The drink, a classic Negroni, arrives in a pinch-style rocks glass, and it is luminous — a brilliant Cinzano red tempered with the earthier ruby of Italian vermouth, all accented with an intensely colored shaving of orange peel. But even more impressive is the ice. A single piece looms large, forcing the liquid into contours that mimic both the ice’s irregular shape and that of the glass. The drink feels reassuringly weighty in the hand; aromas of bitters and orange are the first sensations to arrive.
And there, in a single glass, is much of the cocktail philosophy of Sasha Petraske, the Manhattan-based spirits celebrity helping develop both the drinks menu and the bartending staff at Bohanan’s street-level bar. “The soda gun is the most evil invention of all time,” he says, launching right into a litany of pet peeves.
Petraske, now in his late 30s, opened his first bar, Milk & Honey, in New York’s Chinatown at the age of 27 and has been carefully honing his prejudices ever since. For the record, the other two of his top three perceived cocktail curses are the modern ice machine (the ice melts too quickly) and non-fresh juices — and by fresh he really does mean squeezed right in front of you. Petraske’s crusade, shared as he sipped his own Manhattan, is to return to the quality of pre-Prohibition drinks. “The worst drink your grandfather ever had was likely better than most today,” he asserts. And the assertions continue.
“We’re just now getting back to the 1900s in quality. Your Negroni isn’t changed from the original recipe, but we use `Plymouth Gin and` good, fresh vermouth.” Carpano Antica to be exact. Speed-pour spouts on bottles, it turns out, are more work of the devil; yes, vermouth can go bad quickly once opened. Which leads to a dissertation on the degradation of the martini. The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in London in 1930, is the source of many of the drink recipes fueling the current Cocktail Renaissance, and its martini is composed of 1 ounce of vermouth to 2 ounces gin. “In the ’50s, a ‘dry’ martini contributed to a tough-guy image, but it was really all about getting drunk. The single became a double, dry became extra-dry, `and when used at all` vermouth dispensed from a speed-pour cap destroyed that component. … And then there was vodka.” He stops to take another sip of his Manhattan, then continues. “I’m not proud of the things I did early in my bartending career to trick people into drinking gin.” Good thing I ordered the Negroni, not a Screwdriver.
But back to that iceberg in the glass; we had been talking for nearly an hour and it seemed to have barely melted — which is the point: it keeps the drink cold yet dilutes it minimally. And, yes, you can do this at home — just freeze ice in a 2-inch deep pan and get out your ice pick. Note to self: get ice pick.
The slow melting is important for another reason, however, and this one is more philosophical: it allows time to savor a drink slowly. “The first segment in a customer’s learning curve is steep, and time is part of that,” he says. “If someone can’t wait five minutes for a drink to be prepared properly, well … ” Time taken in both preparing and savoring a drink goes a long way toward civilizing the experience, he says.
Time is something we may still have some of in San Antonio, which is a good thing if Petraske’s goal of eventually opening a bar here is realized. (Why not? He already has the guayabera collection.) And, he adds, maybe with San Antonio in mind, “Anything good worth doing with gin is worth trying with tequila.” Sign me up.
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