By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
At first glance, “Artisanal Cocktails” might seem an odd choice for the 12 Bottle Bar library. After all, many of the drinks are vodka-based and, with their plethora of herbal/floral ingredients, complex to assemble. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to describe author/bartender Scott Beattie’s drinks as “garden shrubbery in a glass” (meant in the best possible way… we think). Yet, Beattie’s seasonal, craftsman philosophy is not far removed from that of 12BB or, for that matter, the realm of the original mixmasters like Jerry Thomas to whom we all owe a debt.
Like Thomas, Harry McElhone, and others from the past, Beattie has always championed the freshest, highest-quality ingredients possible. Like today’s and yesterday’s best bartenders, Beattie uses precise, chef-like techniques, stresses the importance of quality ice, and shows how edible ingredients can elevate even the most basic drink. In many ways, Beattie has been our Virgil in the realm of aromatic, seasonal mixology, teaching us to riff on the classics and encouraging us to create our own unique beverages. While many of his recipes fall outside the purview of 12BB’s “rules”, his approach is dynamic and modern, making his book a must-have for any bartender, at home or otherwise.
Beattie’s fascination with ingredients was inspired by San Francisco, where he was born and raised. Anyone who has visited the City by the Bay and its environs knows that it is a powder keg of culinary ideas exploding on a daily basis. San Francisco itself has always bustled with foodie energy, whether in the Ferry Building, the murky shops of Chinatown, or the jam-packed spaces in Little Italy. Just across the bay bridge is Berkeley, home to Chez Panisse, the original artisanal restaurant whose chef/owner Alice Waters practically invented the phrase “local cuisine”. To the northeast lies Napa/Sonoma wine country, whose fecund landscape produces some of the world’s best wine along with many of the country’s most astounding artisan purveyors, not to mention the sine qua non of dining, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. In short, Beattie, like anyone with a passion for food, couldn’t help but be inspired.
As a neophyte bartender in the 1990s, Beattie was, in his own words, “only concerned about mastering the techniques of preparing the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan and a Lemon Drop with Chambord floating in the bottom”. His world experienced a seismic shift when he sampled a drink at SF’s Absinthe Brasserie & Bar made by bartender Marco Dionysis. As Scott would go on to do, Dionysis made his own syrups and incorporated fresh herbs and juices. Beattie was sold and, when he had the opportunity in 2004, he approached Chef Douglas Keane with the idea of designing a bar menu for Keane’s new venture Cyrus in Healdsburg. Keane gave Beattie carte blanche, and slowly he evolved his bartending philosophy, with the help of produce at Healdsburg’s bountiful farmer’s markets, as well with as local farmers with whom Beattie created unique relationships. With a child-like energy enthusiasm, Beattie even started foraging in the nearby woods for his own ingredients like huckleberries and wild fennel.
While many of us are not blessed with the accessible bounty in Beattie’s backyard, we are all capable of employing his approach to making drinks. His cocktails are seasonal because he only uses ingredients when they are truly available. Spring sources vibrant flowers like jasmine and young vegetables like spring onions to create stunning, edible garnishes. Summer means heirloom tomatoes and fresh berries. Fall naturally incorporates unfermented grape juice and verjus (unripe grape juice), while winter, when the farmer’s markets are closed for the season, focuses on fresh-squeezed citrus juices. In his journey to source the best ingredients, Beattie became something of a Svengali of seasonal sippers; he often bartered Cyrus dinners for fresh Meyer lemons, Rangpur limes, and satsumas that he saw in people’s front yards. Nor was he above pulling on his galoshes and picking wild blackberries that grow creekside all over Healdsburg. In short, there is very little that Beattie would not do to create a perfect cocktail.
As you flip through “Artisanal Cocktails”, you’ll come to realize, as I mentioned, that not all of his drinks can be made according to the tenets of 12 Bottle Bar. Don’t let that stop you. Beattie uses a lot of infused vodkas because they allow for a more neutral base to elevate his drink flavors. If you aren’t feeling the need to expand on your 12 Bottle Bar list, rest assured that there are still plenty of usable recipes. Among those that can be made are drop-dead gorgeous and tasty Beattie originals like the Hot Indian Date (rum, lime, seltzer, tamarind syrup, pickled hearts of palm), the Gin Kimchi (gin, lemon, ginger-shiso syrup, pickle ginger and daikon, ginger beer), and the Sunny and Dry (lemon verbena, gin, lemon juice, mint simple syrup, seltzer, preserved cucumber).
Much to his credit, Beattie doesn’t mess with the classics, offering up unfussy recipes for old-school drinks like the Cuba Libre, the Manhattan, and the Negroni. Even the Gin and Tonic gets its due, but Beattie makes it clear that with this drink, as with all cocktails, the specific ingredient profile (which gin or bourbon, the quality of the tonic or seltzer) will make a difference in the final product. Along with the recipes, Beattie offers up useful culinary techniques for prepping ingredients, including how to infuse simple syrup with toasted spices, make juice-based foams, and dehydrate fruits/pickling vegetables for surprising garnishes.
While you won’t be able to just whip up one of Beattie’s concoctions in five minutes, you will find yourself seduced by a process that is at once elegant and exciting. And, if you feel a bit like a chef, that’s Beattie’s intent – he sees mixology as a craft needing as much subtlety and intuition as cooking. The results, should you put yourself in Beattie’s hands, are remarkably satisfying both to the eye and the palate. As Beattie says, without apology, “these drinks take time to prepare, but I’ve found the process can be as enjoyable as the first sip.” We couldn’t agree more.
These days, you’ll find Beattie behind the stick at Spoonbar in Healdsburg. His focus has turned more to the classics, but he still incorporates much of his local, seasonal philosophy into his drinks. If you find yourself in his neck of the woods, sidle up to the bar, settle in, and ask for “bartender’s choice”. Whatever the pour, you won’t be disappointed.
Exoterica: Every liquor featured in “Artisanal Cocktails” – from Sarticious Gin to Germain-Roth XO brandy — comes from a bay area distillery, proving you can have your booze and be a locavore too. It’s enough to make Michael Pollan say “Cheers!”