The Luxe Art of a Perfect Cocktail
Culinary expert Bryan Nies offers tips on how to raise the bar on your cocktail game.
I was recently gifted a copy of The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris, which was written by the hotel’s bar manager, Colin Peter Field, at the famous and historically significant Bar Hemingway. The book was saturated with the history of many famous drinks as well as the people who first drank them (and often influenced world history). Illustrations accompanied cocktail recipes—and compared with high-res pictures in most current books, everything about this one made me feel like I had been given an old tome of significant import.
One chapter in particular about the role of the bartender surprised and impressed me. Beyond the expectation of accepting our order and “slinging” a drink for us, this book put the bartender on the level of a personal butler or luxury concierge. For example, it asserts, before preparing a drink, the bartender must determine:
- Who is the person that I’m making this cocktail for?
- What are they celebrating?
- What’s their objective in having this cocktail?
Concepts like these must come from a different time, I concluded—not our cell-phone wielding, fast-paced lives. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the book was written in 2001!
While I realize that the author’s background and workplace puts him in a highly luxurious context and atmosphere, where this level of service is expected, the responsibilities of the bartender are about engagement and experience. It suggests to me that with minimal effort, we can bring ourselves a little more luxury every time we order a drink or make one at home, simply by engaging with the person making our drink, or stopping to appreciate location, context, or cocktail ingredients.
Sometimes the best drinks only require a few ingredients and, like art, have the potential to inspire, stimulate, and elevate our experience. We can have a little “high luxury” anywhere, from an elegant resort to a local bar. The following are ways to experience the imbibing luxury you desire, whether you need something opulent, unique, or experiential:
Luxury of Place/Context
The best art and experiences are dependent on context, and the same holds true for the cocktail. Have you ever had an incredible bottle of wine, perhaps watching the sun set on a Greek isle, only to find it bland and unappealing once you had the same bottle at home after a stressful day of work? Whether you choose the style, service, and opulence of the Bar Hemingway or perhaps a “secret bar” in the basement of a wine store or in back of a restaurant, sometimes the unexpected drink found there can be a luxury experience.
Luxury of Service
One might imagine tuxedoed waiters serving French 75s on a silver platter, or picture the presentation (a crystal canary drinking vessel, its tail a bouquet of smoking herbs). For me, however, the most memorable moments have been at home or with a bartender with spirits knowledge who knows my interests.
Technique can also elevate the experience. We all have friends, for instance, who like their Manhattans a particular way, and the luxury comes in the combination of the spirits and how they are prepared. I have friends who prefer their martinis with vodka (the horror!) and shaken to allow for some ice shards in the glass (What is this? A slurpee?). For them, those components together make the experience even more special.
Luxury of Ingredients
Although reputation (or a good marketing director) can cause a demand and higher costs for a spirit (did we really need cilantro vodka?), most times, the most expensive spirits become pricey because of history and rarity. These fine spirits themselves (such as rare cognacs, small barrel bourbons, and unique Scotch) create the luxury. They are so distinctive that sipping them neat is usually enough to provide a luxe experience in spades. Are they even better in a cocktail? It all depends on the spirit and the bartender making it. Cocktails in this category are normally so expensive that a daily fix isn’t possible, but are absolutely worth it for that special celebration.
Realize, however, that with the art of the cocktail, luxury ingredients don’t have to have a high price tag. I recently found a bottle of locally made gin for under $10! It is now my base gin for all mixed cocktails. Additionally, artisanal bitters, spirits, and “house-made” infusions allow a mixologist to find the perfect balance of ingredients in a cocktail and provide a flavor variation for drinks familiar and new. I have been making a variety of different shrubs at home and enjoy a fennel one in a variation of a Gibson martini (with a fennel pickle instead of an onion). I was disappointed the other day when I used my “go to” French dry vermouth to make this drink and it tasted like dish soap. When I used my cheaper Spanish dry vermouth, suddenly the beautiful botanicals of the gin, and the sweet, sour, fennel, flavors of the shrub married perfectly. Sometimes cheaper is better.
Our expectations of luxury may have changed, but this is an advantage that allows us to have highest quality imbibing experiences daily if we wish. At home, experiment. Shake, stir, or start with a recipe and add or subtract something from it. Pick a new bottle from the store because you simply like the label. Back at the bar, trust your mixologist. Even knowing a little about what you like can help them steer you towards a delicious experience or, if you engage them about their work (when the bar is not busy, please), they might surprise you with a special, tailored creation tailored.
From your home and the Bay Area’s talented mixologists, to the Ritz Paris, no matter your desired version of luxe, it now is only one savored sip away.
Bars with Style
Try these swanky spots when you want your surroundings as opulent as your beverage.
Redwood Room at the Clift Hotel
The price and quality of the cocktails at the Redwood Room match the elegant atmosphere of one of the most beautiful bars in SF.
495 Geary Street, San Francisco | 415.929.2372
For a contemporary contrast, choose the modern lower social space or the rooftop lounge for trending cocktails and a full menu to match them.
25 Lusk Street, San Francisco | 415.495.5875
Quattro Four Seasons Silicon Valley
The bar and restaurant in Quattro exudes laid-back luxe. With a strong cocktail menu, fabulous service, and fun summer and winter pop-ups (we’re loving the Riviera-themed patio this month), you can’t beat the Four Seasons.
2050 University Avenue, East Palo Alto | 650.470.2889
What is a Secret Bar? These bars are often behind or below a restaurant or other store and are not advertised. They are also often less populated, have a solid cocktail menu, and talented mixologists. Here are some (not so anymore) secret bars:
The Hogshead Reserve
Below “The Barrel Room” wine bar is a three-room “cavern” and full spirit cocktail bar. The mixiologists are knowledgeable and friendly and even when packed, you feel like you are in a secret, special place.
415 Sansome Street, San Francisco | 415.956.6900
Enter the Thai Street food restaurant Hawker Fare and look immediately across the dining room to the left. You will see a neon sign (like a triangle “mountain” with a “holy” halo). Walk up the stairs underneath the neon and you will be treated to an unexpected full bar with quality cocktails.
680 Valencia Street, San Francisco | 415.400.5699
Mystic Room + Tavern
This one isn’t exactly “secret” but on the second floor of the Mystic Hotel. What makes it stand out is the excellent but unexpected cocktail menu. There are also “secret” cocktails to be discovered if you know how to ask. This is a great place to go when you want to treat your group to a great beverage experience and show off your bar cred.
417 Stockton Street, San Francisco | 415.400.0500