Drinking Diversions

Some things will never go out of style—the staples are staples because they represent everything that’s good about their breed and class but in an honest and singular way. Old-school three-olive dirty gin martinis, vodka sodas and Jack and Coke, to name a few, will remain the high holies of imbibery in perpetuity. But a few Long Island bartenders are shaking up stale happy hour routines with splashes of Japanese sake and Brazilian cachaça. While those bartenders hope to expand their regulars’ boozing boundaries with exotic liquors, other Island mixologists urge a return to simplicity, serving up rare, room-temperature bourbons and scotches.

Josh Cook, the general manager at Two Steak & Sushi Den (New Hyde Park), falls into the innovative category. Saketinis—a cocktail with the Japanese rice brew, lychee juice and either gin or vodka—are regulars on most Manhattan bar menus, but are still hard to find on the Island. His New Hyde Park resto, however, has been serving up the sake-based “Pear Blossom” with success. The drink combines Grey Goose Pear Vodka, Momokawa organic junmai ginjo sake and pear purée. The “junmai ginjo” label means the rice in the sake has been polished to a high standard, a process that gives it a smoother taste. It’s not the bargain-basement sake in “sake bombs” (the college town favorite in which heated shots of the rice brew are balanced on chop sticks and dumped into a glass of beer). “It’s fruity, very smooth sake, with a little bit of mushroom,” Cook says of the Momokawa. “Mostly, it has a nice fruity, formal flavor and pairs perfect with pear.”

Rare 650 (Syosset) is also bringing a high-end saketini to Syosset with its newly-revamped cocktail list that debuted mid-October 2011, said sommelier Rich Dorney. Rare 650’s saketini, dubbed “Cool as a Cucumber,” is a mix of Manabito ginjo sake, Effen cucumber vodka and a splash of lime juice. A cucumber wheel garnishes the drink to complement the vodka. “My main job, as the sommelier, is to do the wine program and move our way into getting people to try new things,” Dorney said. The new menu also boasts the Kimono: A high-end mash up of Veuve Clicquot and plum sake, topped with a raspberry garnish. The plum sake is infused with a small, tart Japanese variety of the fruit, and the dry Veuve Clicquot balances it out for a “goes-down-easy” bubbly cocktail.

Moving to the other side of the globe, cachaça is another niche liquor growing in popularity here in NY—maybe even threatening the leggy Gisele Bündchen’s status as America’s favorite Brazilian import. Like sake, cachaça lends itself to creative cocktails. The Latin booze has a taste similar to rum, but is pressed from sugarcane, not molasses. Agave’s Blue Cactus in Hampton Bays and its sister restaurant in Westhampton Beach serve up Brazil’s national drink, the caipirinha, with simple syrup and a packet of raw cane sugar, said bartender Joe Healy. Still, the kitschy Hampton Bays outpost only went through about two bottles of Leblon, a luxury cachaça, this summer. Argentinean restaurant Café Buenos Aires in Huntington uses Agua Luca cachaça to serve caipirinhas to its busy bar crowd, but also stirs the liquor into its tweaked margarita, Margarita Del Sur. Instead of a tangy, sour margarita, Café Buenos Aires’ cachaça-spiked drink, complemented with fresh lime juice and peach nectar, has a sweeter taste but is still a pleaser for margarita devotees craving salt.

Mezcal—tequila’s up-and-coming craft cousin from Oaxaca—has made an appearance on some bolder, inventive Nassau-Suffolk cocktail lists. Besito in Huntington and Roslyn, and Two Steak & Sushi Den feature Del Maguey Minero and Del Maguey San Luis del Rio. Two also offers a Del Maguey Chichicapa. Cook concocted a mezcal drink called the “Salsa Verde” but canned it after Long Island drinkers shied away. The cocktail mixed mezcal and muddled cilantro for a rich, herbaceous taste. “I loved it,” Cook said. “It was fantastic.” But, he admits mezcal is not easy to pick up: What is a tasty alcoholic indulgence for some, is an acquired taste for others. “It has some aspects of tequila, but it’s very smoky, almost like from a Southern barbeque,” Cook said. “I adore it, but it’s not for everyone… It takes time to get used to it when you haven’t seen it before. [But] I’m not sure why it wouldn’t catch on in the next year or two.”

Besito’s ever-popular tequila flights may be the middle ground for drinkers not ready to sample mezcal. Besito regional manager Jose Reyes said the famed haute Mexican restaurant serves up blanco, reposado, anejo and offers “vertical” flights for tequila-lovers to try one of each. The blancos, non-aged tequilas poured right from fermentation casks into bottles, have a stronger agave flavor. Cabo Wabo, Partida, Patron and Don Julio have popular blanco varieties and are usually followed by a sangrita chaser, a traditional Mexican mixture of tomato juice, salt, Tabasco sauce, grenadine and grapefruit juice. The tequilas in the reposado flight are aged longer, from two to twelve months. To be labeled “anejo,” tequilas must sit in casks at least one year, a slow process that gives the liquor a more distinct, “oaky” taste; hence rendering them “mature,” as the label suggests.

Nevertheless, the purists forge ahead. Imbibers of this sort usually take their aged, rare scotches and bourbons straight up and Sapsuckers Hops & Grub (Huntington), among others, is happy to oblige. The craft-focused establishment takes a back-to-basics approach to sauce serving “easy on the senses” hash like Hudson Four-Grain Bourbon. Peter Armata, the general manager, selected the upstate New York bourbon not only for its taste, but because it’s made in small batches, fitting with the new restaurant’s craft theme. “It’s a four-grain bourbon, so there’s not as much bite,” he said. “It’s fairly hard to get.” Hudson Four-Grain is not “the first thing you would mix with coke or ginger ale,” Armata said. But, a rack Kentucky bourbon might bring you home. It is the key ingredient in a signature cocktail on the libation list at The Bayou, a Cajun restaurant in Bellmore inspired by New Orleans’ French Quarter.

“It’s bourbon with amaretto, pineapple and gin,” said bartender Laura Fennelly. “It’s like an Alabama Slammer, an old drink that’s been around a long time.” Bourbon drinkers know when they’re getting a well liquor, Fennelly said. Unlike vodka, where purity is prized, each bourbon has a specific taste. Her regulars at The Bayou go for standards like Kentucky-distilled Jim Beam and Wild Turkey for the nutty, smoky flavors.

Like some bourbons, fine Scotches, sipped most often in the winter, are best left unmarred by carbonation or sweet juices. Sapsuckers’ standout is a cask-strength Scotch called Aberlour A’bunadh, from the Speyside of Scotland. The high-end single-barrel scotch is 120 proof with a woodsy, peaty taste. “It’s not harsh in any way,” Armata said. “There’s a lot of peat, almost like when you’re doing barbeque, when you smoke meats, it comes through as the main character. Downing an entire glass of Aberlour A’bunadh is something of an accomplishment. Armata recommends wading into the Scotch world with a Glenlivet 12, Glenfiddich 12 or Macallan 12 on the rocks, which serve to soften the harsh taste.

Whatever your poison, happy hour is certainly looking a lot more interesting. Exotic elixirs continue to enter the mainstream on a weekly basis, and will continue inbound to our shores as distribution channels expand and market demand (via consumer interest and education) grows. Likewise, the thirst for the old hallmarks remain. Choosing one or the other and sticking to it is “so prohibition,” the pleasure is exploring the opportunities.