A Mixology History Lesson with Brian Van Flandern


Michelin three-star mixologist Brian Van Flandern was on the forefront of the cocktail revolution, and he made his name on his innovative cocktails that incorporate fresh and experimental ingredients. He’s crafted drinks under a number of revered chefs–including Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, and Michel Richard–and he’s worked with several hotels and restaurants around the world, including a floating billionaire community. Charming, laid back, and an enthusiastic cocktology (cocktail + mixology) historian, he talks here about his latest book from Assouline Publishing, Craft Cocktails, which is a celebration of the new golden age of cocktails. The ring-bound book is filled with recipes by Van Flandern and many of his favorite New York establishments including Employees Only, Clover Club, Death & Co., and PDT (Please Don’t Tell).

With vibrant photographs, funky typography, and brief historical tidbits (like background information on the gin and tonic and picklebacks), Craft Cocktails is not only a pretty fixture for your coffee table; it’s also a tantalizing and informative read. While some of the recipes are things I would never attempt (for example, the Matahari includes instructions on how to make chai-infused sweet vermouth and Plymouth Rocks actually includes a river rock garnish), others are more accessible. But whether or not you make any of them, each recipe includes such specific instructions–down to the glassware–that the book is fascinating to flip through. It urges readers to ask questions: What is bärenjäger? Why use Don Julio Añejo tequila and not another? What is the benefit of a coupe glass versus a tumbler? And it also induces a sense of wonder at how someone can concoct such diverse flavor combinations with wacky, whimsical garnishes.

I sat down with Brian to hear more about what went into the making of Craft Cocktails.

How did this book come about?
I was a New York City bartender for 25 years. For me, it was just a job I took to pay the bills, that is until 2004. I was finishing my college degree and thought, “I’ll take one last restaurant job,” which happened to be at Per Se with Michelin three-star chef Thomas Keller. I learned how to pair wines with dishes and I got excited by his passion for food and his attention to detail. I tried to apply the same principle to cocktails. I thought, why can’t I use fresh ingredients, quality spirits, and reduce the alcohol to approximate a glass of wine so that it would be food friendly? Food & Wine called 2004 the year of the cocktail. I just happened to be opening Per Se that year. I was in the right place at the right time.

Then things really took off when Frank Bruni wrote his New York Times four-star review of Per Se and mentioned my house made Tonic with Gin. Until that time, nobody was making their own tonic water from scratch. Now, it is quite common to see bars all around the country making their own tonic water. It was only then that I realized that this bartending job that I had resented for 25 years–while I tried to pursue an acting career–was a rewarding career of its own. I suddenly realized I had a talent for these craft cocktails and that it had become a passion.

After I left Per Se I started Creative Cocktail Consultants––and one of my first clients was Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel. As I started to compete in competitions, I was introduced to other dedicated mixologists like Audrey Saunders, Julie Reiner, and Jim Meehan, who have gone on themselves to reach iconic status within the industry. Audrey and Julie had just opened Pegu Club with Jim Meehan, who had been working at Gramercy Tavern. Jim later opened up PDT, which was named the best cocktail lounge in the world in 2011. As big as New York is, the cocktail community is surprisingly small. Over the last ten years, as I traveled the globe teaching spirits education and mixology, I continued to run into the same people in various countries, all dedicated to spreading the word on craft cocktails and spirits.

Back to the story, Assouline Publishing approached the Carlyle Hotel because they wanted to do a book on vintage cocktails and the Carlyle Hotel suggested they talk to me. They offered to let me write the introduction and list me as the author if I would provide the content and stylize the cocktails for their photographer. So in 2009 we published Vintage Cocktails, and it won the best cocktail book in the world for 2009 at the Gourmand Cookbook Awards in Paris. Less than four years later it’s now in its fifth printing. However, I had always wanted to do a book on craft cocktails, and keep it true to New York, which is where the movement really started at iconic establishments like The Rainbow Room, Flatiron Lounge, Milk & Honey, and, later. the Pegu Club.

