It was in New York that an actor was working his way through school. The year was 2003; he had one more semester to go, and the bar he was working in was failing. He was no ordinary bartender. While working in theater and other pursuits, he had nearly two decades of bartending under his belt. Knowing he had one more semester to go, he agreed to take one more restaurant job in New York and work there until he was able to get “a real job”. The new restaurant was the brainchild of Chef Thomas Keller, who had already created the very successful French Laundry in California, and now wanted to expand it to New York. While working with the chef of Per Se to create the menu, and learning to pair wines with dishes, this bartender asked “Why can’t we use fresh ingredients and make great cocktails that pair with food?” This simple question lead to a rethinking of how food and cocktails can interact. He had to prove to the chef that, despite their higher alcohol content, you can create cocktails that went well with food.
After the initial terror and question of “What did I do?” subsided, experienced bartender Brian Van Flandern set out to prove his point. The quest included three distinct elements. The first was to make cocktails from fresh and local ingredients, something that had been spreading like a virus through the New York cocktail scene. The second was pairing great cocktails with great food, something he was sure could be done. The third, and this was the hardest sell for the consumer, was to lower the alcohol content so that the palate was not damaged by the liquor. He was looking through a list of the basic cocktails when he picked his battle: the gin and tonic. Gin was an element that he was familiar with, and how much more simple of a cocktail can you make than one with just two elements? As he dissected it, he started to learn about the history of the drink, really questioning how it was made. That led to Van Flandern making his own tonic water, importing powdered quinine from Brazil, well before craft and artisan tonics were in vogue. Combining his home made tonic water with a special gin from San Francisco, he created the Tonic and Gin Per Se. When renown New York Times Critic Frank Brunei gave his four star review of Per Se, he mentioned that cocktail by name. “And all of a sudden my bartending job became a career”, Van Flandern said with a smile and a laugh.
Brian Van Flandern, three star Michelin rated mixologist and world class cocktail educator and creator, met with me at Rue Dumaine to discuss all things cocktail. Two things strike you as you are talking with him: he is naturally very friendly and easy to chat with, and he is passionate about cocktails and how they fit into our current culture. He has a very impressive resume to stand on. He has cocktails in over forty countries, as well as a very thick book of places where he has shared his experience and passion. He is the author of two books, Vintage Cocktails, which is currently available and Craft Cocktails, which will be released by Assoline later this month. Like anyone who is passionate about what he does and where he is going, he is well versed in where his craft has been. “Prior to Prohibition in the United States, being a bartender was a respected craft, like a pharmacist or a cobbler. It was a trade that was passed down from father to son. These famous barmen were making their own tonics, their own tinctures, their own syrups.” He goes on, describing the flight of these great bartenders to Europe so they could keep making good cocktails. Europe became no better for cocktails than America, getting caught first in the worldwide Great Depression and then World War II. “By the time World War II was over, we had lost an entire generation of mixology and had lost the art of the cocktail.” He talks about the evolution of the cocktail, not only in terms of how it went from strong in the 50’s and 60’s to sweet in the 70’s and 80’s, but how people perceived it and how consumer demand influenced it.
It was not until the late 90’s that the cocktail started to edge back to where it had been before prohibition. “Dale DeGroff started to do critical thinking like a chef. He took a recipe from a woman who had won a cocktail competition in Florida, and made a cocktail called a Cosmopolitan. He used fresh ingredients and quality spirits, balanced it out, and he made an amazing Cosmopolitan that became so famous in New York that Sarah Jessica Parker mentioned it in her show ‘Sex and the City’. That cocktail became a global phenomenon. That was only the beginning. Now we are seeing the great mixologists are emulating the great chefs, working with global, fresh ingredients, their balancing the acids and sugars, and they are creating original flavor profiles that are aesthetically pleasing to the eyes and the palate.”
Understanding where the cocktail has been helps Van Flanern see where it is going. Asking him about the next big cocktail trend, he feels that “we will never see a global trend like the Cosmopolitan again.” He sees bartending going in the same direction that the culinary world has been going; becoming more and more innovative, looking more to local and fresh ingredients to create their signature libations. He compared the growth of a bartender into a mixologist in the same way a cook evolves into a chef. Mixologists “innovate, they create, the do anything a bartender does, and more. They take it to the next level,” according to Van Flandern. Cocktails are no longer the big trend to look for, spirits are. People are embracing white whiskey, mescal, and pisco right now on the East coast, and it has been moving inwards through the country. The bigger spirits companies, like Diaego and Beam Global, are also helping to move trends, polling to see what people want to drink and encouraging the distilleries they own to develop spirits in that direction. This has allowed smaller, boutique, small batch distilleries to grow, fuelling a revolution in smaller craft spirits. “There is a lot of boutique, small batch, pot distilled distillations. We have seen a lot of boutique spirits are coming out where these guys are doing unique and innovative, cutting edge products in every major and minor spirit categories.”
Thanks to pioneers like Dale DeGroff, bartending has returned to the respectable trade it was before Prohibition chased bartenders to Europe, and their knowledge out of restaurants and bars. “It is an exciting time to be a bartender, globally”, offers Van Flandern, and he is right. Society’s palates have changed over the last two decades, and the explosion and expansion of craft liquors and spirits have given bartenders more options as far as ways to create cocktails. With the rising tide of skill and respect, the bar is no longer just a place for people to wait in a restaurant while their table is getting ready. It is an integrated part of the dining experience, with cocktails being paired with meals like wine traditionally has been and craft beers were a few years ago. “In my professional opinion, the long term trend in the next five years, great Chefs are going to supplant themselves in communities throughout the nation,” Van Flandern notes. He has seen this trend spreading, starting in places like London and New York, and in recent years moving to smaller cities like Cleveland and Columbus. And once the trend hits a city, it starts to spread to other lounges and restaurants.
Mr. Van Flandern was recruited by Chef Margot Blondet to help give Salar, the restaurant she is creating, a globally inspired, signature cocktail menu. “We see great chefs like Chef Margot moving in to Dayton and settling down roots here, and then making commitments to great cuisine in Dayton, and making a similar commitment to her cocktail program.” That commitment extended to training the bar staff to make cocktails that had the same elements she was passionate about: fresh, innovative, exciting, locally sourced and the best in Dayton. Making great cocktails like that will also include training on the history of the spirits and the cocktails they would be making, so they understand them on a deeper level and can create new ones using the same philosophy. He assured me that all of their cocktails, while well crafted, will be delivered in a timely manner. If it is not exactly what you were looking for, the staff there will have no problems making it to your tastes. His customer first philosophy is one other thing that will be instilled into the bartenders he is training.
Salar is looking to open up in the next few weeks with not only fanfare, but with great ambition. Bringing a mixologist like Brian Van Flandern, with his years of experience and training, shows just how serious of an impact Chef/Owner Margot and General Manager Harry Trubounis are looking to make in the culinary landscape of Dayton. The stage is set in the Oregon District for a new star to rise.