktail Web site (www.cocktailtime.com) was born. Alongside writer Laura Moorhead, Harrington presided over the pages as "The Alchemist," delivering meticulously researched and scrupulously pure instructions for the maturation of the still-young cocktail nation.
Soon, the site had more than 60,000 visitors each month — phenomenal even in our current era of Internet excess. After that, Harrington's resume became a cultural guide to the late-20th century. Microsoft flew him in to make Hemingway Daiquiris for their executives (the drinks are made with fresh grapefruit juice). The band Combustible Edison had him perfect their namesake cocktail. Rolling Stone and Playboy called him for drinking advice.
The success led Harrington to co-author a book with Moorhead, called Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century. Maintaining the tradition of devoting space only to pure cocktails, the book ignored drinks with names like the Long Slow Screw or the Slippery Nipple. What it did provide was a comprehensive look at what makes the cocktail an essential part of dining. When it was published in 1998, Cocktail woke up an entire generation to the role that a mixed drink could play in civilized society. The book went on to become the first and only book devoted to spirits to receive a nomination for a James Beard Award — the Oscars of cookbooks. Critics compared it to Julia Child's pioneering work on behalf of French cooking, and its effects continue to be seen in magazines such as Food and Wine and Esquire.
Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print. But the Web site still exists, with even more recipes and mixing advice. That's how I got in touch with Harrington and discovered that he had retired from bartending, and was working as an architect in Spokane.
"Constructing buildings and mixing drinks are very similar, actually," notes Harrington, who is surprisingly only in his early 30s. "They both are built keeping in mind aesthetics, proportions, how materials work together and ultimately serving the client's needs within a given context. It's definitely an art."
That became evident when Harrington joined me for several jaunts around downtown Spokane to take the local cocktail scene's temperature. We started our first evening at Europa, on a crowded Saturday. Squeezed at the end of the bar, I ordered an Old Fashioned, and Harrington opted for a Maker's Mark Manhattan. He watched the bartender, but seemed more interested in the offerings behind the counter.
"One of James Bond's rules is to always see the label," he told me. "He would like this. There appears to be a nice selection of scotch and cognac, but I like to see the glassware before ordering. A cocktail, or any beverage for that matter should really be served in the right glass, and if I don't see the glass that I need when I go into a bar, I don't order the drink. On par with the rest of the world, they have a 'Martini Menu' that's filled with cocktails, not Martinis. There are only a couple of actual Martinis here. The misuse of the moniker 'Martini' applied to anything made in a shaker definitely shows that my influence did not reach the masses. Most listings on a Martini Menu can be compared to listing a chocolate milkshake under 'Omelets' on a breakfast menu. Completely out of place and inappropriate."
Our cocktails arrived seeming a little rushed, which was not surprising given the crowd. Mine, sadly, tasted more like watered-down orange juice. Harrington took a sip and nodded his head. "With every cocktail, you should be able to taste the alcohol. It's only appropriate, since the Manhattan requires little else; this is satisfactory."
But eventually the crowd became too much, and we noted that the cozy seating and late hours, combined with the scotches, made it more of a late evening stop.
Next was the Cavallino Lounge. Choosing from yet another "Martini List," I ordered a Negroni — a slightly bitter, perfumed drink of Italian origin that's brilliantly red. It arrived looking like blush wine. Harrington seemed concerned that it was missing the promised orange twist. "A garnish is an essential part of the drink. Take the olive out of a Martini, put in an onion, and it's a Gibson — an entirely different cocktail. A black olive makes it a Buckeye. The proper garnish for a drink is like a well-chosen hat — it complements everything, and adds the finishing touch. A bartender can really set themselves apart with unique garnishes."
Even more distressing was his Martini, which was slightly milky. "A Martini is supposed to be a perfectly clear drink. That's part of its allure." We watched the bartender for a while, and discovered the problem. After mixing a creamy brown drink, he simply squirted some water into his cocktail shaker, swirled it around, and poured it out. Cleaning finished. "I have a feeling that my Martini cleaned his shaker out after one of those. That's bad. Typically you would have two or three shakers set up so that each type of cocktail would have its own shaker to avoid contamination."
A moment later, Harrington's eyebrows lifted. "The bartender was pouring two drinks that looked like Martinis. The two proportions were not quite equal, so to remedy the situation, he topped one off with gin straight from the bottle. I consider that a bartending sin and another ruined cocktail."
