Scott Beattie was already considered to be at the top of his game when Douglas Keane and Nick Peyton lured the young bartender away from St. Helena's Martini House. Keane and Peyton were in the final stages of planning their destination restaurant, one that included Keane's dream kitchen and Peyton's dream service team. The bar remained unmanned, and so the two invited Beattie to come on up to Healdsburg.
The restaurant, of course, is Cyrus, the award-winning house that recently rated only a half-star lower than Thomas Keller's French Laundry in the newest Zagat guide. Beattie, who had spent the first two years of his career behind the bar mastering such old-school tricks as floating a slick of Chambord at the bottom of a glass, had recently had his palate and his mindset shaken up by something as mild as a beverage. As he relates in his new book, Artisanal Cocktails (Ten Speed Press; $24.95), he was seated at San Francisco's Absinthe Brasserie when he ordered an old-fashioned cocktail called a Ginger Rogers. But instead of commercial liquids mixed with liquor, bartender Marco Dionysos stirred up a concoction using homemade ginger syrup, fresh herbs and other marvels of artisanal craftsmanship. Beattie was astonished.
Upon landing at Cyrus, he continued his own explorations with cocktails blended exclusively of fresh, homemade ingredients and the highest quality local liquors. No ghastly chartreuse margarita blends or lumpy gray mudslide concoctions would, after all, work at a restaurant as spectacular as Cyrus. Thing was, his cocktails were good—but they weren't great.
"Nick and Doug never sat me down and told me to step up my game," Beattie says during a recent phone interview. "But I didn't really get it until I was seeing the food coming out of the kitchen and the service set up and how people were reacting to it all.
"What I was doing was fine," he says, "but it wasn't what they were doing."
When Beattie set about to bring his side of the operation up to snuff, he started outside. "When I moved up here, I didn't really understand what this area was really all about," he says. "I was only coming from San Francisco and I'd lived in Napa, but I didn't understand the extent to which the area in which we live produces all these foods until I stared going to the farmers market."
Beattie befriended area growers and began making such as Healdsburg's Love Farms a regular daily stop. He learned the earth's cycles and came to anticipate variables as wide as next season's promise and tomorrow's harvest. He learned about edible flowers and the properties of various herbs. And, most surprising to him, he came to fully understand how to use citrus.
"That became really exciting, because it was really fun," he enthuses. "All of a sudden I'm driving all over trying to find the sole Key lime tree in the middle of the Dry Creek Valley or I'm trying to find the Meyer lemon that someone told me about, and all of it is organic and all of it is local and it tastes so much better than anything else."
As detailed in the 50 recipes collected in Artisanal Cocktails, the results were dramatic. With the help of a forgiving kitchen staff, Beattie learned how to make his own syrups, how to infuse essential oils, how to use foam—the popular deconstructionist kitchen trope of the moment—to enhance presentation, how to candy and dry fruit for garnish, how to properly cut herbs to best release their perfume. He learned, in fact, the craft of making cocktails, one that Beattie and other master "mixologists," including famed "king of cocktails" Dale DeGroff, are eager to teach a public whose palate has been wearied by decades of oversweetened mixers and cheap blended liquors.
"There was a period before Prohibition when making drinks was a craft," Beattie emphasizes. "You only used quality ingredients, you dressed for the role and it was a job that took years to learn how to do correctly; you had to apprentice. When Prohibition kicked in, people were more concerned with getting something that worked," he chuckles, alluding to alcohol's spirited effects. "The American market was flooded with cheap Canadian blended rye. Domestic producers couldn't make anything better than moonshine—they couldn't age it, couldn't keep it in casks—and that changed American tastes for a long time. Once Prohibition was over, people had gotten used to drinking whiskey that tasted like cheap blended Canadian rye. With the exception of a few tiki bars after WW II, cocktail culture didn't come back."
But back it is, as more bartenders are willing to immerse themselves in every detail of a drink's structure in order to produce a product superior enough to be an event all in itself. And indeed, the devil is in such details. Take ice. Please. Artisanal Cocktails is very unforgiving on the ice issue, Beattie warning aspiring mixologists not to trust the chicken-flavored minibergs moldering in one's own freezer, but to instead strike up a friendship with a neighboring restaurant and use their professionally made ice or even buy the stuff bagged from the market and break it up yourself.
But something as seemingly small as ice is huge in the success of Beattie's drinks, dependent as they are on presentation. A trick he devised himself is to use flowers and herbs to inform the drink's look, shaking them with the ice so that these brilliantly colored and flavored items stick to the cubes and separate uniformly in the glass.
Properly measuring ingredients is another tedious must. Beattie remembers working the bar at Cyrus producing reasonable excellence while a visiting mixologist sipped a cold one. He told Beattie that he should be measuring as he went; Beattie laughed it off. Six months later, he says, he stopped himself in frustration during service and muttered, "I need to be measuring!"
But what Artisanal Cocktails is really about is community. No longer behind the bar at Cyrus, Beattie works part time at Healdsburg's new Scopa restaurant while he prepares to launch his own cocktail catering company. Through this journey, Beattie remains grateful and alive to his good fortune. And he is solid on one point.
"I really respect," he says with good humor, "people who measure."
Scott Beattie appears on Monday, Oct. 13, from 6pm to 9pm, at Flying Goat Coffee, 324 Center St., Healdsburg. 707.433.3599. He'll be at Tra Vigne on Monday, Oct. 20, from 6pm to 9pm. 1050 Charter Oak St., St. Helena. 707.963.4444. All events are free.
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