Published on October 27th, 2012 | by Charu Suri7
At the Pierre Hotel in New York City, Cocktails Through the Ages
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really know my drinks. I understand some of the technical terms: molasses, alcohol content, tiki drinks, proof but the timeline of cocktails becomes a bit blurry.
Being a drinks novice, I recently had a very nice surprise and somewhat of a fun history lesson at the Pierre Hotel (a Taj property), which creates a “cocktail festival” every season, along with an interactive experience for guests to learn how these beverages transpire. The theme this past summer was barrel-aged drinks, and for fall they’ve created a menu with nods to the cocktail traditions of the previous decades, to celebrate the hotel’s 82nd Anniversary.
The Star of Taj at The Pierre
To celebrate this birthday, the hotel took its inspiration from cocktails from the past and reintroduced them with a modern twist. I had the good opportunity to interview Chief mixologist Sachin Hasan, whose starting point were the 1930s.
The creation of this seasonal menu is quite a process. “We come up with some 40 cocktails and the team approves them,” says Hasan. “We have a select panel of judges from the hotel who do the tasting; finally, we decide which 6-7 drinks go into the menu.” Hasan walks me through a history of the cocktail using the menu as textbook.
The Era of Sazerac: 1930s
The Pierre’s Answer– The Charles Sazerac
The Sazerac was popular in the 1930s right after the prohibition era, and was fashioned without juices. The typical Sazerac was a Herculean drink, using only bitters and spirits. This drink at the Pierre Hotel is a nod to the classic and made with rye whiskey, absinthe and bitters. Charles Pierre started offering drinks in the 1930s. Hasan and his team modernized the classic by changing the traditional rye whiskey into tequila. “We’ve used tequila which is aged, and it certainly is strong,” says Sahan noting the modern twist.
“Tequila is not easy to play around with because it is pungent,” Hasan adds.
It is served without ice, so it is by far the strongest drink on the menu. One other lovely twist: it also has absinthe, but the glass is washed with a tinge of it because aniseed “is very strong” to be fully added into the drink.
Roses and Lemon: Gimlets in the 1940s
The Pierre’s Answer: J.P. Getty’s Gimlet
In the 1940s, the Pierre Hotel changed hands and fell into the well-endowed arms of JP Getty. Made with Stolichnaya lemon, Beefeater Gin and St. Germain, this is another strong drink. “These days, people don’t prefer lime cordials,” says Hasan because of calories (the classic Gimlet features roses and lime cordials). The Pierre tweaked this classic using lemon vodka and St. Germain for sweetness, with elder flower flavor.
Gimlets had their heyday in the 1940s.
The food and drink at the Pierre: classic, with a modern twist. Shown above is the Indian korma-style curry served with fresh bread and pulao
The Sour Era: 1960’s
The Pierre’s Answer– Rotunda’s Whiskey Sour
Whiskey sours came into the picture in the 1960s, and the Pierre modernizes this a bit by infusing Maker’s Mark with Lemon Verbena Tea, as well as pasteurized egg white and bitters to really give it the edge. “Since all the sour mixes have egg whites, but since people today don’t prefer raw egg whites because they are considered unhealthy, we use a pasteurized egg white,” says Hasan. The pasteurized egg white does not mean less calories per se, but because it cooks at a higher temperature, some of the rawness is erased.
The Rotunda used to be the Pierre’s tea room, and the walls are hand painted. It is currently used for banquets and receptions.
The Tiki Era: The 1970’s
The Pierre’s Answer– My Fair Lady of Cafe Pierre
In the 1970s, tropical fruits like pineapple juice came into the picture, and hence this drink, which is made which is made with Bacardi Rum, Disaronno Amaretto and Pineapple Juice. Juices were added to cocktails in the 1960s and 1970s. “Rum was the base for the tiki,” says Hasan. People in this period were putting their creativity into making drinks apart from sours and bitters. The thinking also was that the liqueurs were raw and not very good for you, and people started adding juices to cocktails to make them more palatable.
The Avant-Garde: 21st Century
The Pierre’s Answer –The Star of Taj
This is the most complex drink on the menu, with Bombay Sapphire, gin and spicy notes including curry leaves and cardamom pods and peppercorn. It also features absinthe, but “it mixes so well with passion fruit and orange seeds and the cassis,” says Hasan. This is, of course, a complete nod to India and its culinary heritage. The sweetness if the cassis is just a beautiful finish and the after taste of the peppercorn is palpable but not overpowering.
Typically the curry leaves are lit with fire before serving but only during special classes.
The Pierre Hotel, 2 East 61st Street New York, NY 10065, (212) 838-8000