Matt Piacentini on The Beagle's "Academic" Cocktails
Matt Piacentini helped develop the Beagle's old-school cocktail menu, which we love here at Fork in the Road. He's a little bit of a cocktail history nerd, so we asked him to explain how he researched the drinks on the menu and the story behind the restaurant's unusual pairing boards.
You've described the Beagle's cocktail menu as "academic." What does that mean?
We're innovative, but we're not trying to reinvent the wheel; we're simply trying to make the best wheel we can. The cocktail was perfected around 1900 -- that's when drinks were really just great and the ingredients were fantastic. You'd start working at a bar and it would be seven years before you were allowed to make a drink -- that's how seriously this stuff was taken. And we love that history, the fact that in those days everything was done for a reason. So we pore through old books and find out how these drinks were made. For example: What would the ice have looked like? If there's a recipe with brandy, we'll try to figure out what type of brandy they would have been using at the bar the recipe is from, and how that's different from the brandy we use now.
So these cocktails are straight from the 1900s?
Well, we do riff on things. Sometimes the cocktail recipes we find in books are just terrible and we have to change them. But for the most part, even for the original drinks here, we pretty much follow the same set of rules that were in place pre-Prohibition. We're not terribly culinary, so if we have to make raspberry syrup or something, we'll make it, but the way they would have back then. Although, we use an electric juicer, and they didn't.
Do you have some favorite cocktail references?
I love The Stork Club Bar Book. I find it to be the book with the highest percentage of the recipes that are perfect as written. Barflies and Cocktails and the Café Royal Cocktail Book are good. Imbibe is great because the instructions in it are so specific, there's like a whole paragraph on exactly what they mean by a lump of ice. And also The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks -- the guy that wrote it was a lawyer and an extremely opinionated person, and his prose is some of the best and funniest I've ever read.
What's the best cocktail on the menu?
Well, right now I'm really into the North Side Fix, which is a little twist on a classic -- but it's still a very classic twist. The drink is based on an East Side Fix, which is made with gin, lime juice, mint, and cucumber. We replaced the gin with a Danish aquavit, Aalborg, which has a fantastic caraway flavor. It's that little bit of caraway that makes what is essentially a cucumber mojito into a unbelievable complex and layered drink that you can still suck down in two sips.
The Aircraft Carrier looks interesting. Can you tell me about that one?
It's a simple variation on an Aviation made with navy-strength gin. We're really good friends with Allen Katz from the New York Distilling Company, so we're very happy that he's making navy-strength gin, the only one commercially available in the U.S. right now. We wanted to put a cocktail on our list to honor that. And navy-strength gin has this great story about it being so strong that gunpowder can still explode if it's soaked in the liquid. Nobody can resist getting the drink after hearing that.