For my newest book Craft Cocktails, Assouline and I shot the photos at Employees Only, Death & Co., Clover Club and PDT. In the book I have several recipes from many of the top mixologists in New York as well as all my recipes that I created at Per Se, The Carlyle Hotel, the World Ship, and other clients of mine over the years.
There were a few things I wanted to accomplish with this book to set it apart from other cocktail books:

Number one, I wanted to brand the alcohol in each cocktail. For example, I don’t want the reader to replicate a recipe by using just any old triple sec. I wanted them to use Cointreau because it’s quality flavor and alcohol content. I selected very specific spirits based on terroir, flavor profile, provenance, history and distillation techniques. The idea is that each spirit compliments the other ingredients in the cocktail or tells a story, or both.

Number two, I wanted make the book accessible to the masses. I feel like people go out to bars and think, “Why can’t I make this at home?” The chunky text and beautiful pictures help with that. Fundamentally, the book is meant to be a bridge between the complicated recipes being produced by professional mixologists and the cocktails enthusiast at home.

The third thing is that I wanted to showcase stunningly beautiful glassware. The glasses in this book are either vintage glasses or modern crystal glassware produced by Baccarat, Lalique, and Versace. I wanted to showcase these cocktails in the very best possible light. So yes, really beautiful glassware, accessibility to the masses, and branded cocktails.

Today craft cocktails are a global movement, but New York is where it all started. This book is a tribute to the New York craft cocktail movement that I hope will be an enduring tome for future generations of mixologists and cocktails fans alike.

Hit the next page for a couple of recipes.

Almost all of the bars included in this book are speakeasies, inspired by the 1920s. Do you think golden age cocktails are the pinnacle of great mixology?
No, just the opposite. Prohibition killed cocktails. This book is a tribute to pre-Prohibition cocktail values. Prior to Prohibition, bartending was a proud profession like a cobbler or pharmacists, not like the last 80 years when bartending became a transitional job that was looked down upon. I’m happy to see that professional pride is returning as more and more bartenders are making full time careers out of this emerging culinary art form. Prohibition, on the other hand forced the better bartenders to flee to Europe, taking all the mixology knowledge and skills with them. Between 1920 and 1945, we lost the art of the cocktail. In the 50s and 60s we were in our infancy again, drinking poorly balanced, strong cocktails. There was more emphasis on looking cool than enjoying your drink. We entered our adolescence in the 70’s and 80’s with syrupy sweet, sugary drinks like Sex on the Beach, White Russians, and Mudslides, then in the late 90s, starting with Dale DeGroff at the Rainbow Room in New York, we finally returned to adulthood. Dale singlehandedly brought back the fresh movement. We’re growing up.

The difference today from the pre-Prohibition era is that we have fresh produce from all around the world 365 days a year, and we have this whole new revolution of spirit producers, craft brews, and distillates. We have a much bigger rainbow of flavors to play with. It truly is the new golden age of the cocktail.

Do you have any favorite local brewers or distillers?
Garret Oliver at Brooklyn Brewery and Allen Katz at New York Distilling Company. Their Dorothy Parker Gin is phenomenal. And if we’re talking New York state, then Tutilltown’s Hudson. I love their white corn whiskey and baby bourbon.

So, if Prohibition was a time of decline in terms of craft cocktails, why are so many of the great New York cocktail bars–many of which are included in your book–1920’s speakeasy themed? That doesn’t quite add up, right?
Good point. However, the modern speakeasy movement really started with Milk & Honey, around 2003. People love the mysterious novelty associated with the old time speakeasies. Back then, it was thought of as naughty, where people were subverting the law. But today the idea is more about having a secret hideaway that you can share. People love discovering affordable luxury experiences and sharing them with their friends. If you discover it, if you can find it, then you can share it.

The other unintended positive byproduct of Prohibition, is that prior to Prohibition, alcohol was only consumed in hotel bars or in saloons. However, the only women drinking in these establishments were ladies of “ill repute.” “Proper ladies” didn’t frequent saloons. Prior to Prohibition, women drank only at home or at society functions. Prohibition forced men and women together in these speakeasies where they united in their common cause of getting their drink on. So, the unintended consequence of prohibition is that it became socially acceptable for women to drink in public establishments.

