The Puget Sound region has a wonderful selection of lounges, speakeasies and wine bars offering great cocktails. Mixologists continue to push the envelope, creating new, creative concoctions with exotic ingredients and preparations.
This month we decided to get back to basics and focus on the classic cocktails that have, for the most part, endured the test of time.
The Sazerac may not be a common drink, but it is making a vibrant comeback. It is a true classic, emerging from the French Quarter of New Orleans around the turn of the century. Louisiana even proclaimed the Sazerac as New Orleans' official cocktail.
Named after the Sazerac de Forge et Fils brand of cognac, the drink has evolved to be commonly constructed with rye whiskey, a hint of absinthe, Peychaud's bitters, simple syrup and a twist of lemon.
We sampled the Sazerac at two Seattle establishments.
Rob Roy (2332 Second Ave.; 956-8423; robroyseattle.com) mixed our favorite Sazerac. It came straight up in an ice-cold highball glass, which helped keep the drink cool without watering it down with ice cubes.
The bartender used Templeton rye, an excellent choice, and the drink succeeded because it showcased the rye while balancing the other components. The bartender squeezed the lemon rind into the cocktail before adding the twist, which brought out the taste of the lemon even more. It was a crisp cocktail with extremely well-balanced flavors.
At RN74 (1433 Fourth Ave.; 456-7474; michaelmina.net), we tried two different versions of the Sazerac. The first version used six-year-old Sazerac rye, which, despite its name, was underwhelming. This cocktail also fell short because it did not include any lemon (juice or peel), and it was difficult to detect the absinthe.
The second version was much better. This one used Bulleit rye and a lemon peel dropped in the bottom of the glass. It was more balanced than the first version, though we still preferred Rob Roy's.
We also stopped by the Brooklyn Cafe to taste its Sazerac, but we were disappointed to learn the bar could not mix one because it did not stock absinthe.
Brandy is very popular in classic cocktails, though somehow it has fallen out of fashion. Drinks such as the Southampton, stinger and "Between the Sheets" all feature brandy. We wanted to try at least one classic brandy cocktail and decided on the sidecar.
The sidecar at Cafe Presse (1117 12th Ave., Seattle; 709-7674; cafepresseseattle.com) arrived straight up with a twist. The orange-hued concoction's main ingredient was unmistakable - cognac. The first taste was all cognac, closely followed by the citrusy sweetness of the sidecar's other two ingredients - Cointreau triple sec and lemon juice.
Our bartender at Cafe Presse subscribed to the "English school" of sidecar preparation, as the ratios leaned more heavily in cognac's favor. But the sidecar also can be prepared with more equal ratios between the ingredients, which results in a drink favored by the "French school."
Both methods of preparation lead to extremely rosy cheeks and a warm belly. The drink is aptly named, as more than one of these will disqualify you from driving and you will be stuck riding home in the eponymous sidecar.
The exact origins of the Cuba Libre, or rum and cola, are a bit of a mystery, but aficionados agree that cola made its way to Cuba around 1900 or a little before. The best cocktails use white rum and add a sliver of lemon or lime. We will leave the Coke-Pepsi debate for another time.
Rumba (1112 Pike Street; 583-7177; rumbapike.com) has one of the best - if not the best - selections of rum in Seattle. It's not for show either; the bartenders and servers are well educated about the different types of rum on the menu.
Some of the fruit-laden, island cocktails can be a bit gimmicky, but if you want to try a great white rum, order Wray & Nephew's White Overproof on the rocks with the cola on the side. Wray & Nephew is probably best known for Captain Morgan and Appleton Jamaica rum, but the White Overproof is perfect for a Cuba Libre.
The alcohol content is 63% ABV - hence, the "overproof" - but ordering the cola on the side allows you to set your own proportions for a taste that suits you.
The old fashioned is a classic cocktail made from brandy or whiskey (most often rye whiskey), a sweet component, and a citrus component, typically orange. Like the Sazerac, it has become popular again with the resurgence of rye.
In a city with so many hip lounges and speakeasies, you may from time to time come across a bartender who looks slightly repulsed when you order a classic. We figured if we were going to be reviewing some classic cocktails, then we needed to visit a classic establishment.
Morton's opened its doors in Chicago in 1978 and has grown to more than 75 locations. Here in Seattle (1511 Sixth Ave.; 223-0550; mortons.com/seattle), guests are swept from a street-level red carpet and into the dining area downstairs. The bar is somewhat removed from the dining floor, so you can enjoy a cocktail without conspicuously feeling like you are waiting for a table.
Morton's prepared a particularly citrusy version of the rye old fashioned. The bartender used Bulleit rye and muddled portions of an orange slice - as opposed to an orange peel - with simple syrup. The orange slice allows for the fruit pulp to mix into the drink, giving it a distinct citrus flavor that is sweeter than many old fashioned cocktails around the city. True to form, it also included a maraschino cherry, which is how it would have been served at cocktail parties across America in the 1950s.
Bookstore Bar (1007 First Ave.; 382-1506; alexishotel.com) made a clean and balanced old fashioned. Again, we sampled two different versions of the same cocktail. Each preparation featured a different rye whiskey.
The bartender muddled some orange peel before adding ice, a jigger of rye, simple syrup and a brandied cherry to an "old fashioned glass," which is about the same size as a double rocks glass. He preferred to stir, rather than shake, the old fashioned.
Our bartender recommended Mitcher's rye, which is distilled in Louisville and dates back to the 1700s. It is said that George Washington supplied his men with this rye through the long winter at Valley Forge. The whiskey was smooth and easily sweetened with the syrup, and the muddled orange peel imbued a deep orange flavor in every sip without overpowering the drink with orange pulp.
While some of our reviewers preferred the subtler Mitcher's rye, others preferred the cocktail with (ri)1, which, from its sleek design and name, looks like it belongs in 21st-Century dance halls instead of the Revolutionary War. The (ri)1 old fashioned hit with the whiskey first, then backed off to hints of the orange and sweet syrup.
If you prefer a bolder drink, then this version may be right for you. Both were excellent. Our only disappointment was the amount of ice in the glass, which watered down the cocktail too quickly for the casual drinker.
All in all, the classics are alive and well; you just have to ask for them.
Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt is a multiservice, Northwest regional law firm with offices in Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and Bend. For comments on this article or to share your favorite places to eat or drink with the Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt attorneys, contact Ryan Dumm at 206-689-1201 or at firstname.lastname@example.org; see also www.schwabe.com/dining_out.aspx. Follow us on Twitter @schwabedinesout.