Too cool. Along with well over 100 local mixologists who are taking the BarSmarts exam at this very moment—I spotted crew from Colt & Gray, Vesta Dipping Grill & Steuben’s, LaLa’s Wine Bar & Bistro, Mateo, SALT the Bistro, & Summit at the Broadmoor, among others—I spent all morning at the Four Seasons in a seminar led by no lesser luminaries than Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, F. Paul Pacult, Doug Frost, Andy Seymour & Steve Olsen, sipping spirits &, more importantly, soaking up knowledge. Below, a few random highlights.
- In 1999, there were 11 craft distilleries (producing <10,000 cases/year) in the U.S. Today, there are more than 200. (A tenth of which, I might add, are right here in Colorado.)
- “When in doubt,” says MS/MW Doug Frost on evaluating the nose of a spirit, “say lemon & pepper.'” Half-joking words to live by.
- After a sip of any spirit, suck in your breath. Where there’s heat, there’s volatility. If you experience a cooling sensation, bingo—that’s the sign of a quality distillation, per Olsen.
- Upon asking the audience what they sniff in glass #1: “Lavender.” “Citrus.” “Pine.” “Christmas.” “Rehab.” (Yes, it was gin.)
- Well said: “Vodka is a platform,” observes Olsen. “You don’t taste the spirit [in a cocktail], you feel it.”
- Ditto, upon comparing the pear-like notes of a Scotch & the apple-y tones of an Irish whisky: “The spirit itself can [taste of] bright-green malic acid, but oak makes it whiter, sweeter. Oak takes anything & makes it confection.”
- Seymour on craft in relation to hospitality: “Don’t ever let the cocktail become the most important thing, when really it’s the person sitting in front of you.” (The corollary for us guests: Take the golden opportunity to learn from a seasoned bartender, to experience new flavors or give spirits you think you don’t like a second chance. That’s partly what going out is for, no, the social give & take?)
- Per DeGroff, the best barware is coming out of Japan, Germany & Australia. If you’re a tool geek, look here, for instance.
- “Sours are the difference between the men & the boys,” says DeGroff. “Our friend calls it the Mr. Potato Head of bartending”: the 3 basic components are 1 sour, 1 sweet & 1 strong, but the variations & additions are endless.
- DeGroff credits his former Rainbow Room boss Joe Baum with keeping craft cocktailing alive in the mid-century doldrums; “In 1959,” he notes with pride, “La Fonda del Sol had pisco sours & mojitos.” (Pacult points out that South America is once again a source of much inspiration.)
- Seymour on menus: “You should be able to represent what you do in 6 to 8 drinks.” More than 12, in his opinion, means spreading yourself too thin. (A rough count, then, could be useful for drinkers in search of a serious cocktail program.)
- Seymour again, on preciousness: “We all love a great drink with 3 ingredients. Don’t use a house-infused ingredient just to do it; do it if it makes sense for the drink.”
- DeGroff, on an attendee’s doubts about Rose’s lime juice: “Actually, it has a flavor profile that the traditional gimlet-drinker wants.” In short, there’s a time & a place for bottled juices (or at least this one in particular).
- “Stirring a drink is the most quiet & Zen-like moment at the bar”—DeGroff.
- I drank a punch made on the spot by David Wondrich. That’s still sinking in.
- “As long as the 21st century continues to suck, people will continue to drink.” Right on, Wondrich!
Right on, as well, to the locals, not one of whom, according to a show of hands (or rather a lack thereof), forgot their tools. “This has never happened!” we were told. “Another first for Denver!” Congrats & good luck to them all.