You dedicate a number of cocktails in the book. Do you find inspiration in other cocktails? Other people?
Sadly each cocktail in the book originally had one- or two-paragraph stories behind them, but they had to be cut because there simply wasn’t enough room. Every recipe has an interesting story behind it. I’m afraid the readers will have to seek me out if they want to hear all the stories … I believe every great cocktail should have a story behind its inception.

Well right now I’m looking at the Chai Tai…
The Chai Tai was created for The World ship, the world’s first floating luxury community, which is widely regarded as the wealthiest ship on earth. It’s an incredible luxury lifestyle, and it’s forever afloat. The ship goes to places where no cruise ship will ever go. I worked on their spirits menu and cocktail list. It occurred to me that they had the best pick of the best produce from fresh markets all around the globe. I wanted to create a cocktail that infused ingredients from all seven continents with ingredients they were famous for, and then combine them into one cocktail. I even took the ice from a 70 million year old glacier in Antartica.

Another story is about my housemade Tonic with Gin. While I was at Per Se, Daniel Craig came in with Ian Fleming’s daughter while studying for the role of James Bond. She was telling him that Per Se was the type of place Bond would have hung out. She ordered a vodka martini, and I jokingly asked, “Shaken or stirred?” and they laughed as she explained where that quote came from. I recommended the housemade tonic with gin to Daniel Craig. As he finished his first, without solicitation, he told me it was the best gin and tonic he’d had in his life, and I thought: “Yes! James Bond loves my gin and tonic!!”

Earlier you mentioned the importance of great glassware, and in the back of the book you specify the glass for each cocktail. How much do you think the vessel changes the cocktail?
It makes a huge difference. A good mixologist is innovative and pays extra attention to detail. The best mixologists take into consideration every aspect of the cocktail: texture, garnish, temperature, aromatics, and, perhaps most under-looked, the glass. It provides a textural experience for the hand and lip. When you touch a glass, it changes the experience. A masculine glass can make the whole drinking experience feel grandiose, and a thin delicate glass can make you feel posh or even regal.

A number of the recipes in this book are very involved. Which recipe do you recommend to someone who is just starting out with mixology?
The Kropla Lemon. That’s a great place to start. There is one unusual ingredient: Moscato d’Asti. It’s a light, fruity Italian sparkling wine. It’s delicious and great in cocktails. But other than that, it’s a riff on a classic Lemon Drop. The simplicity of that particular cocktail is something anyone can wrestle with. Once mastered, I encourage the reader to take chances with spirits they’ve never heard of and to play with flavors that are new to them. All the recipes are tried and true.

Kropla Lemon
Base Spirit: Vodka
Modifiers: Citrus Vodka & Moscato d’Asti

3/4 oz Fresh lemon juice
1 oz Cane sugar simple syrup
1 1/4 oz Belvedere vodka
1/4 oz Belvedere citrus vodka
3/4 oz Sarraco Moscato d’Asti
1 tsp Sugar in the Raw
Garnish: Rim dish with lemon juice, then lightly dip in confectioner’s sugar; garnish with lemon peel.

Place all ingredients except Moscato d’Asti and Sugar in the Raw in a mixing glass. Add large ice cubes and shake vigorously. Add Moscato d’Asti. Tumble roll back and forth once, taste for balance. Rim dish, then double-strain. Add sugar; let it settle on the bottom. Garnish and serve.

Chai Tai
Base Spirit: Aged Rum
Modifiers: Dark Rum, Orgeat, & Curacao

1/4 oz Fresh key-lime juice (North America)
1/2 oz Cane sugar simple syrup (Africa)
1 1/2 oz Chai tea (Asia)
1/4 oz Monin orgeat syrup (Europe)
1/4 oz Curacao (Caribbean)
1 oz Santa Teresa 1796 Antiguo de Solera rum (South America)
1 Three-inch lemongrass stick (Asia)
5 Spearmint leaves (Australia)
1/4 oz Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda black rum (Caribbean)
Garnish: Mint sprig & a five-inch lemongrass stick (when in season)

Place all ingredients except Gosling’s rum in a mixing glass. Muddle the lemongrass and spearmint leaves. Add large ice cubes and shake vigorously. Taste for balance. Double-strain into a glass over fresh ice (Antarctica). Use a bar spoon to float the Gosling’s rum on top. Garnish and serve.