A Mixology History Lesson with Brian Van Flandern
Michelin three-star mixologist Brian Van Flandern was on the forefront of the cocktail revolution, and he made his name on his innovative cocktails that incorporate fresh and experimental ingredients. He's crafted drinks under a number of revered chefs--including Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, and Michel Richard--and he's worked with several hotels and restaurants around the world, including a floating billionaire community. Charming, laid back, and an enthusiastic cocktology (cocktail + mixology) historian, he talks here about his latest book from Assouline Publishing, Craft Cocktails, which is a celebration of the new golden age of cocktails. The ring-bound book is filled with recipes by Van Flandern and many of his favorite New York establishments including Employees Only, Clover Club, Death & Co., and PDT (Please Don't Tell).
With vibrant photographs, funky typography, and brief historical tidbits (like background information on the gin and tonic and picklebacks), Craft Cocktails is not only a pretty fixture for your coffee table; it's also a tantalizing and informative read. While some of the recipes are things I would never attempt (for example, the Matahari includes instructions on how to make chai-infused sweet vermouth and Plymouth Rocks actually includes a river rock garnish), others are more accessible. But whether or not you make any of them, each recipe includes such specific instructions--down to the glassware--that the book is fascinating to flip through. It urges readers to ask questions: What is bärenjäger? Why use Don Julio Añejo tequila and not another? What is the benefit of a coupe glass versus a tumbler? And it also induces a sense of wonder at how someone can concoct such diverse flavor combinations with wacky, whimsical garnishes.
I sat down with Brian to hear more about what went into the making of Craft Cocktails.
How did this book come about?
I was a New York City bartender for 25 years. For me, it was just a job I took to pay the bills, that is until 2004. I was finishing my college degree and thought, "I'll take one last restaurant job," which happened to be at Per Se with Michelin three-star chef Thomas Keller. I learned how to pair wines with dishes and I got excited by his passion for food and his attention to detail. I tried to apply the same principle to cocktails. I thought, why can't I use fresh ingredients, quality spirits, and reduce the alcohol to approximate a glass of wine so that it would be food friendly? Food & Wine called 2004 the year of the cocktail. I just happened to be opening Per Se that year. I was in the right place at the right time.
Then things really took off when Frank Bruni wrote his New York Times four-star review of Per Se and mentioned my house made Tonic with Gin. Until that time, nobody was making their own tonic water from scratch. Now, it is quite common to see bars all around the country making their own tonic water. It was only then that I realized that this bartending job that I had resented for 25 years--while I tried to pursue an acting career--was a rewarding career of its own. I suddenly realized I had a talent for these craft cocktails and that it had become a passion.
After I left Per Se I started Creative Cocktail Consultants--www.mymixologist.com--and one of my first clients was Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel. As I started to compete in competitions, I was introduced to other dedicated mixologists like Audrey Saunders, Julie Reiner, and Jim Meehan, who have gone on themselves to reach iconic status within the industry. Audrey and Julie had just opened Pegu Club with Jim Meehan, who had been working at Gramercy Tavern. Jim later opened up PDT, which was named the best cocktail lounge in the world in 2011. As big as New York is, the cocktail community is surprisingly small. Over the last ten years, as I traveled the globe teaching spirits education and mixology, I continued to run into the same people in various countries, all dedicated to spreading the word on craft cocktails and spirits.
Back to the story, Assouline Publishing approached the Carlyle Hotel because they wanted to do a book on vintage cocktails and the Carlyle Hotel suggested they talk to me. They offered to let me write the introduction and list me as the author if I would provide the content and stylize the cocktails for their photographer. So in 2009 we published Vintage Cocktails, and it won the best cocktail book in the world for 2009 at the Gourmand Cookbook Awards in Paris. Less than four years later it's now in its fifth printing. However, I had always wanted to do a book on craft cocktails, and keep it true to New York, which is where the movement really started at iconic establishments like The Rainbow Room, Flatiron Lounge, Milk & Honey, and, later. the Pegu Club.
For my newest book Craft Cocktails, Assouline and I shot the photos at Employees Only, Death & Co., Clover Club and PDT. In the book I have several recipes from many of the top mixologists in New York as well as all my recipes that I created at Per Se, The Carlyle Hotel, the World Ship, and other clients of mine over the years.
There were a few things I wanted to accomplish with this book to set it apart from other cocktail books:
Number one, I wanted to brand the alcohol in each cocktail. For example, I don't want the reader to replicate a recipe by using just any old triple sec. I wanted them to use Cointreau because it's quality flavor and alcohol content. I selected very specific spirits based on terroir, flavor profile, provenance, history and distillation techniques. The idea is that each spirit compliments the other ingredients in the cocktail or tells a story, or both.
Number two, I wanted make the book accessible to the masses. I feel like people go out to bars and think, "Why can't I make this at home?" The chunky text and beautiful pictures help with that. Fundamentally, the book is meant to be a bridge between the complicated recipes being produced by professional mixologists and the cocktails enthusiast at home.
The third thing is that I wanted to showcase stunningly beautiful glassware. The glasses in this book are either vintage glasses or modern crystal glassware produced by Baccarat, Lalique, and Versace. I wanted to showcase these cocktails in the very best possible light. So yes, really beautiful glassware, accessibility to the masses, and branded cocktails.
Today craft cocktails are a global movement, but New York is where it all started. This book is a tribute to the New York craft cocktail movement that I hope will be an enduring tome for future generations of mixologists and cocktails fans alike.
Hit the next page for a couple of recipes.