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Adria's couscous is made of tiny cauliflower granules. What seem to be pasta noodles are actually gelatinized consommé, and the rice grains in his risotto are precisely cut, three-eighths-inch-long pieces of soybean sprouts. But some of Adria's wildest experiments are performed on one of his favorite subjects: the cocktail.
A whiskey sour or daiquiri might be served in alternating layers of frozen and hot liquids. (This trick is accomplished using liquid nitrogen, a favorite Adria transformer.) In another cocktail, the liquor is encased in a frozen lozenge made of fruit that melts to form the cocktail.
Ferran Adria also uses fancy Jell-O shots to create solid cocktails that you eat. In Adria's deconstructed piña colada, pineapple sorbet, coconut foam and a rum Jell-O shot are lined up on a ceramic Chinese soup spoon. The separate chewable elements don't become a cocktail until you mix them all up in your mouth.
"Cooking techniques have come into the world of cocktailing -- this is an authentic revolution," Adria told me via a Q&A on egullet.org, an online food forum. "We can say that in Spain there has been real innovation in the field of cocktails. As it happened with cooking, it will take seven or eight years for this trend to develop. But I believe that our work, in hands of good barmen, will yield incredible results. We've simply outlined the foundations."
Nobody doubts that the cocktail is a quintessentially American invention. H.L. Mencken called it the "greatest of all the contributions of the American way of life to the salvation of mankind."
Exactly where and when the cocktail was invented is a subject shrouded in boozy mystery. Some theories claim it was born of necessity as the early colonists were forced to mix together dregs of whatever they could find to make punches, flips and frappés to get them through the long, cold winter. Of course, most of the colonists were English, hence there's some argument that the cocktail is a transatlantic hybrid.
In January of this year, the Museum of the American Cocktail opened in New Orleans. Dedicated to illustrating the history of the cocktail, the exhibit is located in a French Quarter home, above a pharmacy museum. The traveling exhibit consists of early pharmaceutical cocktails, historic ads, antique bar equipment and bottles of unopened liquors from yesteryear. One section is dedicated to Antoine Amedee Peychaud.
The French pharmacist Peychaud is credited with inventing the Sazerac, which many people call America's first true cocktail. But Peychaud's life story illustrates the problem with the all-American creation myth. Born in France, Peychaud first concocted his Peychaud bitters while he was living in Santo Domingo. He moved to New Orleans and opened a drugstore on Royal Street called Pharmacie Peychaud. There he served medicinal tonics in an eggcup, or coquetier in French. One legend holds that the word "cocktail" was a mispronunciation of coquetier.
Peychaud's original Sazerac was a mixture of Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brand cognac, which was imported from Limoges, France, absinthe, sugar and his Peychaud bitters. The year he invented the drink is unknown, but down the street from the pharmacy, the Sazerac Coffee House reportedly began popularizing it in 1853. In the 1870s, the cocktail's name was changed to the Sazerac House and rye was substituted for the French brandy. When absinthe was banned in 1912, it was replaced with the New Orleans pastis called Herbsaint.
If the first American cocktails need to give a little credit to European influences, so does the new generation. The modern cocktail era isn't so much a second coming of the golden age of American cocktails as it is an international movement. But above all, it's about cocktails as part of the fine dining experience.
Behind the polished wood bar at the Gramercy Tavern in New York, there's a blackboard listing daily drink specials. Three years ago, I ordered an odd-sounding drink there called a ginger gin and tonic. It turned out to be one of the most refreshing and unusual cocktails I've ever had.
To make it, Gramercy Tavern's bartenders slice up fresh ginger root and combine it in a sealed jar with a bottle of gin. This ginger-infused gin is then used to make the spicy ginger gin and tonics, which are garnished with chunks of sugarcoated crystallized ginger.
On subsequent visits to New York, I always stop by the Gramercy Tavern, just to see what other unusual cocktails they're serving. And I have been rewarded with rum-and-plum cocktails made with muddled ripe plums, cocktails containing rum and stewed rhubarb, and many others.
Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group owns Gramercy Tavern, Tabla and other New York restaurants famous for their cocktails, is one of the main forces behind the cocktail revolution in New York.
"We started trying to come up with cocktails that expressed the idea of the restaurant back at Union Square in 1985," Meyer recalls. At Mediterranean-inspired Union Square Cafe, the theme drink was an Italian Prosecco cocktail with French strawberry liqueur and a wild strawberry garnish. At the Indian fusion restaurant Tabla, it was the Masala Mary. "The drink list should be a megaphone for the concept of the restaurant," he told me over the phone.
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