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Classic Cocktails Go Back to Barkeeping's Future
June 15, 2017 -- Just saying "speakeasy" is intoxicating. It conjures up visions of secret codes mumbled through a slit, revolving bookshelves, private passageways, trapdoors and frenzied bacchanals.

But that's a romanticized Hollywood version. Real speakeasies, I'm told, were small, hidden, claustrophobic rooms where the desperate and thirsty would quickly down badly made booze during the nation's dry years. The one speakeasy I ever visited was a depressing, low-ceilinged, downstairs storeroom at Mooney's Irish Pub in San Francisco. Owner Sean Mooney taught a bartending class there in the late 1970s. I can't imagine anyone doing a Charleston in the place.

A few adventurous shot-glass scholars, though, are now recreating pre-Prohibition cocktails using old recipes and new ingredients. A standout is 27-year-old Tim James who works the plank at C. Grace, a retro barroom and jazz club in Raleigh, North Carolina.

C. Grace handcrafts cocktails in a former elevator repair shop in downtown Raleigh. A discreet awning outside leads to a dimly lit inner sanctum. This is actually a double-decked thirst parlor with two bars. The place to be is downstairs, a dark hideaway with a clubby ambiance that eschews the speakeasy gimmickry. The upstairs Empress Room is a totally different scene.

A manager, Beren Houck, opines that C. Grace is a "sexy jazz den with a Roaring Twenties" mindset. It has the requisite red velvet curtains and a muted, moody red, black and gold motif. There are plenty of corners and couches, too. The music is live and free during the week. On Fridays and Saturdays, the cover charge is just $5.

But at C. Grace, the real story is in the glass and it doesn't seem to be fake news. James says owner Catrina Godwin allows barkeeps to take some liberties with cocktail recipes popular before the Volstead Act plunged the nation into supposedly total abstinence 97 years ago.

One drink, the Odd Perfection, is a variation of a rum flip. Flips date back to 1695 when rum, beer and sugar were first heated to a foamy froth.

The modern C. Grace version starts with two ounces of 80 proof Kraken black Caribbean rum and ice. In a separate shaker, there's an ounce of house-made vanilla simple syrup and an egg yolk. James shakes the second one "dry" (no ice) for 30 seconds until it foams like a White Russian. He then double strains it along with the rum into a bowl-like coupe glass (think Martini glass), zests some coffee beans on top and, presto, a malty, boozy milkshake. It sells for $10.

Historical note: When Prohibition became the law of the land, many American bars became drugstores with soda fountains and bartenders morphed into soda jerks. Their drink repertoires suddenly included malted milks, milkshakes, ice cream sodas and root beer floats, all sinfully caloric alcohol–laced cocktails at the turn of the 20th century.

Another James offering at C. Grace is a Vieux Carre, which sounds like a heroine in a spy novel. In truth, it's a version of the classic Manhattan cocktail. Start with three-quarters of an ounce of Hennessey Cognac (not American brandy), three-quarters of an ounce of 90-proof Virgil Kaine rye whiskey (pot-stilled in North Carolina), two tablespoons of Benedictine liqueur, a dash of Peychaud's bitters and two dashes of Angostura bitters. It is stirred with ice and served on the rocks or up for $12.

A gotta-try-it-once libation, says James, is Corpse Reviver Number 2. This ghoulish-sounding cocktail harkens back to pre-World War I when Europe was a weeklong steamer voyage away from the U.S. and passengers had plenty of time to kill. It calls for three-quarters of an ounce of 80 proof Gordon's London Dry Gin (the fashionable gin nearly a century ago), three-quarters of an ounce of Cointreau, three-quarters of an ounce of Dry Cocchi Americano vermouth and three-quarters of an ounce of fresh lemon juice. Place the ingredients in a shaker, fill with ice and shake. Rinse a coupe glass with Absinthe (it's legal in the U.S. today), shake again and pour. Twist a lemon peel to express the oil atop the drink and float it. It sells for $11.

Refreshingly, C. Grace hasn't gone the Disneyland thrill ride route like Williams & Graham in Denver, Noble Experiment in San Diego or the Varnish in Los Angeles. All are faux speakeasies stashed or hidden behind secret doors.

C. Grace is serious about vintage cocktailing. There is no food. And no vodkas are listed on its drinks menu because vodka didn't really make its debut in American bars until the late 1930s. Concedes James: "We do have a few vodkas and we will make someone a vodka tonic if they insist, but otherwise no."

James, who hails from Northern California and got his start mixing and pouring in dive bars and concert halls in Northern Virginia, does deep research in the art and science of classic craft cocktailing. He shadowed some of the barmen at the fabled American Bar in London's Savoy Hotel and duplicates the Aviation popularized there in 1911.

The concoction doesn't sound all that tantalizing to me, but the name alone sounds like it could propel one's spirits back in the infancy of flight. According to James, it starts with two ounces of Bombay Gin, a quarter-ounce of dark purplish Crème de Violette and a quarter-ounce of Luxardo Maraschino cherry liqueur. Pour over ice, shake and strain straight up. C. Grace sells it for $10.

During the nation's 13-year enforced dry spell (1920-1933), some members of the privileged class fled to Europe to escape boredom and keep the party going. Rather than be outlaws at home, the expats became scofflaws abroad. A cocktail was dubiously named in their honor and its popularity was repatriated home after Prohibition.

Tim James keeps the Scofflaw alive these days by pouring two ounces of Bulleitt Rye whiskey in a shaker followed by a quarter-ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice, a half-ounce of dry Cocchi Americano vermouth, a half-ounce of pomegranate grenadine and a dash of Peychaud's bitters. He shakes, strains and pours it into a coupe glass and garnishes it with an orange peel only after expressing the oil from the peel into the drink. It's $11.

"It's a strange play on a Manhattan," he muses.


This column is Copyright © 2017 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.