A Spirited Craft: Understanding a Drink & Its Maker | Craft Beverage Industry | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram

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A Spirited Craft: Understanding a Drink & Its Maker

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Thirty years ago, ordering a drink at a bar involved naming its ingredients—Jack and Coke, gin and tonic, vodka soda. If you had tried ordering a French 75, few bartenders would have had any idea how to make it. Modern-day pioneers, such as Dale Degroff (legendary Rainbow Room mixologist), David Wondrich (cocktail historian), Jeff Berry (tiki culture revivalist), Sasha Petraske (owner of modern speakeasy Milk & Honey on the Lower East Side) and the legions of bartenders they influenced have redefined what excellence looks like in terms of both drinks and service.

Cocktails have endured a long and arduous journey to return to their current place of prestige in the American gastronomical landscape. In 18th-century Britain, boozy punches reigned supreme—communal bowls of spirits, fruit and citrus juices, spices, and sweeteners. The term "cocktail" didn't even appear in print until March of 1798 and wasn't formally defined until 1806, when The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson (yes, our region has a prominent place in cocktail history), defined it as "a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water, and bitters, vulgarly called a bittered sling." 

PHOTO: WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Photo: Winona Barton-Ballentine

While cocktails were very much in their prime throughout the rest of the 19th century—featuring hand-cut ice, seasonal preserves, and creative serves from bartenders who were considered celebrities in some cases—Prohibition killed off this blossoming culture of artisanal beverages, and the craft cocktail would not make a comeback in earnest until the turn of the 21st century.

We are now living in a modern golden age of cocktails, with restaurants and bars curating their drink programs with the thoughtfulness formerly reserved for wine lists and gourmet menus. The cocktail renaissance is thriving in the Hudson Valley. The bartenders and bars on this list each have a different story to tell and an approach to craft cocktails that is distinctly their own, but they've all done their best at striving for excellence with their own style and form of hospitality.

PHOTO: WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Photo: Winona Barton-Ballentine
PHOTO: WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Photo: Winona Barton-Ballentine

Sean Meagher, Head Bartender WM Farmer & Sons

How would you describe your personal cocktail-making ethos?
I like to stick to the classics. I do a lot of pre-Prohibition-era drinks. I try to stay true to that style and the approach to cocktail-making and bartending as a whole: treat it as a trade or a craft rather than a side job. 

What makes a perfect drink?
The balance between spirit, citrus, and sugar with a shaken cocktail and a balance between temperature and water content with a stirred cocktail. 

What is your favorite part of the drink-making process?
Getting an appropriate washline—the finished product as it lies in the glass.

What sets WM Farmer & Sons’ drink program apart from others in the region/what defines you?
We stick to classics. We use all fresh juice. We have an in-house ice program where we hand-cut ice with complete clarity for every cocktail. We also aim to pay respect to each spirit that we use in our cocktails. 

PHOTO: WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Photo: Winona Barton-Ballentine

What is your favorite spirit or flavor to experiment with?
Right now Clairin Haitian Rum—those rums can have a range of different flavor profiles some have soft and floral characteristics while others can be rowdy and aggressive. Much like a Rhum Agricole or a mezcal with the smokiness or grassiness, they bring to the table.

Do you have a favorite drink scene in a movie?
When Vincent Vega tries Mia Wallace’s five-dollar milkshake in Pulp Fiction.

Finish this sentence, “On my day off, I can be found sipping ______.”
Beer. 

What is the most underappreciated ingredient in the bartender’s repertoire?
Ice. For us, it’s the cornerstone. It provides proper temperature, water content, and if shaken with a single clear rock it provides great aeration—all these being far superior to using to hotel-style ice. 

PHOTO: WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Photo: Winona Barton-Ballentine

Jessica Gonzalez, Bartender Liberty Street Bistro

How would you describe your personal cocktail-making ethos?
Classically-driven. I also like to use my own syrups and infusions. I opt for flavor over creativity. I occasionally experiment but usually focus on balance. 

What makes a perfect drink?
The person drinking it enjoying it. Everyone had their own palate and experience. It’s more about the moment. One person’s favorite drink is not someone else's. 

What is your favorite part of the drink-making process?
Physically making it. It’s a zen sort of thing. When you get used to the environment and your bar, you just go. 

What is your favorite spirit or flavor to experiment with?
I am an equal-opportunity bartender. I’m open to all types of spirits for many different reasons depending on what I’m making. That’s like asking a chef “What's your favorite vegetable to cook with?” The only thing I can say is I stick to well-made spirits. 

Finish this sentence, “On my day off, I can be found sipping ______.”
Usually wine. I’m a big wine and cider person, so it’s usually one or the other depending on the time of year and mood. Unless it’s been a really bad day...

What is the most underappreciated ingredient in the bartender’s repertoire?
As bartenders, we really appreciate all of our ingredients. We work seasonally and use things at their peak as a chef would. 

