A cocktail revival

SIPS

Sips

January 07, 2004|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Looking ahead to cocktail trends for 2004, Dale DeGroff sees a rosy picture. "It's all good," he says.

"There's never been a more exciting time in the cocktail business since cocktails were invented in the 19th century."

DeGroff should know. He began bartending three decades ago, back during the Dark Ages for the classic cocktail, a time when mixes, artificial ingredients and uneven supplies of specialty liqueurs and other drinks took the fun out of mixology.

Then in the mid-1980s, after working at the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles and other luxurious drinking spots, he was asked by the legendary New York restaurateur Joseph Baum to re-create a classic bar with elegant, old-fashioned cocktails made with fresh ingredients.

By 1987, after much research and experimentation, he had developed the classic bar approach for the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. It marked, he says, "sort of the beginning of the return of the classic cocktail after 15 years of neglect."

Purists may sniff that this "return" involves some pretty weird versions of "classic cocktails" - just watch the reaction of a connoisseur of the classic gin-and-vermouth martini to one of the new-flavored vodka concoctions that goes by the same name.

But that doesn't bother DeGroff, who appreciates classic drinks as much as anybody. The flavored martini is not a bad thing, he says. In fact, it demands creativity, and that can help keep talented mixologists interested in the bartending business.

And that's important, he says, because in many ways the public's expectations are ahead of the industry's ability to meet them. As Americans have become more sophisticated in their appreciation of food, their standards for beverages are higher as well.

"They don't want a margarita out of a bottle," DeGroff says. "They want fresh lime juice, good tequila and real Cointreau."

Even so, restaurants spend far more time schooling their staff in wine selections than in training their bartenders. Most bartenders are lucky to get any training at all, DeGroff says, which is too bad when quality spirits and fresh ingredients are more available than ever and customer demand for cocktails is on the rise.

But you don't have to depend on bartenders for a good cocktail. Plenty of people are mixing their own versions - and there's lots of help available for anyone who needs suggestions.

DeGroff himself operates a Web site (www.kingcocktail .com) loaded with information and recipes. And his recent book, The Craft of the Cocktail, with photographs by George Erml (Crown Publishing Group, 2002, $35), won a 2003 International Association of Culinary Professionals cookbook award. Whether you're a fledging mixologist or an aspiring professional bartender, you'll learn a lot from this book.

As for the year ahead, DeGroff expects more interest in cocktails, more emphasis on quality, creativity and fresh ingredients, as in the Valencia cocktail with flamed orange peels. DeGroff also expects a continuation of the recent trend of a new, premium vodka entering the market every couple of weeks.

But there is resurging interest in other spirits as well, including rye, an old Maryland favorite. Much of the spirit activity will be in the super-premium category, as appreciation grows for high-quality versions of rums, tequilas, bourbons and other spirits.

And there's even good news for martini purists: Gin is making some inroads on vodka.

Says DeGroff: "Flavor is nice to have."

Valencia

Makes 1 drink

1/2 ounce fino sherry

3 peels of orange, flamed (see note)

2 1/2 ounces vodka

Coat the inside of a chilled martini glass with fino sherry and toss out the excess. Flame 2 orange peels and drop into the glass. Pour chilled vodka into the seasoned glass. Garnish with the last flamed orange peel.

Note: To flame an orange peel, the fruit should be firm and fresh to ensure there is enough oil present in the skin. To flame the oil, hold a lighted match in one hand, and pick up the orange twist in the other very carefully, like holding an eggshell. If you squeeze the twist prematurely, the oil will be expelled. Hold the twist by the side, not the ends, between thumb and forefinger, skin side down, about 4 inches above the drink. Don't squeeze or you'll lose all the oil before you flame. Hold the match between the drink and the twist, closer to the twist. Snap the twist sharply, propelling the oil through the lighted match and into the glass. (Be sure to hold twist far enough from the drink to avoid getting a smoky film on the glass.)

- "The Craft of the Cocktail" by Dale DeGroff (Crown Publishing Group, 2002, $35)

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