Mixing Hudson Valley Drinks with Local Lore

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By Ed Forbes | Photos by Mark Vergari

Preparing for cocktail hour one recent evening, I set out in search of drinks with regional provenance.

Turning to a growing collection of recipe books, I didn’t come up dry. First, there was the Larchmont. Then the Suburban and the Guion, a cocktail named for a founder of New Rochelle. Last came the Bronx(ville), a riff on the classic Bronx.

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From left: The Guion, the Larchmont, the Suburban and the Bronx(ville).

t’s hardly surprising. The cocktail and the suburbs go together like gin and vermouth. And the cocktail renaissance, reaching apexes everywhere, has also come home to roost.

“Suburbia is up with the trend,” says David DiBari, chef-owner of The Parlor in Dobbs Ferry, where the small list of pre-Prohitibion style cocktails is making big waves. “Our consumers right now are destroying our … cocktails. It’s definitely becoming more popular.”

“There’s no question that the cocktail thing is definitely in the suburbs,” says Jeffrey Wooddy, manager at Rochambeau Wines and Liquors, the stalwart Dobbs Ferry shop. “We’ve seen huge growth in spirits — it’s not cresting at all.”

I wonder, though, if it ever waned? Our ties to cocktails go way back. Westchester was home for the swilling denizens of Shady Hill, John Cheever’s stand-in for Chappaqua or Bronxville. And anti-hero Don Draper, whose swan song begins Sunday with the season premiere of “Mad Men,” hung his fedora and poured his Canadian Club in Ossining.

The word cocktail itself may well have originated in Elmsford, where Catherine Hustler, a colonial barmaid, is said to have plucked the tailfeathers of roosters own by local loyalists; she repurposed them as stirrers in her concoctions.

-mv030614booze20.jpg_20140306David Wondrich, the Esquire columnist who seems to preside over the world of mixed drinks like a benevolent pasha, assures me that the legend is not just another Hudson Valley tall tale.

“The Hudson Valley is the cradle of the cocktail,” Wondrich says, explaining that Betsy Flanagan, a character in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 story, “The Spy,” was very likely modeled on Hustler. (Of course, like most cocktail legend, the story’s details are murky. Other reports put the inn and its feather-garnishing barmaid in western New York.)

Still, “there may be some connection,” says Wondrich, who is the author of five mixology books including the historical “Punch,” and “Imbibe!,” “It definitely ties in.”

The region’s Dutch heritage was a factor in local drinking in early days of the Republic, too, Wondrich says.

“Dutch-style gin was most likely had,” he said. “The cocktail’s roots go back to mixing gin with bitters.”

Cocktails continued to evolve as the 19th century rolled on, and much of the changes came out of Manhattan. But we’re never far away from the action: One of the innovators was Jerry Thomas, “the Professor,” a celebrated bartender who authored “The Bar-Tender’s Guide,” the first-ever book on cocktails, which was published in 1862. Late in his career, Wondrich writes in “Imbibe!,” Thomas briefly tended bar in New Rochelle as his family had retreated from the city to the bucolic peace of Mamaroneck.

In the 20th century, as farm pastures in Westchester gave way to tracts of Tudors and colonials for a new generation of suburban pioneers, drinking moved, too, from taverns into homes.

“Home mixology emerged in Prohibition and became central to domestic entertainment,” Wondrich says.

In the late 1940s, David A. Embury, a Larchmont attorney, set about creating a standardized approach to mixing drinks. Applying a balance of sweet and sour, Embury produced “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks,” a pioneering 1948 compendium that standardized many classic cocktail recipes.

“His book is certainly the first of its kind — he gave us the vocabulary,” Wondrich says. “He twitches aside the curtain and discusses the way things work together.”

Still, Wondrich laughs that many of Embury’s recipes don’t work well at all.

“Nobody makes his recipes,” Wondrich says. “He poured with a very heavy hand.”

-mv030614booze23.jpg_20140306After talking to Wondrich, I looked at more recent cultural history. Over-the-top fascination with wine crested in the late 1990s and early 2000s and gave way penchants for single-malt Scotch and top-shelf, gourmet vodka. Vodka drinks are still king in the suburbs, but a new, growing interest in brown — whiskey, whisky, bourbon and rye — is emerging in Cheever Country.

Today’s suburban drinkers, though, are no Don Drapers, says Wooddy, of Rochambeau.

“Our customers are not exclusively like our grandfathers — they’re not drinking ‘Canadian Limited,’ five before dinner and two after,” Wooddy quips. “They come from being interested wine drinkers.”

Rochambeau’s budding aficionados, he tells us, are between 35 and 50 and many are women. And they’re drinking brown.

“Rye is huge,” Wooddy says. “There’s no denying that bourbon is going through what scotch went through 15 years ago.

Wooddy says his customers often return from trips to New England, the Hudson Valley or further afield and they look for his shop to carry the craft-distilled whiskeys — “grass roots brown” they tasted on their travels.

