Matt Piacentini helped develop the Beagle’s old-school cocktail menu, which we love here at Fork in the Road. He’s a little bit of a cocktail history nerd, so we asked him to explain how he researched the drinks on the menu and the story behind the restaurant’s unusual pairing boards.
You’ve described the Beagle’s cocktail menu as “academic.” What does that mean?
We’re innovative, but we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; we’re simply trying to make the best wheel we can. The cocktail was perfected around 1900 — that’s when drinks were really just great and the ingredients were fantastic. You’d start working at a bar and it would be seven years before you were allowed to make a drink — that’s how seriously this stuff was taken. And we love that history, the fact that in those days everything was done for a reason. So we pore through old books and find out how these drinks were made. For example: What would the ice have looked like? If there’s a recipe with brandy, we’ll try to figure out what type of brandy they would have been using at the bar the recipe is from, and how that’s different from the brandy we use now.
So these cocktails are straight from the 1900s?
Well, we do riff on things. Sometimes the cocktail recipes we find in books are just terrible and we have to change them. But for the most part, even for the original drinks here, we pretty much follow the same set of rules that were in place pre-Prohibition. We’re not terribly culinary, so if we have to make raspberry syrup or something, we’ll make it, but the way they would have back then. Although, we use an electric juicer, and they didn’t.
Do you have some favorite cocktail references?
I love The Stork Club Bar Book. I find it to be the book with the highest percentage of the recipes that are perfect as written. Barflies and Cocktails and the Café Royal Cocktail Book are good. Imbibe is great because the instructions in it are so specific, there’s like a whole paragraph on exactly what they mean by a lump of ice. And also The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks — the guy that wrote it was a lawyer and an extremely opinionated person, and his prose is some of the best and funniest I’ve ever read.
What’s the best cocktail on the menu?
Well, right now I’m really into the North Side Fix, which is a little twist on a classic — but it’s still a very classic twist. The drink is based on an East Side Fix, which is made with gin, lime juice, mint, and cucumber. We replaced the gin with a Danish aquavit, Aalborg, which has a fantastic caraway flavor. It’s that little bit of caraway that makes what is essentially a cucumber mojito into a unbelievable complex and layered drink that you can still suck down in two sips.
The Aircraft Carrier looks interesting. Can you tell me about that one?
It’s a simple variation on an Aviation made with navy-strength gin. We’re really good friends with Allen Katz from the New York Distilling Company, so we’re very happy that he’s making navy-strength gin, the only one commercially available in the U.S. right now. We wanted to put a cocktail on our list to honor that. And navy-strength gin has this great story about it being so strong that gunpowder can still explode if it’s soaked in the liquid. Nobody can resist getting the drink after hearing that.
Another uncommon thing on the menu is your pairing boards. What’s the idea behind them?
This is a concept that’s very near and dear to my heart. It’s something that I was into long before I even started working at restaurants. My first experience with them was in 1998, when I was living in London and my best friend was this Swedish guy. One long weekend, he was going home to his family in Stockholm and he invited me to go with him. So I did and the night we arrived his parents made this huge dinner. For one of the courses, they put down these little bottles of aquavit in front of everybody and then proceeded to serve one of the most horrifying-looking things I had ever seen, pickled herring. I was totally intimidated when they told me to eat the herring with toast and then immediately take a shot of aquavit. But it was so great, and really worked as a ritual and also just on the palate. It was like diving into a cold swimming pool after being in a hot tub — just a thrill.
How have they gone over at the restaurant?
For the most part, they’ve gone over really well. But we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. Right now on the menu we’ve got two classics — the mackerel and aquavit is Swedish, and the foie gras and the Pineau des Charentes is a French pairing. So we can say to the people who are wavering over ordering them: Listen, these pairings are centuries old; they work. And if you like that, then you can venture into the two pairings that are of our own design — the burrata and gin and the pork belly and rye.
What new things can we look forward to trying at the Beagle’s bar?
Well, we’re opening for brunch on March 10, and we’re going to have a whole new brunch drink menu. The menu isn’t finished yet, but we’re poring through the books, looking at all the fun morning drinks, all the revivers and bracers — all those good cures from the old days.