Perhaps I feel cowed by the creativity cocktail makers seem able to offer so simply with just a shake of the wrist. Perhaps I am dulled by consuming too many of their drinks. But it's seemed hard to write this entry I've been meaning to get to since December 6, as December 5 is a day that should live in famy (isn't that the opposite of infamy?)--the repeal of the 18th Amendment. For 13 long years our poor country was dry and not high. That stretch even includes some Depression years, and if you can't drown away your centless sorrows, how miserable must life be? No wonder it was also the era of the great Dust Bowl.
But is it perfume from a bitters, that makes my entry all a-skitter? Indeed, for today we are in a perfect storm of cocktailiana--everything's legal (even absinthe), history is lovingly excavated by artful archaeologists, and then there's the fine fuel of the local-artisanal food movement turning its eye to craft distilling. Add in global influences as if sprinkling with fairy dust that's actually ground crickets and pretty much anything can happen in a cocktail glass.
Some of it's quite tasty, too, not just novelty, and that's crucial as a cocktail is nothing if it's not tradition. When you toast, it's not just to the person or people you're with, it's a cheers to every drinker ever, a sign of civilization at its most civil: we have tamed this firewater, made it beautiful, and will share it peacefully while even better doing our best to make witty and wise.
This was easy to do at a place like Drago Centro in downtown LA, all sleek and not at all old school Italian despite nailing Italian food with that simple made perfect from kick-ass ingredients way (tomatoes are tomatoes here, even in December, somehow). And then the brilliance of this dish il risotto allo zafferano e midollo, which just sounds beautiful (say it aloud, so your tongue gets ready for the beauty of the actual dish while eating it). That's saffron risotto and salsa verde, almost something minimalist, that is until you start to massage in the roasted bone marrow that sits atop. So much richness in each forkful.
But as to the cocktails, or the "new classics" as they put it, cleverly making oxymoronic sense (as a drink does, so very elegant as it begins to muddle your mind with its spirits). We had: the Blessed Bliss made of Karlsson’s vodka, Cardamaro, Underberg bitters, fresh ginger, fresh apple, and fresh rosemary; and the Hot Bellied .45 made of Bulleit bourbon, Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Cocchi Americano, Art in the Age snap, and Fee Bros. lemon bitters. That first led with its herbs--the very skilled waiter warned us he wasn't fond of the drink as he's not a rosemary fan--, but that's little surprise as in addition to the prominent rosemary sprig, Underberg supposedly packs in 43 herbs. So, something of surprising depth. As for the .45, the mezcal gave it a kicky smokiness, always a fine match for a bourbon, and then, again, things got complicated, what with a bit more lemon than mere bitters might make one expect and the molasses depth of the Snap (as in ginger).
Alas, this foray was nothing compared to what awaited us at Sly's on December 5 itself. It turns out the "Mix mistresses and barmen" as they bill themselves, craft a special cocktail list only for Repeal Day, and then it's your secret handshake for the year, as you can flash it and request the drink of your choice on it that no one else knows. Nothing like having your speakeasy and prohibition too. That's eleven choices I get and you don't (sorry, dear reader--go next year), including one from Chef James Sly himself, a sneaky Bloody Mary variation that swaps beet juice for tomato (it's a salad in a glass!, or, more seriously, the perfect drink to have with a salad, always a tough pairing).
And I don't mean to be coy, but I'm not going to spill any of the drinks' names, for they belong to those who are part of the secret society. Mandy Chinn, the head mix mistress there and award winner several times over for her mixology, has her team always take things one step beyond the norm. Here there's nothing so simple as simple syrup, it's gomme syrup, which with its gum Arabic emulsifying away, ends up even smoother than just sugar water. That's the way it used to be done, and still is at a place as fastidious as Sly's. Even more mysteriously, even owning the menu doesn't quite get you to the point where you can recreate the drinks at home, for key ingredients often don't make the list--is that merely a typo that there's a comma at the end of one write-up, or a sneaky hint Sly's is living up to its name? Don't worry, sip away, and watch as Chris Chinn beats a glass with sprigs of thyme like a penitent flagellating. Ah, ritual, delicious as sin, these well-balanced brilliances.