Crisp and formiddable, dry or sweet- you'll get a kick out of these.
Cool & Creative
Clean, crisp and colorful. Smooth, seductive and summery. Fresh, frothy and fruity. Cocktails everyone?
By Judith Hausman
Photography by Phil Mansfield
What makes cocktails so compelling? Is it their playful, sugary punch? Their flirty candy colors? Their sensuous, fruity scents? Or is it the slow, sexy voyage of the glass to the lips? I’m not exactly sure, but I am certain that whether shaken, stirred or merely swished, these gussied-up mixed drinks today are more popular than ever. And although they seem to best match the pace, colors and sunsets of summer, cocktails can—and are—enjoyed all year long. And should you need a good reason to celebrate with, say, a cocktail or two, here’s a good one: Local bartenders have come up with more creative—and more delicious—ways than mixing some gin with some tonic to whet our appetite and quench our thirsts.
According to Dale DeGroff, who authored The Craft of the Cocktail and is known as the “Master of Mixology” and the “King of Cocktails,” cocktails, whose popularity tends to go up and down, today are the drink of choice. “Cocktails have always been part of our culture—as American as apple pie and baseball,” DeGroff says. “But, from the late ’60s to the mid ’80s, the ‘dropout generation’ was busy experimenting with things other than alcohol, so cocktails were just not as popular then. But they started coming back in a big way in the late ’80s, at about the time the Rainbow Room reintroduced a traditional cocktail menu that was widely imitated.”
Not only are cocktails in vogue again, they’re increasingly more creative. DeGroff observes, “Our love affair with big flavors, with ‘fresh’ and ‘seasonal,’ is influencing cocktails as well.” As far as trends, DeGroff predicts the Mojito will soon overtake the mega-popular Cosmo. “Rum and all the Latino drinks are popular, but the Mojito is king.”
If the Mojito is king, the Cosmo is queen, according to Bedford’s Lee Einsidler, executive vice-president of Sidney Frank Importing of New Rochelle (the owners of Grey Goose Vodka, the top-selling ultra-premium vodka in the world). “‘Sex and the City’ sold the Cosmo to thirtysomething women,” says Einsidler of Carrie Bradshaw’s favorite drink. Cosmos are not only tasty, he notes, they look great in a glass. Plus Einsidler says, “Bartenders love to make them. All that shaking is a way to show off.”
And, if the popularity of the Cosmo is any indication, there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on in Westchester. After all, the “show”—the way it’s made, the way it fills the glass, the color, the texture, the presentation—is part of the cocktail’s appeal, part of what separates a cocktail from the nondescript, garden-variety mixed drink.
“People like cocktails because they are sexy and different,” says Rafael Palomino, owner of Sonora and Pacifico in Port Chester. Palomino also has a practical explanation for the appeal and popularity of the cocktail: “Many diners want to have a drink, but they don’t want anything too alcoholic or strong. If they’re only going to have one drink, they want it to be exciting and romantic.” Cocktails fit the bill.
Indeed, atmosphere is an inherent component in the mystique of the cocktail. “Our Coconutini makes you feel as if you are sitting on a lawn chair instead of on a bar stool,” declares Jean Marie Hodio, manager of Justin Thyme in Croton-on-Hudson, an inviting pub with a copper bar and big, glittering mirrors behind it. “And our fruit martinis are truly stunning.” Vanilla vodka, Malibu and Frangelico liqueurs, and pineapple juice make up the light, frothy Coconutini. Hodio sees cocktails as her creative outlet, and the apple cider martini she invented has gotten her lots of notice. “Sometimes,” says Hodio, “we’re filling as many as 30 martini glasses at a time.”
Jeff Wessel, manager at Harrys of Hartsdale, credits the in-house, pineapple-infused vodka with the success of the restaurant’s house Cosmo. Harry’s own strawberry-steeped vodka makes the strawberry martini special, too. Patrons, Wessel reports, like vodka shooters with the raw bar goodies at Harrys, but, in summer, orders for the Brazilian Caipirinha and fresh mint Mojitos begin to pick up as well.
In Pleasantville, the stools are often occupied along the bar at Strega, where head bartender Mary Kirby takes pride in her invention, the Blush. “It’s the most popular drink we sell, better than the Cosmo,” she says. Peach vodka, peach liqueur and splashes of pineapple and cranberry juice make a sunset-at-the-beach-colored drink “great with appetizers,” Kirby suggests. Or try a magically smooth Au Pear: citrus vodka, pear nectar and white wine.
Michael Kalesti is the owner of, as well as the occasional bartender at, bolobar lounge in Mt. Kisco. Its niche is unusual for our area: bolobar lounge attracts an over-thirty, after-dinner crowd. While relaxing on soft leather benches in the intimate, candlelit lounge or on wicker chairs on the side porch, guests often slowly sip from elegant glassware and nibble cashews, olives, savory tapas or sweets. “We use only top-shelf vodkas, tequilas and so on, and only fresh fruit; no mixes, no sweeteners,” says Kalesti as he carefully submerges a layer of dark berry liqueur at the bottom of a margarita, planting an end-of-drink treat for a lucky imbiber.
