Two Days, Five Bars, 50 Cocktails
Part 2: At Flora, Behind the Bar
Apology of sorts…
Clearly I’ve been distracted since Part 1 of this story was posted over three weeks ago. I think in general I’ve had good excuses for that: reviewing and selecting the photos from the shoot, finishing up all my testing notes and getting them off to Ted, hiring a graphic designer for the LCL logo, taking care of various bits of our burgeoning business. Oh, and I did manage to post two other pieces to my blog in the interim so maybe things are not as bad as they seem.
Clearly however, I should try to finish up this story in Part 2 so I don’t have to come back in three more weeks needing to write more, which is becoming harder as the memories of the shoot become increasingly hazy. That’s starting to be a lot of cocktails ago!
Here we go…
Despite the many many hours I’ve now logged making cocktails for the LCL project and all the careful preparation in the days leading up to it, I knew nothing was really going to prepare me for the photo shoot at Flora. Here I was going to be standing behind a real bar, making drinks that needed to look as good as possible, being watched by professional bartenders, and as it turned out in some cases making the very drinks they created right in front of them. Nervous? Shit, at times I was totally flustered.
On the other hand, what a joy it was to work those two days, making all of those drinks in a real bar armed with a battery of mixing tins, jiggers, fine strainers, bar sinks and an endless supply of lovely hard cubes from a Kold Draft machine. I was quickly spoiled, especially by the ice. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied by what can be made at home again. (However, I have since hit upon some new ways to make fist-sized plugs of ice at home without a lot of fuss.)
Cocktail making and the shoot went pretty well, all in all. The first few drinks took practically forever to shoot (and me stressing about melting ice, wilted garnishes and condensation on the glasses the whole time). Then we got up to speed and wound up shooting 27 of the 50 drinks we needed for the book by 8 PM on the first day. Not bad for a 12 hour day (including setup and strike). Of course, that’s really not so many drinks, is it. I am guessing a top bartender during peak time at a bar would make 27 drinks in about 2 hours.
The biggest challenges of the day involved some pretty mundane things. First, to keep things organizae at Flora during the shoot, I had all of our booze in five liquor boxes sitting on the floor of the bar behind me (*). I bent over those boxes dozens and dozens of times during the shoot, pulling bottles out for one drink, then putting them all back after the drink was made to keep everything tidy. Even worse, you can’t see the labels on the bottles when they are in the boxes and I wasn’t putting things back in the same place every time (which I guess was dumb). Can you ID a bottle of Wild Turkey 101-proof rye just by looking at the cap? I can (it’s topped with green foil). Do you know how many different bottles of booze have a black top? (Sometimes it seemed like all of them.) I really appreciated how nice it is to work in bar with all the bottles on display, labels facing you, sorted by type of spirit or reaching down into a well to pull out the house gin, from the same place every time, every day.
(*) – We did not use any of Flora’s liquor for the shoot. In fact, ice was the only consumable of theirs we used.
(As an aside, I want to mention a related occupational hazard, one with which professional bartenders must cope every working day and that’s lower back stress. What you can’t see from the patron-side of the bar is that sinks, liquor wells and ice storage extend anywhere from a foot to two feet back from the ledge where all mixing happens. There’s a tendency therefore to lean forward when pouring instead of extending one’s arms out. Every bartender I’ve talked to since has had something to say about this – and the need to really watch how you’re standing during a shift. It also becomes clear that some bars are designed better than others in this respect. It’s something I now make a point of checking every time I go out.)
The second challenge was making garnishes and arranging them in visually interesting ways in the drink. Citrus spirals and twists I can do, and pretty nicely after studying innumerable drink photos on the web. But how many times can you do that before everything looks the same? At one point I tied a square knot out of two long strips of orange peel (cut with a channel knife) just to see if could be done. Actually came out pretty good (look for it in Lance Mayhew’s Milo #2). Much hard were the drinks with called for odd combinations, like a slice of cucumber and ginger together in a collins glass. I was in fact relieved by all the drinks which didn’t call for a garnish – plain as they looked to me.
The third challenge, and the biggest of all, involved being stared at and/or being asked questions while I was making drinks. Bartenders making small talk on a busy night while making three or four different cocktails? I’ve got unending respect for those bartenders. Of course, I didn’t have the leisure of making the same few recipes over and over again (which helps free attention). Every one of those 50 drinks I made for the shoot was a brand new recipe, new liquors, new measures. That definitely made it harder.
It was also much harder to make a drink when the person doing the staring (or, the hanging out, but watching) was say, Erik Adkins who at one point decided to show me how to really dry shake an egg white drink to get a proper froth. Super helpful, for sure, but also super intimidating. But the worst moment for me was when Jennifer Colliau came into the bar and sat down just as I was starting to make her drink (what a coincidence).
