If there’s one reason to do a blog like this, it’s the people we get to meet. As I mentioned in Part 1, it’s the egalitarian nature of the cocktail that lured us in and keeps us coming back for more. No matter who you are – even if you’re some Johnny-come-lately blogger – as long as you can appreciate the simple art of combining this with that via a flick of the wrist, well, you’ve got all the credentials you need to join the club. At least, that’s how other people seem to treat us.
On our POM Wonderful trip to the bucolic Napa Valley last week, we set out to meet as many of our cocktail heroes as possible. First on the list was Erik Ellestad – a fine gentleman if ever there was one – followed by an unexpected introduction to the inimitable Julio Bermejo of Tommy’s Restaurant. And that was just the second day of the trip – we hadn’t even reached Napa yet, an issue we would rectify the next day.
Scott Beattie had been on our short list of “12 Rounds” interviewees for some time. Not only was Beattie the poster boy for farm-fresh, locally sourced cocktails, the man recently performed a trick relatively unheard of in culinary circles: he began a second act. To explain, there’s a sentiment that American filmmakers do not, on the whole, have second acts; they work in one genre (Cameron, Lucas, Fincher, etc, etc.) until they quit the movie business or the movie business quits them. For a great example of a successful second act, think of Leslie Nielsen or Lloyd Bridges – suave leading man for the first act, comic buffoon for the second. For Scott Beattie, the change consisted of building up one of the most lauded careers in mixology for pioneering a certain style of drink (farm fresh, playful, and delicious) then putting it all aside to embrace more simple classic cocktails.
We met Beattie at Spoonbar, his new venture in Healdsburg. Here, Beattie has crafted what is arguably the best cocktail menu in America. It’s thorough yet immensely approachable and completely grounded in the classics. By grounded, I mean that Beattie does something wonderful in that he’ll present a classic version of a drink like the Manhattan, then offer a couple of variations on it. Should you want a straight Negroni, it’s yours, but should you want to play a little bit, you can opt (as I did) for the Tempus Fugit, which includes Ransom Old Tom Gin, Carpano Antica Vermouth, and Gran Classico Bitters (amazing stuff). In and of itself, this is a sensational way to present drinks. But it gets even better: that drink with phenomenal, ultra-premium ingredients costs a mere $8.50. Where we live in suburbia, drinks made with well liquor are over $10, so you can appreciate the potentially game-changing significance of what Beattie is doing.
As a bar rockstar, Beattie is about as unassuming as you can get. We caught him on a busy day, but he still made time to sit and chat with us. Not that I plan to, but you get the sense that if you have a question about any of the drinks in Beattie’s Artisanal Cocktails book, you could just pick up the phone and ask him. Our only regret of the evening was that our toddler was less cooperative than usual, and we found ourselves taking turns entertaining him (in case you’re wondering, we sat in the restaurant, not the bar) and, ultimately, having to cut things shorter than we would have hoped. I could have spent all night at Spoonbar, and I hope to get the chance to return again soon. If you’re in the neighborhood, you’d be a fool to pass it by.
As this post is about the kindness of the people that we met along our travels, let me state again what an inviting guy Beattie is. In a time when a number of people complain about too-cool bartenders, it’s reaffirming to see someone at the top of their game carry themselves with such casual grace – much like a barman of a different age. Which brings us to Brian Rea.
As I sat in his home office, I told Brian Rea that if Lesley ever left me, his would be the first place I’d come looking. For a few years now, Lesley and Brian have been corresponding about all things gin and, now, 12 Bottles. It’s hard to pick a place to start talking about Brian because his life has seen so many cocktail-related achievements. In the 1940s, Brian was a barman at the 21 Club in New York, one of the most important restaurants in America, where he served a who’s who list of celebrities and heads of state. This led to other premier bartending gigs and, ultimately, a position as Corporate Beverage Director for Host International, overseeing airports, hotels, restaurants, and bars around the world. Brian literally wrote the book on bar management, and in 2010 he was awarded the Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award at Tales of the Cocktail. But all of this is merely part of what makes Brian so damned interesting.
Over the years, Rea started to collect bar memorabilia – bottles, books, everything – amassing one of the greatest private collections of bar related materials on the planet. Want to flip through an original Jerry Thomas Bar-Tender’s Guide? Brian will happily pull it down for you, and it’s the reason that pretty much anyone who’s written a classic cocktail guide in recent years has at least traded emails with the man. Still, this is but a small piece of what makes Brian so important. No, the real magic is Brian himself.
This is the kind of guy who makes every man feel like Cary Grant and every woman like Grace Kelly. King or pauper, he treats you not only with respect but – and I can’t stress the importance of this enough – as a gentleman or a lady. When you’re with Brian, you have his undivided attention, and you leave with a feeling that he has truly appreciated his time with you. This quality was evident back when Lesley was trading emails with him on her gin book, and it’s even more evident when you’re sitting in his office, debating the gimlet. I’ve never tasted a drink that Brian has mixed, but mixing drinks can learned. What Brian has, however, can’t be taught or bought, borrowed or stolen, and I think that’s what has made him a standout in his profession for so long.
As with all of our visits, the trip to see Brian ended too soon, and before we knew it, we were touching down on the Burbank tarmac again. As with Part 1, this post is more of a chronicle of our experiences and an electronic thank you than anything else. POM Wonderful, of course, gets a big nod for giving us the opportunity to travel north, and I’d like especially like to thank Jason Mills and the staff at Mustards Grill for an exceptional dinner. Jason’s got a great drinks program going there – wine, cocktails, and especially the Eden Ice Cider – so be sure to visit if you find yourself outside of Yountville and hungry.
Over the course of five days we really got to experience the past, the present, and the future of the bar. It’s when you sit across from men like Brian Rea, Scott Beattie, Julio Bermejo, or Erik Ellestad – be it at the bar, a dining table, or in their office – that you really appreciate the state of the drinking in America (and, to be fair, the world). One and all, these are dedicated craftsman, committed not to ego and flair but to bringing us the best drinks in the best manner possible. Due to the efforts and passions of these men – and those like them across the world –as well as historians like David Wondrich and Ted Haigh, global evangelists like Gary Regan, artisanal purveyors such as Leopold’s, Ransom Spirits, and Adam Elmegirab, and, last but certainly not least, each and every one of you who truly cares about your drinks, the world of cocktails is truly in very good hands.