Mixed and muddled at Balance

Cocktail king Dale DeGroff and Esquire columnist David Wondrich educated 40 happy cocktail geeks, bartenders, and other spirits-industry types on Tuesday evening at a Garment District bar called The Balance. My ticket in was a Valentine’s Day gift from my lovely wifey, and I can’t think of a better present.

I arrived early, before The Balance opened, and waited on the sidewalk. Another guy was lingering on the sidewalk as well. A woman approached us and began friendly conversation: Are you here for the mixology seminar?

She asked if I was “in the industry” and I said, No, I’m just a cocktail geek. The other guy, Ted, was also a geek like me, but the woman, Hanna, does PR for the food and wine business.

Hanna also knows Dale DeGroff, from her time in wine PR, so she very graciously offered to introduce me to him as we entered Balance. So we walked up the stairs, went around the corner, and saw on the bar an array of full champagne flute. The bartender said, “Please! Have a champagne cobbler.” We each grabbed a drink (YUM!) and with flute in hand, I met Dale DeGroff.

Aside to mko: Eeeeeeeeee!

Hanna had already told me what I’d heard from so many others—that Dale is warm and friendly and a very damn nice guy, and that his wife, Jill, at least equals, if not exceeds, his charm. I didn’t, unfortunately, take the chance to talk to Jill, but Dale is down-to-earth, friendly, and approachable.

After we milled about and chatted, Dale opened the seminar. He made a few brief comments about his champagne cobbler recipe and introduced David Wondrich. David discussed very briefly the history of alcohol and drinking, explaining that among the first “cocktails” was beer or wine fortified with a little spirit. From there, he described the history of the punch and provided a recipe that he says approximates an old-fashioned spiced rum punch, from British-controlled India.

From punch, he moved on to the birth of the Gin Cock-Tail. To oversimplify his explanation a bit, the cocktail seems to have arisen as a way to make bitters more palatable. As the name implies, bitters are bitter-tasting—they’re a compound of spirit and botanicals used for medicinal purposes and to aid digestion. The idea arose to make the bitters more palatable by diluting them. To paraphrase a certain dotty nanny, just a spoonful of gin and sugar helps the medicine go down.

This idea has pedigree: British sailors fought scurvy by consuming limes and their juice; cutting the bitter lime with gin—hence the gimlet. The same happy breed of men quaffed quinine-laced tonic water in India, to fight malaria. The tonic was so bitter, they cut it with gin and citrus—hence the G&T.

Getting back to the point, a Cock-Tail was initially any strong spirit, sugar, and bitters, shaken over ice.

Wondrich is a crazy man. The bitters he used Tuesday were Stoughton bitters, a common sight in the 1800s, but virtually unknown since at least Prohibition. His batch was a brew that he’d cooked up himself, adapted from recipes found online.

Wondrich’s cocktail The Enchantress comes from a rare bartenders’ manual by a fellow named Charles Campbell. How rare? Only one copy is known to exist, and that’s in a rare-book room at a library in San Francisco. (mko, if you’re still reading, you have homework.)

Holy God, but I could go on and on talking about Tuesday’s seminar: how charmed I was by the space, how much I liked sampling each cocktail, how I talked LeNell’s ear off after the seminar, asking her tons of questions about how and why she got into this business. (I’m still embarrassed that I inadvertently broke up her conversation with Jill DeGroff, but they were both gracious about it.)

But David and Dale were great—funny, open, super-knowledgable, open to questions (lots and lots of questions). I can’t wait to do this again [that’s a PDF—be careful].

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