Poured With Sophistication
By Rebecca Calappi/Photography by Mike Ferdinande
Back when cars were long, hair dos were art and suits were everyday attire, cocktails were king. And we can thank Prohibition for that. From 1920 to 1930, the United States was dry—no booze. As speakeasies came into fashion for thirsty flappers and their dates, bartenders had to be inventive to cover up the taste of the horrible liquor that was available. So, they mixed drinks with creams, fruit, coffee, bitters and anything else that would improve the drinking experience and hide the smell from law enforcement. Fast-forward to the 1960s. Neighborhoods ran on cocktail parties. Slurping down a beer or blending mixes was unheard of. Martinis, highballs and Manhattans were poured with sophistication and decorum. When the 1980s whooshed through, alcohol consumption began to change. Now, nearly 50 years later, bartenders and mixologists are noticing an uptick in throw-back drinks from the 60s and 70s.
Cocktails from the past are back on trend and back on menus, resuscitating a lost sense of how to do things right. And, the crown jewel of the cocktail revival is the Old Fashioned.
Living up to its name, the earliest record of the great-grandfather of the Old Fashioned appeared in 1806, when the editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository was asked to define “cocktail.” His response, “It was a potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar; it was also referred to at the time as a Bittered Sling.”
The drink took on various additions through the centuries, including absinthe and orange curacao, as well as other liqueurs. A bartender in Louisville, Kentucky, is one of the earliest to take credit for creating and naming the drink reborn by the AMC series Mad Men—the Old Fashioned.
While the drink has evolved over time, much of the ingredients remain the same: bitters, sugar and some form of whiskey, rye, bourbon or brandy.
Today, whiskey is the preferred spirit, and Paul Gogo, co-owner of Mr. Paul’s Chophouse, has perfected his recipe for the classic beverage. “It’s a great drink. I barrel-age old fashioned mix and make my own syrup and I use Demerara sugar instead of a sugar cube,” explained Gogo. “I am proud of the Old Fashioned. It’s a great drink.”
His special syrup is made with Demerara sugar infused with vanilla bean, aged in barrels for six to eight weeks.
Gogo started working at the family business on Groesbeck in Warren when it opened in 1968 and has been working behind the bar since about 1978. Celebrating 50 years in 2018, Mr. Paul’s Chophouse has a longtime following and is known for their classic steak house style. Watching generations go through their doors, they have seen firsthand how cocktails have stood the test of time.
Gogo said he’s seen higher demand for other classics as well: The Cosmopolitan, Moscow Mule, Last Word and Rob Roy. “I enjoy the resurgence of these cocktails. It’s very millennial driven,” said Gogo. “There’s a reason they’re classics. Their proportions are correct. Not that frou-frou excess of the 70s.”
Blaine Figard, mixologist for J. Baldwin’s Restaurant in Clinton Township, specializes in pre-Prohibition cocktails with European twists.
“The old cocktails are making a comeback,” Figard said. “People are starting to care more about what they’re putting into their bodies, so that’s transferring to their alcohol. The freshness behind what it was back in the day is what’s driving this.”
Thirsty guests want to know what’s going into the drinks they’re ordering, and they can’t get that with mixes that come from a bottle. Take the whiskey sour, for example. Making it the old way means using an egg white to get the frothiness on top, where more recently, bartenders would use a mix to get the same effect.
Of course, wine and beer are still very popular adult beverages, especially craft beers. And while wine has always been a staple, now people are asking for specific kinds: Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay. “Things like that you couldn’t give away a few years ago,” recalled Gogo. “It used to be red and white, now they know what they want.”
Gogo also says the resurgence of the cocktail is well timed with the abundance of local distilleries such as Fox River and Grey Skies.
But while the right liquor is essential, the right tools give it a hint of panache. “It’s nice to have a shaker,” he says with a smile. “Vintage bar equipment is hot right now.”
Recalling the days of the three-martini lunch, which was the bread and butter of Mr. Paul’s Chophouse, situated in an industrial corridor, Gogo says, “The consumption now is less. Drinking is still sociable, just more moderate.
”Figard agrees. “In the cocktail world, people care more now. It’s not just about catching a buzz, it’s about the experience,” he explained.
Cocktails are making a resurgence. “It’s show business. And it’s wonderful,” said Gogo.