First, I had forgotten that a couple of weeks earlier I had asked her which of her two cocktails she wanted to be photographed (how nice of me!). Of course, I had subsequently forgotten that conversation and decided the other drink was prettier and more photogenic (I still think so). Nevertheless, the moment was awkward. Then while measuring and mixing I kept hesitating, looking over at her (and she was watching), basically asking her if I was making the drink right. I felt like such a greenhorn. Then the glass I chose for the photo was too large and I needed to scramble and “fake” another couple of ounces to top the glass off (embarrassing). And finally it came time to make the suggested garnish: a grapefruit peel in a horse’s neck. Not a common garnish, I knew that the peel was typically coiled loosely around the inside of the glass. But again, I’m suddenly looking to Jennifer, who, as it turned out, wanted it in a tight coil, wedged in amongst the ice at the top of the glass where, I must say, it looked very pretty. I was glad when that drink was done!
It’s raining lecithin…
For the most part, all the drinks with the fancy ingredients and preparations came out just fine during the shoot. Both of the foams worked (Joel Baker’s “Pear Sonata” and Chris Ojeda’s “Fragola e Aceto”) and the smoked ice was way hella smokey (Evan Zimmerman’s “Smoke Signals). There was only one catastrophe which necessitated scheduling a pick-up shot a couple of weeks later. That was Daniel Hyatt’s “Still Life with Apples, After Cezanne” which simply failed to cooperate. Here’s the story.
The “Still Life…” is definitely one of my favorite drinks in the book. It’s made with bourbon, maple syrup gastrique and topped with what Daniel calls “smoked cider air” – essentially a light lather of bubbly froth whipped out of a mixture of pasteurized apple cider and a wee bit liquid smoke using an immersion blender. Adding lecithin and some xanthan gum to this makes the froth durable and long lasting. I proofed this recipe at home and it seemed simple enough (though I had to substitute tragacanth gum for the xanthan).
“Still Life…” was scheduled for day two of the shoot, one of the last few drinks I was going to make. By that time I had my rhythm down pretty well (including groping in my boxes on the floor for bottles) and could even make small talk with the people at the bar. (Heh!) I mix up the bourbon and gastrique, stir to chill, strain into my selected glass (a white wine glass), froth up my pre-mixed “smoked cider air,” spoon on the lather and put the drink up on the bar for Jennifer Farrington to shoot. And then the shit starts to happen: before my eyes the lecithin in the air starts to precipitate into the drink, first a little, then it’s raining cloudy clots of ugliness down into the otherwise translucent cocktail. I am horrified.
Reset. Remeasure. Remix. Refroth. Fail again. WFT? At this point I am starting to loose my cool in a visible way. This drink is not obeying me! What are we going to do? Someone at the bar, a professional chef as it turns out, comes over to consult with me. We think of ways to fake the froth. Egg whites stabilized with some lecithin should work he says. We try this. It fails. Is it a reaction with the drink? We put the fake froth on another drink (numerous spent cocktails litter the bar by this time). More precipitation. Someone now suggests calling Daniel and does (leaves a message, no answer). More tinkering. Another failure. Crap. OK. Move on, let’s finish the shoot and we’ll do a pick up shot at Alembic, have Daniel make the drink. I am crestfallen. I have failed. Argh!
Fast forward about a week. I speculate that the problem was caused by two decisions on my part. First, Daniel’s original recipe called for a liter of cider into which some pretty minuscule amounts of lecithin and gum were added. In my drive to “reduce everything to small portions for the home version” I had decided to quarter this recipe. Second, I decided that even though Daniel specified the amounts of lecithin and gum to use by weight, I could maybe “fake it” during the shoot and eyeball things using a 1/4 tsp. measuring spoon. (NB: I did not “fake it” when I originally proofed the recipe at home and weighed everything on a precision electronic balance.) As a consequence I wound up creating a much wetter froth containing a much higher amount of lecithin. When that hit the surface of the rather acidic drink, the precipitation was unavoidable.
Starting from scratch, following Daniel’s exact recipe, re-made the cocktail, frothed the “air” and gingerly spooned just the driest topmost fraction of of it onto the drink, Success! I was now looking at lovely mound of dry stable “air” sitting on top of the cocktail. So this is one recipe I do not intend to modify for the book. I will also add that using a deep two gallon food-grade white plastic container (same as they use at Alembic) really helps. The next night I made about 16 “Still Life…” cocktails for a gathering of friends. Everyone raved about the drink and the taste of the froth.
[CODA: Last week I went to Alembic and a friend ordered a "Still Life..." Ah! I watched the bartender (not Daniel that night) very carefully and when he spooned the "air" on top of the drink, lo and behold, it started to precipitate lecithin! Fortunately, not very much before it stopped. We talked about this at some length and he confessed this happens not infrequently, especially after the cider mixture, which can be refreshed with more lecithin and gum when it stops frothing, has been used for a while. I felt a distinct sense of relief.]