Marilyn Baron of Bedford, a delighted patron who recommends bolobar to just about everyone, declares: “Without all the additives, you can taste what the tequila is doing in a margarita. It’s beautiful to see and to drink.” The signature bolo blue has a pool of blue curaçao at the center and the aroma of melon liqueur rises over the vodka. You won’t find basketball on the tube here; Marilyn Monroe is more likely than the Lakers to fill the TV screen above the bar.
Rye Bar & Grill draws fans ready for an after-work cocktail when they exit the Metro-North trains. Bartender Brendan McKiernan reports that, while the basic Cosmo is still very popular, young women especially like the “filthy dirty martini,” muddied up with olive juice. McKiernan’s colleague, Brian Lepore, opines, “I don’t really think it’s the taste of the olive juice; it’s just a fun thing for girls to order—the ‘in’ thing right now.” (Incidentally, this version of the martini was FDR’s favorite, long before it was “in.”) More traditional French martinis, rosy with pineapple juice and raspberry liqueur, are hits at Rye Bar & Grill, too.
In New Rochelle, MacMenamin’s grill & chefworks’ long zinc bar is center stage when guests step off the elevator. The house specialty is a mango martini made with homemade mango-infused vodka. Bar manager Michael Geary adds to the mango vodka a bit more plain vodka and a little simple syrup, and then strains this nectar into a chilled martini glass over ice. Reflecting on its popularity, he says, “A mango martini at the bar is a starting point for the evening.” Couples can linger with a watermelon martini or a Mojito instead and select oysters or shrimp from the raw bar.
Richard Hertz at Mighty Joe Young’s in White Plains takes credit for the Shirley Temptress, an un-virgin version of the little girls’ treat, made with currant-flavored vodka. “We were looking for a new cocktail for the menu and this one just came to me on a golf outing,” says Hertz. “When a man occasionally orders the Temptress, we make it a little stronger.” Mighty Joe’s takes the cocktail scene seriously with big jars of fruits in vodka on a dark wood counter behind the bar, groupings of soft couches inside the bar’s lounge area and a genuine (and heated) tiki room adjacent to the 35-foot-long, zinc-topped bar. Great White Hunter décor means antelope heads and flaming torches. Continue the British Colonial theme with a mai tai—rum (or several rums together) with pineapple, orange and lime juices.
B4 in Valhalla is shaking those special martinis until two in the morning on weekends. The French Kiss comes on with vanilla vodka, Champagne and passion fruit nectar, or, if the lady or gentleman prefers the Strawberry Blonde, it’s strawberry vodka, Lillet (a French aperitif made with wine) and a fresh berry garnish. You can get a manly burger after the drink until 2 a.m. as well (Fridays and Saturdays).
Of course, you’ll have to try the BlueTini (citrus vodka, blue curaçao, sweetened lime juice and a rakish orange slice) at the spacious, new Blue in White Plains. Bitter orange cuts the sweetness in this specialty drink, served in an offset, blue stemmed glass. The Church Street cocktail, made with vodka or gin, is softened with Lillet and garnished with stemmed caper berries instead of an olive. High-backed banquette seating with large round tables, retro lighting and royal blue touches show the bar/restaurant’s stylish flair.
Don’t spill your bright green Appletini when making your way through the Saturday night bar crowd out on to the porch or brick patio at 121 Restaurant & bar in North Salem. Triple Sec, apple liqueur, vodka and a touch of sour mix make a Granny Smith-green cocktail sweet but still refreshing. On Saturday nights, 121 draws a family crowd early, but the tavern-style bar is active and chatty well into the evening. If you get hungry, there are wood-fired, thin pizzas to share.
Chef Rafael Palomino’s buzzing Nuevo Latino restaurants in Port Chester, Sonora and Pacifico, are the places to go for classic Latino cocktails. Bright colors, rhythmic background music and fanciful art add to the excitement. Palomino created the mango mimosa (fresh mango juice and Champagne) and is also proud of his blackberry capirhosa made with blackberry liqueur, lime juice, vodka and mint leaves. “Guests like this Brazilian drink because they can make it at home,” he says. “Everyone has a bottle of vodka in the house.” A recent cocktail special, inspired by a trip Palomino took to Mexico, was the spectacular pomegranate margarita, served up in a green coconut. “I was in Acapulco, lying around a hotel pool and cocktails were served like that in green coconuts,” he says.
For a one-of-a-kind cocktail made with seasonal, organic and locally grown ingredients, try the original cucumber martini at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills. The freshly squeezed cucumber juice “has an amazing aroma,” says Tina Braunstein, the bartender who created the drink. “It’s so fresh.” A hand-crafted, Scottish, cucumber-infused gin and a garnish of fennel make a pale green, refreshing cocktail. Or try the pickled ramp vodka martini with oniony wild ramps, gathered from the grounds of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Sip either one slowly on the spacious patio of Blue Hill, while looking out over the hills and grazing on treats from the ever-changing bar menu, such as chicken liver terrine or crisp asparagus with house-cured prosciutto. Don’t rub your eyes; those really are sheep, ducks and turkeys out there. Eventually there will be vineyards too.
Judith Hausman, food critic for The Journal News (Gannett Suburban Newspapers), has learned that cocktails have distinctly improved since her first Singapore sling.