Local mix masters are raising the bar

Ted Haigh was 14 when he decided to become a cocktail archaeologist.

A fan of old movies like “The Thin Man,” Haigh was stunned to discover recipes for all the drinks favored by Nick and Nora Charles on his parents’ bookshelf, inside Patrick Gavin Duffy’s “The Official Mixers Manual.”

Haigh vowed to track down the ingredients and make them himself — as soon as he was old enough.

Former Bar Marmont manager Jared Meisler, who is preparing to open Bar Lubitsch with Sean MacPherson in West Hollywood, spent a year researching old-school drinks — so many, that he began inventing drinks in his dreams. “It’s like cooking without burning yourself,” he says.

Meet the new breed of bartender: the bar chef. “Bartending wasn’t a hot career choice for a long time,” says “Esquire Drinks” author David Wondrich. “People saw it as a temporary job and didn’t take the time to learn the inner secrets of mixology.”

Today, bars and restaurants want to take pride in their cocktail lists. Says Norman’s sommelier Peter Birmingham, who once spent three months trying to develop a white Bloody Mary, “I saw a great opportunity (at Norman’s) to make the bar as attractive and as exciting as the kitchen.”

In the process, bartenders — or, as some prefer, mixologists — are becoming stars in their own right.

Twenty years ago, Tony Abou-Ganim was an actor who couldn’t get an agent. Today, he’s a cocktail consultant for Innovative Dining Group’s BOA Steakhouse, Katana and Sushi Roku, one who’s repped by the William Morris Agency and who hosts “Raising the Bar: America’s Best Bar Chefs” on the Fine Living Network.

“I have never seen a more creative time to be behind the bar than what we are experiencing right now,” says Abou-Ganim.

Haigh does have a day job; he’s a graphic artist on movies including “Road to Perdition,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Ray.” However, that only helps fund his first love. On March 5, he’ll be at Commander’s Palace in Las Vegas to oversee the grand opening of the Museum of the American Cocktail. The nonprofit organization also will be a sponsor of the first American Cocktail Awards this spring.

Among the 200 years’ worth of memorabilia available at the museum is a small portion of Haigh’s 1,200-bottle liquor collection. Some are more than 100 years old; others are no longer in production, like Crème Yvette, which was made of violet petals.

All of this may sound distinctly alcoholic, but mixologists don’t advocate syrupy, super-sized highballs; they only want drinkers to give alcohol greater respect. Says Haigh, “A 10-ounce cocktail is a good way to end up with a big head and a warm drink.”

Instead, the emphasis is on more traditional cocktails, ones that don’t fear the bolder character of liquors like gin, whiskey, rum and cognac.

“When I make a cocktail, I want to make it bitter, sweet and sour, always leaning slightly more to the bitter,” says Daniel Reichert. As owner of bartending service Vintage Cocktails, he works with a host to select the four or five cocktails that he’ll make for the night. This can come as a shock to guests who are used to ordering vodka-Red Bulls, but Reichert says he welcomes the challenge. “I like nothing more than convincing a confirmed gin hater that gin is a most delightful ingredient.”

Reichert also will explain a drink’s history while he works, carefully measuring each component to preserve the recipe’s integrity. “He’s a great raconteur,” says Women in Film founder Sue Cameron, who hired Reichert for her birthday fete. “When (he) has a bar at the party, it becomes part of the party.”

However, Reichert has nothing but disdain for the bottle-juggling displayed by Tom Cruise in “Cocktail,” believing the most potent charms should belong to his drinks.

“Bartenders should have style,” he says, “but it shouldn’t be a show.”

A mania for mixology

We asked our bar chefs for a few of their favorite drinks. The result is a handful of classics, plus a couple of unique creations.

The Sazerac
drinkboy.com
Created by Antoine Peychaud in the middle of the 19th century and named for his favorite cognac, Sazerac-de-Forge et fils. Around 1870, France’s grape crops went south and sent cognac prices skyward, so he began using rye whisky instead. The original drink contained absinthe; we make do with Pernod.
1/2 tsp. Pernod
1 dash Peychaud bitters
1/2 tsp. simple syrup (sugar dissolved in anequal amount of water)
2 oz. rye whiskey
Coat a chilled old-fashioned glass with Pernod. Pour out most of what remains, perhaps leaving a small puddle in the bottom of the glass. Add bitters, syrup and Whiskey. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

Ramos Fizz (circa 1888)
Peter Birmingham, Norman’s
Please note that this drink demands considerable advance preparation.
2 dozen organic Meyer lemons
1 bottle Plymouth gin
Remove the lemon zest with a vegetable peeler. Stuff zest into the gin bottle. Cap the bottle and freeze at 28 degrees F for one month.
1 large egg white
3 oz. regular Plymouth gin
1 oz. lemon-infused Plymouth gin
3 oz. fresh lemon juice
½ oz. simple syrup
6 oz. ice
Chilled seltzer water
Orange blossom water
Place egg white, gins, lemon juice, simple syrup and ice in a blender; puree until the drink reaches a sherbet consistency. Pour 8 oz. of mixture into an 11-oz. Collins glass. Top with seltzer water, a dash of orange blossom water and stir.

Desperate Housewife
A recent invention of Daniel Reichert, who doesn’t like to make Cosmopolitans. “I find them dull,” he says. “This has a little more spine to it, but it’s still easy to drink.” Reichert will mix these when he opens his first bar in Studio City this summer.
1 ½ oz. light rum
¾ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. pomegranate juice
¼ oz. Maraschino liqueur
Shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.

The Jack Rose
drinkboy.com
Daniel Reichert says the drink was rumored to be named after a turn-of-the century Manhattan street tough, but it’s probably named for the brandy it contains. A favorite of Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn.
1 ½ oz. applejack brandy
½ oz. lime juice
½ oz. grenadine
lime wedge
Combine brandy, lime juice and grenadine in a cocktail shaker; shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lime wedge.

Cucumber Gimlet
Bar Lubitsch partner Jared Meisler, who “loves a good gimlet,” says he was inspired to create this drink while eating a cucumber-wrapped sushi roll.
5 thin slices seedless cucumbers
2 slices of lime
1 tsp. sugar
3 ½ oz. vodka
Muddle cucumbers, lime and sugar. Shake with vodka. Pour into a bird-bath style glass.

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