Saturday, February 25, 2012

James Beard awards celebrates cocktails!

The list is finally out! Every year, the James Beard Foundation recognizes excellence in the food industry. But this year, this is an exiting new addition: This is the first year the James Beard Foundation is recognizing outstanding bar programs. Campari is sponsoring the new award category, which recognizes excellence in wine, spirits, and beer.

Hats off to them.

It's a welcome addition to the awards program, in my mind. The surge of interest in the so-called craft cocktails have brought an exciting new standard for the quality of drinks—and the places that have pushed this bar the most (so to speak, ha!) definitely deserve recognition.

Few of these semi-finalists deserve to call out here.

The Aviary
Though I have never been to the Aviary, they are making huge contributions to how people think about crafting cocktails. The question they ask is, would you let one chef make one dish all on his own? The answer would be no. And so they take a line kitchen approach to making drinks, with a whole slew of folks in back creating the drinks. (Now this is one occasion in which you really do question the use of the label "bartender." :-) Mixologists, it is?) It points the drink industry in a new direction, if the venture is successful—and judging by this nomination it has been successful. To my mind, I would miss sitting behind an old wood bar and actually talking to the person making my drink. It's an indulgence, perhaps, but one that admittedly makes my drink taste better.

Bar Agricole
This place is widely recognized across San Francisco as a true labor of love. The great pains that Thad Volger, the gentlemen who started it all, has seemed to reach mythological proportions. People were worried he would die starting the spot. But in the end, it seems his efforts paid off. Hats go off across this city for the incredibly high quality of ingredients at Bar Agricole. And Mr. Volger's co-founder, Eric Jackson, is an incredible bartender as well. We've had the pleasure of sitting at his bar at both Heaven's Dog and Bar Agricole, and the man can shake up some serious magic.

The Violet Hour
Josh and I have incredible reverence for The Violet Hour and for the integrity with which it makes its drinks. A New-York-style speakeasy in Chicago, the bar is commonly described as an "Alice in Wonderland"-like place. It takes you to another world. Tall, majestic curtains muffle loud, offending sounds, and the world becomes more intimate. You can talk easily without raising your voice. And the drinks—oh, the drinks!—are beautifully crafted. There are seven different types of very hard, very cold ice, and many of the drinks draw on house-made components—house bitters and house syrups make common appearances, making it difficult to recreate anything vaguely imitating what you experience at the Violet Hour. Josh and I will forever remember this place as one of the bars that first inspired us. It's also worthwhile mentioning that this is the Alchemy Consulting's second bar program on the James Beard Foundation's list. Toby Maloney, the New York mastermind behind the Violet Hour, later left to create Alchemy Consulting with Troy (one of the great bartenders from The Violet Hour) and others. James Beard semi-finalist The Catbird is one of those consulting projects.

Beretta is one of the quintessential San Francisco spots—delicious Italian-American fare, a California-fancy-cantine atmosphere, and a restaurant-bar program with cocktails that feature bright citrus shaken drinks and deep, cherry stirred drinks. Bright, tasty, airy—everything you'd want out of a San Francisco bar. From what I understand, Beretta has made significant contributions to the SF bar scene, even apart from everything we enjoy about it today. Apparently, after a group of bartenders were inspired at the Tenderloin's Bourbon and Branch, some of them headed over and continued the magic at Beretta. It combines some of the fun aspects of drinking cocktails—the ability to enjoy the present and the present history.

PDT has been very meaningful for me personally on this cocktail journey—Don, one of the main guys behind PDT originally, was hugely instrumental in me learning about the world of cocktails. He blew my mind by first showing me all the classics. I was taken. Aside from that, PDT is one of these coolest spots I've ever been to. The New York speakeasy invites people into the bar by way of an old-fashioned phonebooth. Pick up the phone and press the button, and a voice will magically appear on the other end and usher you in for gorgeous cocktails of classic genealogy, including the super popular Benton's Old Fashioned (which is code for a bacon Bourbon cocktail!).

Again, I applaud the James Beard Foundation for this new category, and I hope that the future brings with it individual recognition for the many men and women who mix amazing things behind the bar.

Until then, we wait excitedly to see who will be recognized this year.

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