There’s a cocktail for every mood and moment, says John Burns, our man at the bar
To me, cocktails are mood on ice. They elevate a moment, enhance life. They’re the pocket squares of gastronomy, the clever patterned socks that tie it all together and keep the same old interesting. In that way, they distill our best selves.
When I travel, I always treat myself to an interesting bar off in some neighbourhood (thanks for the research, city magazines!) and in preparation, run through the questions. What will I wear? What time of day will I visit? And, of course, what will I order? The whole sums to this: For these precious minutes, who will I be? Cary Grant? Steve McQueen? (Hey, don’t laugh at other people’s self-delusions.)
A few weeks back I found myself in Toronto at Leña, the little bar in the Saks on Yonge Street, and because it was warm and it was Friday and everyone looked so damn… tidy, I ordered an Aperol Spritz. Not always my favourite drink, but at the right time of day, when the light’s just so, it’s perfect. The second one felt even perfecter.
For these precious minutes, who will I be? Cary Grant? Steve McQueen?
I’d been in New York just before that and had the chance to choose the bar where an Important Conversation would take place. I’m a hopeless romantic, so no Dead Rabbit for me. I’ll bypass bleeding-edge cool most nights for tattered glory. So it was a no-brainer: Bemelmans in the Carlyle, that Upper East Side bastion of hot jazz and mahogany cool. Bemelmans is Old New York, muted, gracious, posh. Chris Gillespie was on the piano (as he’s been, weeknightly, since 2001), giving a master class on the Great American Songbook. Fitting, since composer Richard Rodgers was the hotel’s first tenant back in 1930.
Scanning the drinks list by the trembling candlelight, I was torn. The bar was revamped, but not fussed with, in 2001 when the legendary Audrey Saunders (Blackbird, Pegu Club) revitalized the beverage program. It’s wonderfully balanced, opening the possibility for many moods.
The setting is luxe and understated, but we were in Manhattan, poised to talk big business. Was it Gin-Gin Mule time?
The signature cocktail, developed by Saunders and made famous at the Pegu, adds fresh mint to a traditional mule — delicious (and bonus points: born in Manhattan), but to my view not a drink to enjoy in the dusky confines of a club. Another house standard, the Maple Leaf, a whiskey sour with maple syrup (shades of Erik Adkins’ Filibuster), felt a little on the nose for a Canadian.
In the end, I went with location and the fact I was in a suit: a Tequila Manhattan, made with George Clooney’s añejo tequila, antica formula sweet vermouth, and orange bitters. At US$23 ($31 Canadian), it wasn’t cheap, though cocktails come with a complementary Sidecar on ice — so, two for one. My companion chose the Champagne Dream with Cointreau, orange juice, and pomegranate liqueur finished with Canard-Duchêne Champagne (US$34), then switched to a Passion Royale (passion fruit-infused vodka and lime, topped with Champagne) as we got down to business over “Take the A Train.”
I could feel sheepish about drinking at the Carlyle — pretty touristy, right? Well, I don’t. The night was magical. The murals, painted by onetime resident Ludwig Bemelmans of Madeline fame, were luminous. Chris Gillespie let me choose the last song of his set (“All of Me,” played happy), and the night was magic. I felt my best self, as a Tequila Manhattan should enable. As we came to our agreement, I recalled Paul Theroux, who wrote: “All travel offers a sort of special licence allowing you to be anyone you want to be.” This me felt pretty fly.
—by John Burns