PHOTO: WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Photo: Winona Barton-Ballentine

Pia Bazzani, General Manager Crown Lounge

How would you describe your personal cocktail-making ethos?

I come from a family of chefs and I incorporate that mindset into drinks with my syrups, shrubs, and muddling herbs and fresh fruit in the summer. To keep the fruit going through fall, I make preserves. The restaurant has its own herb garden and we have local deals with farms.

What makes a perfect drink?
It has to be in balance. I’m personally not a sweet-drink person. I prefer to use sucrose from liquor or the fruit over sugar. I do love fun different bitters. We use Scrappy's, Bitterman's, and a bunch of infused bitters.

What is your favorite part of the drink-making process?
In the creation process, it’s the creativity—the fact you can take a base spirit and do a million different things with it. I also enjoy the scientific and biological part of it. The actual act of making a drink is a nice routine for me. I get in the zone, my happy place. 

What sets Crown’s drink program apart from others in the region/what defines you?
All bartenders take from here and there and make it their own. Our vibe is very speakeasy-style—dark and moody— and our drinks coincide with that. We look to the classics as well as creating new cocktails.

Do you have a favorite movie cocktail scene?When Blake Lively is making a gin martini in A Simple Favor. It highlights a favorite classic cocktail of mine. Also, she uses Aviation gin, which is from Portland, where my love affair with the craft began.

What is your favorite spirit or flavor to experiment with?
Right now, a Blanche Armagnac called Cobra Fire.

Finish this sentence, “On my day off, I can be found sipping ______.”

I’m such a weather person, so it depends, but right now I’m in love with mezcal negroni with chocolate bitters.

What is the most underappreciated ingredient in the bartender’s repertoire?
I would say bitters. but people are appreciating them more these days.


PHOTO: WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Photo: Winona Barton-Ballentine

Ben Friedman, Bartender Canoe Hill

How would you describe your personal cocktail-making ethos?
I go by what the guest likes and how they're feeling. It’s about having fun with the guest and making experiences.

What makes a perfect drink?
The perfect drink for me and you are different, so it’s about personal preference. It comes down to what the customer wants to drink.

What is your favorite part of the drink-making process?
For me, it’s the challenge of trying to balance a drink. 

What sets Canoe Hill’s drink program apart from others in the region/what defines you
We are a cozy welcoming spot—not pretentious or intimidating. It’s a classic cocktail bar, we make everything in-house from our syrups to our juices. It’s pretty much a bartender’s heaven—we have everything at our disposal and we are always playing around and challenging ourselves with new concoctions. 

What is your favorite spirit or flavor to experiment with?
I’m a moody drinker so it depends, but right now, Smith and Cross Navy-strength rum. It has a beautiful funkiness that’s fun to play with.

PHOTO: WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Photo: Winona Barton-Ballentine

Do you have a favorite movie cocktail scene?I’m a western fan, so it’s not about a cocktail but it takes place in bar. In Tombstone, specifically the scene with Doc Holliday versus Johnny Ringo where Holliday is swinging his tin cup mocking Ringo in a tense standoff. The scene ends with the bad guy throwing up his money saying, “Drinks on me”.

Finish this sentence, “On my day off, I can be found sipping ______.”
Refreshing cocktails.

What is the most underappreciated ingredient in the bartender’s repertoire?
After a long shift behind the stick, the best answer I can come up with is the bartender themself. You can have all the tools and products to work with, but if you don’t know how to operate said tools, it does no good. A good bartender can make a lot out of a little. 

PHOTO: WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Photo: Winona Barton-Ballentine

Carly Casciaro, Beverage Director Station Bar & Curio

How would you describe your personal cocktail-making ethos?
I try to make classics with things that are local and in-season. Plus I’m always looking to use what we have a bountiful amount of at the bar. 

What makes a perfect drink?
Balance and simplicity. 

What is your favorite part of the drink-making process?
Watching people try it.

What sets Station Bar’s drink program apart from others in the region/what defines you?We change our drink program seasonally and use fresh local ingredients without overcomplicating the cocktail. Our shrubs, syrups, and infused liquors are all made in house—we don’t outsource.

PHOTO: WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Photo: Winona Barton-Ballentine
What is your favorite spirit or flavor to experiment with?
Mezcal. It’s so complex with its smokiness as it is, it’s fun to bring balance to a cocktail using it.

Do you have a favorite movie cocktail scene
Hmm, the scene in Some Like it Hot where Marilyn Monroe makes a Manhattan in a hot water bottle on the train. 

Finish this sentence, “On my day off, I can be found sipping ______.”
I’m a non-biased cocktail drinker but generally, on my day off you will find me sipping a glass of wine. I make cocktails all day long so a nice glass of wine is my go-to.

What is the most underappreciated ingredient in the bartender’s repertoire?
A good bitter perhaps. 

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