A couple of weeks ago, I completed The List of 100 Must-Drink Cocktails that was created — and then widely circulated around the Internet — by the Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston. Since that time, I had a chance to exchange e-mails with the guy who created the list, Bobby Heugel, who co-owns the Anvil. Heugel shed a little light on how The List came to be and which cocktails he likes (and/or finds challenging on the list)
Q: How did The List come to be? How did you choose which cocktails were “must-drink”?
A: The List started as list of essential cocktails I wanted every bartender at Anvil to perfect and be able to make from memory. Someone was reviewing it one day when they got hired and a few guests noticed. They asked if they could look it over, and an epidemic started. At a certain point, we really had no choice but to make it part of our menu for a while. Nowadays, we’ve retired the list, though we still make everything on it. The world of spirits is evolving and so dramatically that having a stagnant list doesn’t really work in bars anymore. Today, we rotate a list of 25 featured classics every few months.
Q: Which classic cocktail guides did you find most helpful in compiling The List?
A: I think every bartender should be required to read three books: “Imbibe!” [Perigee Trade, 2007] by David Wondrich; “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” [Mud Puddle Books, 2008] by David Embury; and Michael Jackson’s “Whiskey.” [DK Adult, 2005] “Imbibe” gives you a great historical perspective on the profession; Embury’s guide helps you to understand the concept of a beverage program by immersing yourself in his perspective on drinks, and Jackson’s “Whiskey” is a very precise explanation of the whiskey that has so much utility in broadening one’s understanding about spirits as a whole.
Q: I’m assuming you’ve completed all 100 yourself. Which is your favorite and why?
My favorite is a Vieux Carre. It is such an elegant cocktail that still offers bold and thoughtful flavors. It is also a great example of a drink that is best when its ingredients are carefully chosen. I like mine this way:
Vieux Carre Redux
1 ounce Rittenhouse Bonded Rye
3/4 ounce Pierre Ferrand Cognac
3/4 ounce Dolin Rouge Vermouth
1/2 teaspoon Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the rye, Cognac, vermouth, Benedictine and both kinds of bitters. Stir, then strain into a cocktail (martini) glass. Garnish with the twist of lemon peel.
From Bobby Heugel, of the Anvil Bar and Refuge in Houston.
In this recipe, I slightly increase the amount of rye. Doing this and using 100 proof Rittenhouse really helps to balance out a cocktail that otherwise could be a tad too sweet. This is often the case when bartenders make this cocktail with Carpano Antica — lovely stuff, but in this drink, the Dolin Rouge works better in my opinion because it is less viscous and sweet. You’ve already got the Benedictine adding sweeter flavors to the drink, so I don’t think Carpano Antica is the correct choice here. These considerations are the difference between good drinks and great drinks. There’s a 100 cocktails on that list that could each be made countless ways. Sure, there is history associated with each, but sometimes it is important to consider the impact of modern brands and slightly adjust ratios to get everything perfect.
Q: Which one is your least favorite?
A: I could really live without the Death in the Afternoon. Absinthe and champagne aren’t the best together, but we included this drink to try and provide a cocktail that allowed people to easily explore absinthe. The hype surrounding absinthe has died a bit nowadays, but at the time, it was a very curious subject for folks. I think good cocktail bars should try and serve some basic educational purposes and keep up with trends. Helping guests understand spirits and cocktails outside of their bar only encourages them to revisit you in the future.
Q: Do many of your patrons at Anvil take the challenge and complete all 100 cocktails? Which cocktails are the ones they seem to have the most trouble with?
A: We’ve had about 15 people drink every cocktail on The List to date. Almost all of them have the most trouble with the shot of Fernet Branca — we can’t all be bartenders, I guess!
Here is another of Heugel’s favorites:
In the mid-19th century, there were three standard cocktails for brandy, whiskey or gin: Plain. Fancy. Improved. Fancy meant you got a dash of curacao. Improved meant you got a dash of maraschino liqueur or absinthe, or both.
This is a variation of Improved, for a contemporary spirit, tequila. It comes from Bobby Heugel, who created the List of 100 Must-Drink Cocktails. Heugel calls for Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters, which are wonderful, and can be ordered from several online sources. In a pinch, however, you could try orange bitters, Peychaud's bitters or even celery bitters to good effect.
For tequila, Heugel recommends Siete Leguas or Siembra Azul. Spirits columnist Jason Wilson also recommends El Tesoro or Excellia.
Adapted from Heugel, of Anvil Bar and Refuge in Houston.
2 ounces reposado tequila (see headnote)
1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur (not the juice from maraschino cherries)
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters (see headnote)
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon agave nectar
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish
Fill a mixing glass halfway with ice. Add the tequila, maraschino liqueur, both bitters and agave nectar. Stir vigorously for 30 seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail (martini) glass. Twist the lemon peel over the drink, rub the rim of the glass, then drop it in as a garnish.