How long will their pouring reign?

spirits column
Calvados Sidecar, one of the cocktails featured in "Speakeasy." (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
Jason Wilson
Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Last fall, in the Atlantic, Derek Brown of the Passenger declared that the trend of the Prohibition-themed faux speak-easy had jumped the shark. As evidence, he noted that Chuck Bass, the rakish heartthrob on the television series "Gossip Girl," had opened a fictional speak-easy called the Gimlet.

Well, Chuck has moved on by now, and yet somehow our faux-speak-easy trend continues apace: dark, hard-to-locate cocktail bars, where the bartenders wear fedoras and vests and mustaches, continue to pop up and deliver classic cocktails to those in the know.

But how much longer can this fad last?

That is one of numerous interesting questions inadvertently raised by a new drinks book titled "Speakeasy" (Ten Speed) by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric, owner-bartenders of the venerated bar Employees Only in New York. Though essentially a recipe book, it caused me to think about the state of cocktail culture in America and about the evangelists who promote it.

The questions began with the foreword, written by Dale DeGroff, the former Rainbow Room bartender, author and high-profile consultant branded as "King Cocktail." It made me wonder: Will we ever reach a quota on how many cocktail guide forewords can be penned by DeGroff? For drinks tomes, his blessing must be the marketing equivalent of pixie dust. I now have two new titles on my desk with DeGroff forewords, adding to the pile of DeGroff forewords in books from seasons past.

In "Speakeasy's" introduction, Kosmas and Zaric pretty much take credit for spawning the trend of faux speak-easies in 2004. They write that, in 2001, bartenders "saw the writing on the wall" - and that writing used the chef-driven buzzwords "homemade," "handcrafted" and "organic." The pair determined that the "days of the vodka martini were numbered" (most bar owners might still find that idea surprising). Kosmas and Zaric write about themselves in the third person: "Little did they know that they would help destroy bottle service, bring back classic cocktail culture, and single-handedly revive the mustache."

Grand achievements, all. But then the introduction reaches a hyperbolic crescendo when Kosmas and Zaric intertwine their desire to open a faux speak-easy with a tragic, historic event: "The real push for us to open our own bar came after September 11, 2001. Before that date, New York was an exciting city with an air of perpetual adolescence. . . . People contend that America lost its innocence that day, but it also lost its naughtiness. Night life in the city became sporadic, sober, dull."


Among the other questions "Speakeasy" inspires:

l Has the rhetoric of celebrity bartenders become as bloated as that of celebrity chefs?

l What kind of cosmic timing and luck do Kosmas and Zaric possess, because they essentially will have grabbed the first and last words on the early-21st-century faux-speak-easy trend?

l How will we look back on the faux-speak-easy craze a decade or two from now? Will we think fondly of it, or will we be slightly embarrassed, sort of like we are about fern bars? As for me, I hope it's the former.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect answers from what is essentially a cocktail manual. After all, by Kosmas and Zaric's count, Employees Only serves 130,000 cocktails each year (most of them excellent, I might add). So maybe we should just stick to the drink recipes.

Thankfully, their recipes are accessible, yet with enough of a twist to keep things interesting. I like their focus on straightforward classics that most people have heard of - Negroni, Martinez, Sazerac, bloody mary, whiskey sour, old fashioned - showing readers how to make them the right way. Skipping the odd overblown garnish, most of these recipes are ones that most people can make at home.

The afterword of "Speakeasy" is written by David Wondrich, who might give DeGroff a run for his money in this kind of supplemental endorsement. Wondrich, though, puts the accomplishments of the crew of Employees Only into proper - that is, historical - perspective. Kosmas and Zaric are an honest-to-goodness link to another age, when bartending truly was a skilled profession: "Those are the lessons that Jason and Dushan, working bartenders since before such creatures as 'bar chefs,' 'celebrity mixologists,' and 'brand ambassadors' began to stalk the earth, managed to absorb. Even better, they've brought that old, bartenderly way to a new generation."

For that, I can live with a few more years of faux speak-easies.


Calvados Sidecar

Wilson is the author of "Boozehound." He can be reached at jasonwilson.com and at food@washpost.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company