On the good side, the place had atmosphere. A vase with a fish swimming in it sat at our table while the bartenders flipped the shakers behind their backs, and swanky people came in and out. "This place has so much potential. It's obvious that the bartenders care about their appearances; it's too bad that they really aren't concerned with making good drinks," Harrington noted as we left.
To lift our spirits, we took the elevators to the top of the Ridpath, and settled into a dim booth at Ankeny's. A vocalist was singing, Spokane twinkled below us, and our hopes were rekindled. Our waitress, when asked what was popular, with a straight face said Sex on the Beach, Alabama Slammer and a few other unmentionable libations. I decided to order another Negroni. Harrington, bolstered by the experienced look of the bartender, asked if they had any cucumber slices to make a Pimm's Cup. She darted away, and came back shaking her head. He settled for a Cosmopolitan due to the bartender's comfort level with it. "A good initial test of a bartender's skill is to let them make you something they know well or enjoy making. This removes any excuses they may have for making a poor drink."
The drinks arrived, and his eyes lit up after the first sip. "He used Chambourd in this drink. The fact that he did that, even though it isn't necessary, shows that he thinks about his craft. This is definitely the type of place that I would return to when in the proper mood for black granite, city lights and plenty of mirrors. The only negative may be the smoking." It was also the least expensive, and we got a great view and complimentary entertainment.
We started our next evening out at Steam Plant Square, this time with guests along. Harrington was especially interested in the freshly squeezed juices the place promised to use, and indeed there was a bowl of lemons and limes sitting on the bar, with a showy juicer in the back. This time we made our selections from a genuine cocktail menu.
Amy liked her Cosmopolitan, which came with a piece of heart-shaped lemon peel floating in it. I ordered a Rum Collins, which was more reminiscent of 7-Up than any mood-altering substance. Harrington again tried giving the recipe for the Jasmine, and Marta requested a Margarita. The Margarita, when it arrived, was really just tequila, a lime and some Rose's Lime Juice. Harrington sampled it. "It's more like a Tequila Gimlet, which is not a bad drink. It's just not a Margarita." His Jasmine — a drink he created — called for fresh lemon juice, and the bartender wasn't anywhere near the fancy fruit bowl or the juicer. Instead he was busy squeezing lemon wedges from his garnish tray, which Harrington observed, "probably has enough lemon wedges to last a few weeks." Squeezed juices, yes; fresh, not quite.
Uncertain where to sample next, we wandered the cold streets, passed several crowded pubs, and found ourselves outside of Luigi's, one block south of the Opera House. The bar was silent, almost empty as we entered, but the bartender greeted us, and before too long, we were feeling comfortable. Harrington asked what he would recommend, and the bartender, who introduced himself as Pauly, said that he made a mean Martini.
This was serious talk. Harrington describes the Martini as "a fragile drink -- I wouldn't order it from just anyone." Nevertheless, he took the offer, requesting that the glass be rinsed with Pernod. Pauly skillfully performed the task, and Harrington tasted the finished cocktail. "That is a very good Martini." He passed it over to me, adding, "it's shaken, but you'll just have to get over it."
Harrington explains the shaken versus stirred debate quickly. "Clear drinks should be stirred, everything else shaken. The reason to stir is not because it bruises the gin — that's a myth — but because shaking clouds the drink slightly. And with something like a Martini, clarity is part of the cocktail." (Devoted to perfection, he had once used a thermometer to show how the proper method of mixing can change the temperature of the finished cocktail by as much as 20 degrees.)
Marta continued her streak of not getting what she ordered by requesting a Sidecar and winding up with what Harrington classified as "a Quasi-Rita-Kazi-Sidecar-Thing." Amy took his advice and ordered the eye-opening Peppar Kamikaze. Looking for an appropriate garnish, Pauly mentioned that they had large capers, which no one had heard of, and we all had to try. Harrington's suggestion: order a Martini at Luigi's and request a caper instead of an olive. We christened it the Pauly.
I stuck with tradition, and in moments, my Negroni had arrived. It was perfect; Harrington agreed. "How much better can it get?" he asked. "A Negroni from a guy named Pauly in a place called Luigi's. The bar is nice; they have enough amber bottles to buffer the 18 vodkas, and he has the right soul for this job. When we ordered and he was unsure of the recipe, he brought up how he was thinking of the drink and let us fill in the blanks. His ego didn't get in the way, and as a result all of these drinks are incredible. Plus you can order food after midnight."
