Growing up in New Orleans, Michael LeBlanc used to watch his father sipping bourbon cocktails.
"In my recollection, those were the relaxing drinks of people who thought of themselves as gentlemen" — and who nursed highballs and mint juleps through hot nights "on the veranda, where you could feel the summer breeze and hear the crickets." But by the time LeBlanc had grown up, earned an MBA, spent many years in the business world, then decided to open his own restaurant, no one seemed to be drinking bourbon anymore.
"I looked around, and everything was either wine-driven, beer-driven, or dominated by what I call the 'clear alcohols': vodka and tequila. Bourbon was seen as old-fashioned and out of favor, something from the Fifties that went along with dark wood, heavy leather, and high testosterone. That's when I realized that my restaurant was not just going to serve bourbon. It was going to serve bourbon in all-inclusive ways and be the westernmost point on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail."
That's why Picán (2295 Broadway, Oakland) has a Bourbon Room with a ninety-bourbon portfolio and offers highballs comprising Basil Hayden's bourbon, lemon juice, orange bitters, and ginger beer. It offers mint juleps made with Jim Beam bourbon, rock-candy syrup, and fresh mint. Picán also serves the Sazerac, one of the oldest-known cocktails, a rye-bitters-absinthe-sugar toddy popular in the pre-Civil War South. Henry's (2600 Durant Ave., Berkeley) serves Sazeracs too, using Alameda-made St. George Spirits absinthe and a hint of star anise.
It's part of a not-so-quiet revolution (insert sounds of ice cracking, shakers shaking, and bright uninhibited laughter): Obscure classic cocktails, those sweet/sour/limpid/foamy/funny-named formulae that made our forebears flirt with strangers in a trillion low-lit bars, are back — newly remodeled by and for a generation that cares as much about the sourcing, science, sustainability, and beauty of its alcoholic beverages as of its food.
That's why Luka's, (2221 Broadway, Oakland) gimlet diverges from the rudimentary classic vodka/lime juice combination to incorporate rosemary syrup and small-batch, single-grain, super-premium, quadruply distilled Belvedere vodka from a small century-old distillery near Warsaw. Rosemary syrup also infuses the Rosemary Collins — a transgendered Tom Collins — at Flora (1900 Telegraph Ave., Oakland). And that's why the Kona Club's (4401 Piedmont Ave., Oakland) Scorpion includes apricot brandy, several rums, fresh lemon and lime, orgeat, orange juice, guava nectar, and Falernum, an allspice/ginger/almond syrup that has been produced in the Caribbean for at least a century.
"At a lot of bars, these bottles sat around for years and no one used them or knew how to use them," says East Bay bartender Zachary Taylor, who also blogs at SpiritOfTheBar.com. "Now we're seeing a renaissance as modern mixologists get more and more into bringing back cocktails that were famous in the Fifties or the Sixties or even before Prohibition."
Tracking down archival recipes for drinks whose names have nearly vanished but which were once household words — Airmail, Negroni, Old Pal — mixologists are updating these almost-lost classics just as restaurant chefs are now updating pulled pork and crème brûlée. And like restaurant chefs, today's liquid chefs are drawing upon a range of components rendered newly limitless by the ongoing food revolution: organic produce, obscure brews, artisanal products, sweet alternatives to sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Taylor's ruby fizz, which he calls "a play on a classic cocktail formula," includes agave, sparkling wine, Cap Rock gin, lemon and pomegranate juice, and an orange twist. His version of the XYZ — a venerable but fairly simple rum/lemon/Cointreau combo — uses rhum agricole from Martinique.
"It's distilled from fresh sugar cane, so it gives you a grassy flavor and a sense of terroir. Common light rum is made from molasses, so it's more refined. But with rhum agricole, you take that juice and you ferment it, and it tastes like it came up from the land."
Rhum agricole — along with Angostura bitters, muddled pineapple, Antilles syrup, freshly squeezed orange and lime juice, and ginger beer — also goes into the Spiced Rhum Punch served at the Walnut Creek Yacht Club (1555 Bonanza St., Walnut Creek), which offers 65 different rums and what the owner says is the East Bay's only traditional absinthe service: La Fée or St. George Spirits absinthe, squirted droplet by droplet through spigots from a four-nozzled vintage urn onto sugar cubes in slotted spoons held over glasses. The Yacht Club also serves the Mai Tai 1944, based on the original signature drink of Trader Vic's (9 Anchor Dr., Emeryville), which reopened recently and is again serving Mai Tais, Zombies, Siboneys, and other South Seas-inspired sips amid an irresistibly over-the-top tropical ambience.
The Yacht Club's Mai Tai 1944 starts with a mixture of rums, orange Curaçao, and orgeat over crushed ice. "Then we squeeze out half a lime, invert it into a cup shape, fill it with a dark rum, push it down into the drink with a mint leaf, and add a shake of powdered sugar," explained co-owner Kevin Weinberg.
Two divergent trends divide modern mixologists, Weinberg said. "You've got the revivalists who love old-school drinks and use actual recipes to make them. Then you've got your farmers'-market mixologists," bent on using ever-more-experimental types of produce in drinks.
Both trends intersect in the Bloody Marys at Henry's, which comprise vodka, stout, lime, tomato, peppers, cucumber, horseradish, garlic, onions, spices, and pickled green beans. Luka's serves Buddha's Hand Martinis, comprising fresh lemon and pomegranate juice, sugar, and Alameda-made Hangar One vodka flavored with exotic Buddha's-hand citron.
The classic-cocktail revival is boosting venerable companies such as Galliano, the century-old maker of the anise-flavored liqueur that figures prominently in Harvey Wallbangers, and it's spawning new companies such as The Bitter Truth, whose award-winning bitters are flavored with chocolate, celery, grapefruit, and more.
"We don't just want to bring these drinks back," says LeBlanc, whose Picán serves lavender-vodka Lemon Drops and bourbon-spiked eggnog. "We want to make them more interesting."