New York State has a rich and long history with spirits & cocktails. The very first bartender’s guide was written by Jerry Thomas who was born in Sackett’s Harbor, NY and worked in New York City during the 1800’s. Today, New York is home to the second highest number of distilleries in the nation.
Local writer and author Don Cazentre recently released his second book, this one detailing the stories behind the Empire State’s affinity for libations. I took the opportunity to ask Don some questions about his research and experiences while writing the book.
GSN: You’re originally from New Orleans, Louisiana which itself has a deep and rich drinking heritage. Did any of your experiences there directly influence your interest in writing about cocktails and spirits in Upstate New York?
DC: I certainly grew up in a cocktail town. And there always seemed to be a bottle of Peychaud’s bitters around in everybody’s home when I was a kid (though I believe some people used it in cooking). Plus, my great-grandfather ran bars in and around the French Quarter (pre-Prohibition). But none of that really influenced this. I started writing about beer in 1995, in a column for the Post-Standard and then as a free-lancer for Ale Street News. I eventually expanded my writing into wine and spirits, and now work full-time as beer, wine and spirits writer for NYup.com. This book came about when the publisher (The History Press), sent me a query asking if I thought there was enough material on spirits and cocktail in Upstate NY to support a book. It only took me a weekend of research to conclude the answer was ‘yes’.
GSN: What is the most interesting story that you uncovered while working on this book?
DC: There were plenty. From a true historical perspective, I think the story of rum distilling in the Albany area was the most interesting — partly because it was surprising to me. I had heard of New England (Medford) Rum, but had no idea Albany was such a major player in the 1700’s. But I really love the (almost) entirely fictional account of the tavern keeper in Lewiston — Katherine Hustler. Though much of the story is complete bunk, I love the way they keep it alive, from historic markers to live re-enactments — in this small corner of Upstate NY.
GSN: Despite prohibition, alcohol was always available for someone who wanted it. Did you uncover any stories of speakeasies or bootleggers in the area?
DC: Yes, I have several tales of bold “rum runners” crossing the river (and ice) in the Thousand Islands region (accompanied by hails of gunfire). It’s also pretty obvious from some of the stories in places like Syracuse, Albany and Buffalo that speakeasies were “hiding in plain sight.”
GSN: You devote a chapter to the history of rum making in Upstate New York. Today, relatively few distilleries in the area are producing rum. Why do you think this is?
DC: Many of the distilleries have ‘farm,’ licenses, so they’re required to use New York ingredients. I don’t know of many sugar plantations in New York! On the other hand, a distillery like Albany Distilling Co. is makings rum under a standard license. I think for now, using local ingredients, whether required by law or not, is going to be a driving force for distillers.
GSN: Let’s talk a bit about bar culture. Do you see a shift in the use of local spirits on menus? How are local bartenders using these products to bring in cocktail enthusiasts who want something or than the usual “fruit-tini”?
DC: I think the “buy local” idea has filtered to many bars, especially the high-end ones. The current thinking seems to be embodied in this quote in the book from Chuck Cerankosky, owner of Rochester’s Good Luck and Cure and founder of the Rochester Cocktail Revival: “At first we used them (local products) to be polite. Now, we use them because they’re good.”
GSN: The resurgence of distilling in Upstate New York has grown exponentially in the last ten years. What in your opinion are the benefits of this relatively young craft in an industry dominated by major players like Diageo, Pernod-Ricard, Suntory-Beam and William Grant & Sons?
DC: There are almost 100 distilleries in New York, and, as far as I know, just one, Tuthilltown in Gardiner, has been acquired by a “major” player (Wm Grant). So I think what’s cool now is that distilleries are where craft beer has been for the last decade — small, local, trying new things and aiming to build a loyal audience. It came too late to make my book, but I’m intrigued by the new effort to make Empire Rye a signature New York spirit. (See GSN’s review of Finger Lakes Distilling’s Empire Rye here)
GSN: If you were to nominate one iconic libation that should be the official cocktail of Upstate New York, which one would you choose and why?
DC: I’ll give you two — one historical and one modern.
Historical: The Mamie Taylor is one that has a strong provenance to Upstate NY: It’s pretty clear it was invented at Ontario Beach near Rochester in 1900 at the request of then Broadway diva, Mamie Taylor. It was hugely popular in its day. It’s also interesting in cocktail history: It’s a sort of precursor to the modern rage over Moscow Mules — a highball with ginger beer. In that sense, it could be one of the most influential cocktails ever.
From Ted Haigh in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails
2 ounces scotch
¾ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
Spicy ginger ale or ginger beer (Haigh recommends Blenheim’s no. 3 ginger ale)
Pour the scotch and lime juice into an ice-filled 8-ounce highball glass and fill with ginger ale. Stir and garnish with a lime wedge.
Modern: I had head bartender Jeremy Hammill at the Scotch ‘n Sirloin in DeWitt concoct a few “Erie Canal-themed cocktails” using ingredients sourced from along the old canal path. Here’s one:
From Jeremy Hammill of the Scotch ’n Sirloin, DeWitt
1 ounce Albany Distilling Death Wish coffee vodka (Albany)
1 ounce Black Button 4 Grain Bourbon (Rochester)
1 ounce cinnamon/clove infused simple syrup (see note below)
1 dropper of Mad Fellows Mulled Spice bitters (Syracuse)
½ ounce heavy cream Freshly grated cinnamon
Chill a martini glass or coupe. Fill a shaker glass with ice and then add all ingredients except the cinnamon. Shake well and strain into martini glass or coupe. Sprinkle on cinnamon for garnish.
Note: To make the simple syrup, boil 2 cups water with 1 broken up cinnamon stick and 4 whole cloves to extract the flavor. When it smells right, add 2 cups sugar and boil to dissolve. Let cool and strain into a clean bottle. Will hold for a month in the refrigerator. (It can be reduced, but always use equal parts water and sugar.)
GSN: To what do you attribute the lasting influence the cocktail still has today even after prohibition and two world wars?
DC: That’s a good question. Writing the book certainly reaffirmed for me the notion that cocktails have always had their cycles — classic, over-the-top, fruity and sweet, back to classic, etc. I think their popularity now is a bit of the DIY mentality — if you buy a beer or wine you’re stuck with what you bought. But with cocktails, you can mix and match and put your own creative spin on what you’re drinking.
GSN: Last question: You discuss several of the theories about the origin of the word “cocktail”. Most of them seem to indicate an origin within New York State. What do you think the true story is?
DC: I really think the cocktail is simply the drink (the name) that survived from the whole era of juleps and shrubs, punches and toddies, slings and sangarees, cobblers and nogs. I don’t know if it originated in New York, but it certainly seems to be the place where the word first took hold. That may be because of economic and social factors — access to education, media outlets etc. (But in loyalty to my hometown, I still also like the story of Antoine Peychaud and the “coquetier,” even if it is mostly bunk).
Interview by Blair Frodelius, Good Spirits News