We decided that our final stop in the downtown tour would be Quinn's. Kevin, the bartender, took Harrington's order for a Boodles Martini, and it arrived — stirred.
In much the same way that a well-composed soundtrack adds immeasurably to a great moment in film, here was the vermouth, underscoring the ice-cold gin, giving it a stage to stand upon. It was a crystal-clear revelation to me; Harrington, after a well-satisfied "Ahh," declared it to be "a great Martini." Of course, the plastic pink cocktail sword didn't contribute greatly to the overall effect, but once the olive was dispatched, this minor point was forgotten.
Emboldened by the success of the Martini, and enjoying the swanky atmosphere of the place, Harrington requested the Jasmine. Even without a hand juicer for the lemon, the fruit was fresh, and after tasting the finished drink, Harrington paused. "That," he said, "is a perfect Jasmine."
Sheri, taking his advice, ordered one for herself. "That's wonderful!" was the reaction. Sheri, who generally takes gin only in the presence of tonic, expressed pleasant surprise upon being informed that the cocktail is mixed primarily with the spirit.
"Drinks made with gin are definitely greater artistic feats. I think it would be great if Spokane became known as a city that enjoys great cocktails, and that means mixing with gin. It may be a leap of faith for many to try gin, but there are enough drinks out there that can be mixed with gin that will appeal to even the most loyal vodka fan. In Seattle, they may settle for vodka in a fancy bottle; Spokane should aim higher than that."
Stepping behind the bar to pose for pictures, Harrington demonstrated the mixing technique for his signature drink, the Mojito. Made with mint (that we brought ourselves), this effervescent, rum-based cocktail was the perfect way to close our exploration of Spokane's downtown cocktail scene. Almost by habit, Harrington began tidying the bar, a smile on his face.
"Currently, I would rank Spokane as a city with above average bars. If you went to the same number of establishments in any major U.S. city, you would be lucky to find as many good bartenders as we found. Until one bar takes the lead and serves spirits with the same professional manner that food is, individuals will need to educate their favorite bartender and challenge them to evolve. People like Pauly and Kevin have the abilities and desire to make great drinks, now they just need the audience to play to."
Drinks for the new millennium
Pink in color, and reminiscent of grapefruit juice, the Jasmine may be the next logical step for anyone ready to graduate from the ever-present Cosmopolitan, and the perfect drink to order when Pink Martini swings through town again next year. After taking a sip of it at Quinn's, the drink's designer sat back and declared that Kevin, the bartender, had given him "a perfect Jasmine."
Pour 1 1/2 ounces of gin into a shaker with a 1/2 ounce each of Cointreau and Campari; add the juice of half a lemon, add ice and shake vigorously for five seconds. Strain it into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a twist of lemon.
This is Harrington's signature drink, which first helped enliven the cocktail scene in San Francisco. While we didn't find any local bars that kept fresh mint on hand, it's the perfect drink to make for yourself in the summer on a trip to "the lake."
In a 16-ounce glass, place a small handful of fresh mint, one or two tablespoons of sugar (Sugar in the Raw, or some such version of turbinado sugar works best), and a splash of water. Take a small rounded stick, like a wooden pestle, called a muddler, and press the sugar and water against the mint and the sides of the glass until it smells like spearmint gum. Add two to four ounces of white rum, the juice of a whole lime and half of the lime's hull to the glass. Stir it up, add ice and top with soda water. One quick stir, and garnish it with a mint sprig.
Do yourself a favor this St. Patrick's Day and bypass the green beer in favor of this Irish cocktail. It's so simple you can almost mix it yourself at your table. One bottle of Guinness stout, and one-half bottle of sparkling wine (champagne will work, and several bars in the area keep half-bottles around), along with four flute glasses and lemon twists, are all that are needed.
Pour the stout into the flutes until they are about half full, with the glasses tilted so that you don't create a large head on the beer. Top them with sparkling wine; the bubbles will do the mixing. Garnish with the twists.
More of a warm-weather Manhattan, this drink is based on the ever-popular bourbon. Pick your favorite brand, and pour two ounces into a mixing glass over ice. Add a dash of Benedictine, and a dash of Angostura Bitters. Stir it well. (The ice should move faster than the liquid, and each piece should make at least one trip from the top to the bottom of the glass.)
Strain it into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon twist. "Drink it quickly," Harrington advises, quoting London bartender Harry Craddock, "while it's laughing at you."