Also growing in interest and sales, Wooddy said, are the mixers: amari, vermouths, gin and even esoteric ingredients like Falernum, a Caribbean liqueur that plays a part in many classic boat drinks.

“We have 50 gins in the store,” he says. “We want to create our own trends in our own environment.”

Also ebbing — thankfully — are bird-bath vats of dirty martinis. Instead, restaurants like Fortina in Armonk, Harper’s in Dobbs Ferry and Polpettina in Larchmont have launched programs to expand diners’ palates, often focusing on well-balanced whiskey drinks served in small portions.

DiBari, at the Parlor, tells me that he sees diners’ interest in simple, well-made drinks following their appetite for simple, well-prepared food.

“People want a well-made, simple Prohibition-style cocktail,” he says. “Cocktails are following food — it makes sense. You have to have both.”

The Parlor, DiBari says, is seeing customers flock to its small menu of classics like the Manhattan, the Negroni and the Sidecar. (Some of the drinks are made in batches and bottled, which is more than just a gimmick: it keeps the ratios consistent.) And DiBari said that vodka drinks may even be loosening their grip.

“For a while there, it was over the top with all these massive bottles of vodka with big labels,” he says. “I think people are getting to know their darker spirits.”

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Wondrich argues that the renaissance has evolved from trend to truth — people want a good, well-made drink.

“Every town will have a bar or two where you can get a really well made drink,” Wondrich predicts. “It’s here to stay — it’s gone viral, it’s gone native.”

Think spring

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While the warmth we all crave continues to drag its feet, it won’t be long before your evening sipper is taken on your porch or on your deck. Here’s a group of cocktails that bridge seasonal palates and have roots or connections to our part of the world:

The Bronx(ville)

The Bronx(ville)

We’ve modified the classic Bronx, which originated at the Waldorf-Astoria and, according to David Wondrich, was devised by Johnnie Solon, a veteran of the Spanish-American War. It’s essentially a perfect Martini with orange juice and was inspired by a visit Solon paid to the Bronx Zoo on a warm day. Our version isn’t perfect — we dropped the dry vermouth and upped the sweet vermouth a bit. Adapted from Wondrich. Serves 2.

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces London Dry Gin
  • 1 1/2 ounces Carpano Antica
  • 3 ounces freshly squeezed orange juice

Instructions

  1. Gather all ingredients over cracked ice in a shaker and shake. Serve in a chilled coupe, garnish with an orange peel and serve.
http://food.lohudblogs.com/2014/04/08/mixing-hudson-valley-drinks-local-lore/

The Guion

The Guion

This gin-based drink is named for Stephen Guion, a tycoon whose Gilded Age fortune was built on ocean liners plying from New York to England. Stephen Guion was a descendant of Louis Guion, one of the first Huguenot settlers in New Rochelle and the founder of Trinity Episcopal Church there. The cocktail was probably developed at the Waldorf-Astoria Bar. Serves 2.

Ingredients

  • 3 ounces London Dry Gin
  • 3 ounces Carpano Antica vermouth
  • 2 dashes of orange bitters
  • 2 barspoons of Benedictine

Instructions

  1. Gather the gin, vermouth and bitters over cracked ice in a shaker and stir. Serve in a chilled coupe and float the Benedictine on top of the cocktail. Finally, garnish with an orange peel and serve.
http://food.lohudblogs.com/2014/04/08/mixing-hudson-valley-drinks-local-lore/

The Suburban

The Suburban

How could we not include this one? First published in the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book of 1934, the drink has its roots in Brooklyn, where it was named for the Suburban Handicap, a horse race run in Sheepshead Bay when it originated in 1884 (the race is still run at Belmont Park annually). Serves 2.

Ingredients

  • 3 ounces Rye
  • 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum
  • 1 ounce port
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 dashes orange bitters

Instructions

  1. Gather all ingredients over cracked ice in a shaker and stir. Serve in a chilled coupe, garnish with an orange peel and serve.
http://food.lohudblogs.com/2014/04/08/mixing-hudson-valley-drinks-local-lore/

The Larchmont

The Larchmont

Perhaps the most appropriate for the warmer evenings we’re all anticipating, the Larchmont is an Embury creation and first appeared in his “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.” It’s perfect for a night on the Sound. We like this version by Paul Clarke from Imbibe magazine. Serves 2.

Ingredients

  • 3 ounces White Jamaican Rum
  • 1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 ounce Grand Marnier
  • 2 teaspoons simple syrup

Instructions

  1. Gather all ingredients over cracked ice in a shaker and stir. Serve in a chilled coupe, garnish with an orange peel and serve.
http://food.lohudblogs.com/2014/04/08/mixing-hudson-valley-drinks-local-lore/

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About Author

Liz Johnson is content strategist for The Journal News and lohud.com, and the founding editor of lohudfood, formerly know as Small Bites. As food editor, she won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.

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