Monday, September 28, 2009

FoodTrek: Getting Schooled at the Sorrento Hotel

Robert Hess isn't a bartender, but he can make a better martini than you. He's never served behind the barrier separating drink-maker from drink-taker. But he is an avid collector of bygone times, and the keeper of anecdotal evidence behind the American invention that is the cocktail. Creator of the spirit-friendly website, Drink Boy, a published author on the subject of frosty beverages, and on the board of directors behind The Museum of the American Cocktail, Robert Hess has earned the rare distinction of being respected by individuals on both sides of the bar. Thanks to the centennial Sorrento Hotel, their own love of history has brought forth a regular series of events called Night School at the Sorrento Hotel: Drinking Lessons, where bartenders and spirited chroniclers of note are invited to give a discourse over the fine art and provenance of well known spirits and drinks.

Welcome to Night School at the Sorrento, where homework is awesome - photos by Wasabi Prime

Drinking Lessons could not have been held at a better location. The Sorrento Hotel is a lush and sumptuous altar to a lost era. Upon entering their Hunt Club bar, one immediately feels visited by old ghosts haunted with the ennui of the Volsted Act and beyond, emanating from the cozy dark wood paneling, with the warm flicker of candles to light the way to the stage-like bar.

It's difficult to imagine pop culture without dry martinis and pink cosmos, but it wasn't until the early 1800s where the first citation of a cocktail appeared in publication, defining it simply as spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. Citing notes from old ledgers and literature over the subject of beverages known to fuddle the head, Robert Hess brought up one quote that seemed an apt opener for the evening; in regards to cocktails and politics, a mixed drink seemed a worthy instrument for a candidate, because a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.

Ye Olde Fashioned when it was still New Fashioned - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Befuddlement aside, Hess made it a point to extoll the virtues behind the craft of making a proper cocktail. Much like composing a recipe for food, a mixed drink should possess a complex flavor profile meant to amuse the palate more than knock the sobriety out of it. He insisted that a true cocktail shouldn't be all one flavor, be it sweet, bitter or alcoholic burn, but instead be a careful balance of all three. An example of this balance would be the Old Fashioned, which at the time of the early 19th century and not being particularly old, was simply named a Whiskey Cocktail, as it was one of the first of its time. Instructed by our teacher for the night, the Old Fashioned is composed of 2oz rye whiskey, a splash of simple syrup, and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters. Putting empty glasses before everyone, we were allowed a hands-on demonstration, customizing our own version of the first whiskey cocktail.

Hess bemoaned the suffering the Old Fashioned has had to endure over the years, being topped off with water to make the drink seem more full and muddling of fruit that left the drink pulpy and over-sweetened. While not a slave to garnishes, he admitted that a simple curl of orange zest is flavor enough to infuse the drink with the essential oils, enhancing the flavor of the whiskey and herbal bitters. Anything beyond that and it's a salad and probably best left for frathouse keggers.

The explanation over what put the "old" in Old Fashioned coincided with a mystery drink Hess began to mix in a vintage silver kettle. By the time 1862 had rolled around, cocktails were at a high point, all using a combination of similar ingredients. The use of Italian Sweet Vermouth had become en vogue as an alternative to bitters for its distinctive herbal flavor, but at the turn of the century, something new had reached American shores: French Dry Vermouth. This new ingredient offered a new flavor profile to drinks, creating the option for cocktailians to order a drink in the new or old fashioned style, hence the Whiskey Cocktail becoming of vintage form. The mystery cocktail Hess mixed included gin, orange bitters, and the "old" Sweet Vermouth. Pouring this drink into wine glasses, the rich amber liquid blushed against the light of the candles and we all sampled the pleasing results. The flavor was warm and caramel-sweet, with the lingering of the citrus bitters. Hess pulled his ta-daaaah for the evening by informing us that this was the original martini.

Mystery Drink...minus the olives - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Holy eff -- and the Midnight Symposium for the F-word wasn't for another week! What about the crystalline pool of gin or vodka? The whisper of Vermouth? Does James Bond know?? How could this be the genesis for what we've all come to know as a martini? And where the hell are the olives? Hess explained that many of the original recipes for cocktails became lost to Prohibition, when the keepers of the spirits fled the country for less-teetotaled shores. In the absence of bartenders, it was left to the devices of high profile individuals like politicians and celebrities to define what it meant to order a stiff drink. These were also individuals most likely to be raging alcoholics, so it was like the monkeys were running the zoo. The bitters went AWOL, the vermouth became a hushed whisper, and the culinary martini became the alcoholic modern martini of today.

Classic Martini, as poured by Robert Hess - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Not to completely abandon all hope, Hess mixed a true classic martini, composed of three parts gin, to one part Dry Vermouth, and a dash of orange bitters. Still possessing the spirit of the original martini, the classic had a balanced flavor while retaining the familiar glassine appearance. It was made clear that if one were to order a classic martini at the Hunt Club, one would assuredly receive the cocktail properly made. Another way of ordering a martini would be "perfect," with an even split between Sweet and Dry Vermouths. I have to say the sound of a perfect classic martini sounds awfully good right now.
From Sept Photos

Thankfully, the good people of the Sorrento Hotel did not leave us stumbling and befuddled with Robert Hess' knowledge and cocktails. Between each drink, they served us with small bites that included a chicken liver pate on toast, a demitasse of pea soup, and a serving of potato gnocchi. I'll admit, Mr. Wasabi and I wound up at Kidd Valley with a cheeseburger and onion rings at the end of the night, but the nibbles between each cocktail helped get us safely ensconced in I-Can-Haz-Cheeseburger-land.
Closing Time - you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Much appreciation to Robert Hess for educating the eager students of the Hunt Club classroom. Foodista was covering the event, taking much better photos than me, so I recommend checking out their post of the event, which includes the recipes for each cocktail and a more detailed description of the food served. Super duper golf clap to the Sorrento Hotel for creating the Night School series, which includes literary and music events, in addition to Drinking Lessons. They are continuing these through December, so if you get a chance to see any of the upcoming speakers, I think it will be both educational as well as entertaining. Go to the Sorrento website and email to reserve your spot for upcoming classes. Cheers to you!

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  1. Great article! Thank you!! We hope to see you at more Drinking Lessons :)


    Founder, Foodista

  2. I LOVE this article. I believe in a cocktail being well-balanced as well. So many cocktails have become gimicky and poorly concocted in so many ways. Sugar+alcohol does not a good cocktail make. I so wish I could attend these lessons with you! What a great philosophy Hess seems to have. Hope you'll go to more classes and fill us in on more great info! Beautiful writing, as always.

  3. Oh, old fashioned. Why are you not part of a well balanced breakfast?


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