Cocktails 101

Things have a funny way of coming full circle. When my interest in cocktails first took off a few years ago, it didn’t take long for me to discover some of the most authoritative experts in the field. Within a week of my decision to explore the topic, I was reading William Grimes’ incredible Straight Up or On the Rocks and David Wondrich’s Esquire Drinks, two books that–more than any others I’ve come across–thoroughly explore and explain the history of cocktails and the world of culinary mixology. That same week, I also discovered two websites: an online presence of a group of other cocktail explorers at the Drinkboy forum, hosted by a Seattle-based rabid cocktail geek, Robert Hess; and Hess’s own site,, which has an abundance of information that proved invaluable to a beginning (amateur) bartender.

So that whole full-circle thing kicked in on Sunday, when–along with about a dozen other people, ranging from curious amateurs (I’m assuming) to professional bartenders and bar consultants with years of experience–I attended Robert’s presentation of “Cocktails 101” at Mona’s, a bar and restaurant in north Seattle. Robert’s been studying cocktails for years now, and the breadth and depth of his understanding is quite impressive. While I knew this from the start, it became even more clear over the two hours or so that he spoke, as he ranged from the jurassic era of cocktails–the juleps and shrubs of the early 1800s–through the saloons of the latter part of that century, into the Gilded Age and Prohibition, then into the WWII-era tiki craze before finishing up with that whole vodka situation that’s happened since the ’60s or so. Along the way he took a few healthy tangents into topics such as the world of bitters, the blind tasting of spirits and the sad story of absinthe. And best of all, we got to drink–starting with a Champagne cocktail (which, as Robert explained, fit the bill as a true cocktail because it included all the cocktail’s original elements of sugar, bitters, spirits and water–Champagne being “undistilled brandy,” so counting for both spirits and water in one shot), followed by a Sidecar and culminating with a Jasmine, with small tastes along the way of an Old Fashioned, an early version of a Martini (made with equal parts gin and sweet vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters), and a Mai Tai.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a “cocktail seminar”–in my mind’s eye I pictured the whole college-classroom setup with fluorescent lights and a blackboard–but Mona’s on a Sunday night was a great place to have this: warm, comfortable, with a friendly and capable staff and an excellent kitchen. And while Robert’s seminar covered a number of different topics–touching on matters that seemed counterintuitive to some and objectionable to others, along with other issues on which reasonable people may disagree–my only quibble is that there was too much for one evening. Robert’s extensive presentation could easily be broken into a number of different subject areas–Prohibition-era drinks, cocktails of the Gilded Age, early American drinks, the tiki phenomenon, etc.–each deserving its own hour or two of discussion and exploration in one of the city’s finer watering holes. Not quite a quibble, I guess–more of a request, for more events like this in the future. As the popularity of classic and well-crafted cocktails grows, it’s good to have events like “Cocktails 101″(as well as, hopefully, more graduate-level classes in mixology) that can provide local bartenders with a firm foundation on which to work, as well as to guide foodies and avid amateurs who–through word-of-mouth or word-of-blog–get others excited in culinary drinks. I’m looking forward to the next round.

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