By Mary Orlin
Stew Ellington is an unlikely cocktail guru. He has never worked as a bartender and never trained as a mixologist.
“I just consider myself an enthusiast and curator of cocktails,” said the Oakland resident who is the author and publisher of the book 901 Very Good Cocktails: A Practical Guide.
Ellington wasn’t planning to pen a cocktail book. Instead, he wanted to throw a 1960s-themed cocktail party and, in researching drinks of that era, became obsessed with cocktail culture.
“I came up with the idea to mix and document 1,000 different cocktails and I photo-documented and posted all those pictures on my Flickr account,” he said. That was the impetus for the book. “I ended up making about 1,100 drinks but then I edited out about 200, hence the title, ‘901 Very Good Cocktails.’”
[See Ellington’s recipe for the brand new Berkeleyside cocktail below.]
Recipes for the book come from all over — friends who are bartenders and mixologists, websites like KindredCocktails.com, and Imbibe and Modern Drunkard magazines. Ellington concocted 35 of his own recipes, created by tweaking or adding things to classic cocktails.
His first drink was the Edith Bunker, with Rye whiskey, Lillet Blanc, orange juice, Maraschino cherry and Angostura bitters. It was inspired by a drink called Edith’s Fizz, made by renowned mixologist Dale DeGroff. “I wanted to give it more guts, so I added the Rye and bitters and made it a little more powerful,” he says.
What makes a great cocktail? Ellington said he looks for a balance between tart, sweet and bitter. He also looks for creativity and out-of-the-box combinations of ingredients that aren’t intuitive but somehow work. One of the craziest recipes in his book is the Joan Harris, a mix of beer, cherry liqueur, lemon juice, rhubarb bitters and Drambuie, “which is a whiskey-based, spiced liqueur that has a ‘Christmas-y’ taste to it,” said Ellington. He calls the result “super tasty.”
Ellington’s book is a combination of classic and modern cocktails. Drink recipes are organized in alphabetical order, and he rates each recipe on the star system. He’s tasted every single cocktail, and, of the 901 recipes, he rates close to 150 of them five stars.
Spend time with Ellington and you’ll get a lively lesson on American cocktail culture. He said pre-Prohibition, “being a bartender and making mixed drinks was a real art-form and bartenders were held in high esteem.” All that changed during Prohibition. After Repeal, “it would take decades for the culture of the cocktail to heal itself and catch back up again.”
In the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s not much was going on in terms of creative ingredients or innovative cocktails, according to Ellington. “Scotch and soda or a dry Martini, that was about it.” Then in the ’80s a mixologist named Dale DeGroff came on the scene.
DeGroff opened the Rainbow Room in New York City, “which launched the cocktail renaissance we’re experiencing today,” Ellington said. DeGroff also published the groundbreaking book Craft of the Cocktail in 2002.
Twelve years later, Ellington says the palate of the American cocktail drinker has evolved, becoming more sophisticated, more open to bitter and smoky flavors. His view is that many of the drinks in Craft of the Cocktail, and other recipes of the 1980s, now feel outdated and overly sweet.
Is that a centrifuge behind the bar?
Today bartenders are making their own bitters and tonics and infusing their own liqueurs with fresh ingredients. It’s not unusual to see a centrifuge and other laboratory gear behind the bar, which bartenders use to extract ingredients.
“Over the past 10 years I’ve been seeing this arc spiraling upwards with people taking cocktails a lot more seriously from a gastronomical point of view,” said Ellington. “Bartenders are being held in the same esteem as chefs as they’re putting together interesting ingredients and making a culinary experience.”
Ellington sees the artisanal cocktail movement continuing for some time and getting even more complex and elaborate with lots of experimentation going on.
Mezcal and Chartreuse are both having their moment.
Mezcal, a cousin of Tequila is “very smoky and powerful, it definitely takes getting used to,” according to him.
Chartreuse, a green liqueur made from herbs and flowers, has been around for more than 400 years, It’s one of Ellington’s favorite ingredients to use in cocktails. In fact, he claims one of the best cocktails ever is The Last Word, made with Chartreuse.
“It was created during the Prohibition era and later forgotten about. A bartender in Seattle named Murray Stenson found it in an old abandoned cocktail book in 2004 and re-popularized it,” he said. “Cocktail history is full of great mysteries and stories like these.”
Another spirit, Fernet-Branca, is currently very popular in San Francisco. It’s in the family of Italian bitters called Amaro, made with distilled grape spirits, herbs and spices. “There’s more Fernet-Branca consumed in San Francisco per capita than anywhere else in the world,” said Ellington, who describes it as “very bitter and very medicinal tasting, very herbal. If you try Fernet you will either love it right away or hate it forever.”
A mixologist’s favorite East Bay bars
“I am also never disappointed when I go to Pizzaiolo, they have a really good bar program there,” he said. He also is a fan of local distillery St. George Spirits in Alameda, distillers of gin, Bourbon, Absinthe and fruit liqueurs.
And that Flickr account that started everything? Ellington now has more than 1,700 different images of drinks he’s mixed up there. And another book is in the works, this time with a focus on the modern craft cocktail.
One of them could be The Berkeleyside, which he concocted especially for our readers.
“The main inspiration for it is spirits from two local outstanding distilleries [St. George’s Spirits and Tempus Fugit Spirits in Novato],” said Ellington. “I wanted something refreshing and summery to reflect the general climate of the Bay Area. I’m a big fan of both the Spiced Pear Vodka and the Gran Classico and thought they would complement each other well; the bright, bitter, citrus-y herbaceousness of the Gran Classico, which is similar to Campari, with the fruitiness of the pear vodka. The Curaçao is a good citrus-y sweetener that balances out the tart lime juice.”
Berkeleyside will raise our glass to that — and hey, better still, we’ll serve it at our 2014 Members’ Party. Be sure you’re on that guest list!
The Berkeleyside cocktail
1 oz St. George Spirits Hangar 1 Spiced Pear Vodka
1 oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
1/2 oz Tempus Fugit Gran Classico Bitters
1/2 oz lime juice
Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
Read more Nosh cocktail stories, including reviews of the bars at Prizefighter, Sidecar, Penrose, Gather, Picán, Paragon, and Hopscotch.
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