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To create the sophisticated drink menu at the new Bourgeois Pig in Carroll Gardens, Frank Cisneros has been delving into the often mysterious world of European liquor. He told us about his adventures tracking down some of the forgotten spirits and liqueurs from the Continent and mixing them back into the bar scene.
How did you get into the drink business?
The short story is that I used to live in southwestern Washington State and do a lot of antique shopping. One day, I found an old copy of William Boothby’s The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them, and I had no idea what it was, but I bought the book and a ton of alcohol, and I set out to make every drink in it. It took me about a year, and I got through most of the book. Back then, I was working at regular dive bars in Portland and DJing. Years later, I moved to New York, and I started working at a restaurant and got my wine degree. While that was going on, all these bars were opening, particularly PDT and Death & Co., around 2007. And I started thinking that this was really interesting; this was the stuff I used to do at home. Never did I think the things I used to read about in books were something people could do for a living. It was a lot more interesting than even wine. So I gave up the whole wine thing and met Tom Chadwick, who’s the owner of Dram, in 2008, and he helped me put the book knowledge that I had to actual muscle memory, and learn the nitty-gritty of cocktail bartending, and it all took off from there.
You’ve described the cocktail menu at the Bourgeois Pig in Brooklyn as “consciously European.” What does that mean exactly?
When you look at the great classic cocktail bars in New York — whether that’s Death & Co. or PDT or Little Branch — they predominately rely on rye, rum, and gin. Really gin and whiskey are the two main things, and neither of those is a Continental European spirit. When you’re talking about spirits from Europe, you’re talking about Italian amaros; brandies, typically French brandies but not just cognac; German brandies; Spanish brandies from Jerez — all these are pretty much forgotten spirits. What I wanted to explore was how to rely a little less on the tried-and-true formula of rye, bitters, and sugar, and see if I could do something else with other spirits instead. But I wanted to maintain a firmly classic style, because I don’t necessarily believe in using liquid-nitrogen infusions and all that. I do appreciate it, but I definitely wanted to be classic while using these old spirits.
Are these European spirits hard to track down?
They are ridiculously hard to track down. When I first created the menu, part of it was laying out a palate of what I can even commercially get. I asked myself why my colleagues had never done something like this before. And, as I found out, the answer is that it’s really hard to get a lot of these spirits. Most recently, I designed a cocktail around a German caraway-based spirit, kummel, and it became entirely unavailable in New York State — there just wasn’t any. So it became a matter of calling around to different companies, trying to figure out where some was left. And I found one container of it that’s coming through customs that I’m supposed to be able to get this week. So it’s just stuff like that. Obviously, if you’re making cocktails with Maker’s Mark you’re not going to have these issues. But sometimes I’m dealing with spirits of which there are only three cases in the entire United States. So it becomes a one-shot sort of deal.
What spirit are you most excited about on the menu?
There’s one called Pelinkovac, a Balkan spirit, which is best described as maraschino liqueur meets sweet vermouth meets Italian amaro. There’s really nothing else that tastes like it, so it has been really fun to experiment with it. We use it in one of our cocktails called the Eastern Bloc — a play on a Vieux Carré, which means “old square” in French, a classic New Orleans cocktail traditionally made with sweet vermouth, rye, and brandy. We played around with it, introducing German brandy, Italian amaros, sweet vermouths, and the Pelinkovac. So I think that’s a really fun one. Our bar and Amor y Amargo are the only two places in the city where you can get the spirit, as far as I know.
What’s your favorite drink on the menu?
My favorite drink on the menu is the Zombie Amaro, which is interesting because it plays with a concept that I call the Mediterranean tiki. I was trying to imagine what would happen if tiki was less about Polynesia and more about the ingredients of the Mediterranean — both alcoholic and nonalcoholic ingredients. So instead of relying on a bunch of different rums, I wondered if I could make a zombie mostly with Italian bitters. I didn’t really think it could be done, and it took a lot of tries to get it right, but once we did I was really excited. There are 12 ingredients in the drink. Normally there are four rums in a Zombie, but in our version there is only one — Lemon Hart 151 — just to provide a little bit of proof.
What are you guys up to for spring?
We’re working on our spring menu right now, and it’ll probably come out in the next two or three weeks. A couple of the drinks will remain — the Zombie Amaro, the Il San Marino, and the Munich Old-Fashioned — but I’m never really married to any single cocktail. I love switching things up as much as possible. We’ll be working with ginger a lot more. We make a house-made ginger syrup, which is fun and refreshing — ginger and lime is a nice combination for spring and summer. We are going to use more citrus and florals, but we’ll still stick with our theme. So we might not be using St. Germain and things like that, so much as gentian — more bitter, floral elements.
What do you order at a bar when you’re not working?
I drink a pilsner and a shot of amaro. I very seldom drink cocktails.