Today’s international bar scene never ceases to amaze. Be it creative cocktails, ingenious new preparation methods, regional specialities or original presentations: cocktail competitions, training sessions, trade shows and networking through social media all deliver a steady stream of new ideas and inspiration while fostering exchange. Boredom is practically the only thing that is not on offer.
Even so, it is still sometimes worthwhile to look back to days long since passed, to a time when there was no such thing as a ‘Sous Vide Garer’ and bars did not feature 400 different types of gin. Yet even then, bars were a place where creativity, magical atmospheres and illustrious guests were at home. Some of these legendary establishments from an earlier age are still around today, open to barflies from around the world who would like to make a pilgrimage.
From Peter Eichhorn
New Orleans – the cocktail capital of the southern states of the US
Credit: Carousel Bar, Peter Eichhorn
The Louisiana city near the mouth of the Mississippi River is also known as ‘The Big Easy’. Back in 1838, Antoine Amédée Peychaud had a pharmacy at Royal Street 123 in the French Quarter, and it was here that he invented an elixir known as ‘Peychaud’s Bitters’. While his creation was not particularly effective at curing any ailments, when combined with cognac or rye whiskey it tasted amazing. Many people consider this pharmacy to be the place where cocktails first came into being, and the ‘Sazerac’ cocktail featuring these bitters was even declared ‘New Orleans’ official cocktail’. Yet bartenders’ shakers in the area around the famous Bourbon Street have also given rise to the ‘Ramos Gin Fizz’, ‘Vieux Carré’ and ‘Hurricane’. Even today, patrons still sit down in the ‘Carousel Bar’ in the Hotel Monteleone, where the very first ‘Vieux Carré’ was create in 1938. No more than 25 people can take a seat on the single carousel at the centre of the bar, and all patrons must be at least 21 years of age. Here, when things start spinning, it has less to do with how much someone has drunk, and more to do with the motor that gently rotates the carousel once every 15 minutes. It is but a short walk from here to Pat O’Brien’s Bar, a large establishment in which the roof is covered in beer mugs and live music pours from two pianos. In 1942 this bar gave birth to the ‘Hurricane Cocktail’, a drink that still pours freely today and which sends many customers into the night with red-stained tongues. A few doors down, ‘The Olde Absinthe House’ bears a sign celebrating the illustrious drinkers of bygone eras: Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. It is possible that the very best ‘Sazerac’ on offer is to be found in the swanky Art Deco ambience of ‘The Roosevelt Hotel’, which opened in 1923. It is for very good reason that New Orleans is home to the ‘Museum of the American Cocktail’. The museum is the brainchild of legendary cocktail creator Dale DeGroff, responsible for the renaissance of modern cocktails in New York City, and tells the story of mixed drinks while offering seminars and tastings as part of its ‘liquid’ training programme.
New York – the city that never sleeps
Credit: Harry's New York Bar
It was a sentiment shared by Dale DeGroff, who made his way to the Big Apple in 1969 and did more to shape drinking enjoyment in this city on the Hudson River than anyone else – especially starting in 1987 when he took charge of the bar in the legendary Rainbow Room on the 65th storey of the Rockefeller Center. DeGroff’s approach to cocktails combines the classic with the modern, giving rise to the ‘craft cocktail’, and his book ‘The Craft of the Cocktail’ continues to be required reading and a source of inspiration for bartenders everywhere. Unfortunately the old Rainbow Room was forced to shut down in 2009 as a result of the economic crisis, and did not reopen until 2014 following extensive renovations. The ‘SixtyFive’ bar continues this beverage tradition. The ‘Pegu Club’ bar has established itself a legitimate classic in New York’s bar scene. The bar is run by Audrey Sanders, whose approach was shaped by Dale DeGroff’s creations. Now, her bar on Houston Street has spawned generations of bartenders who have themselves done their part to shape the city’s cocktail culture at establishments including ‘Death & Co.’, ‘Attaboy’, ‘PDT’ and ‘Bar Goto’. Sanders herself is the creator of the ‘Old Cuban’, an elegant combination of rum, mint and champagne.
Paris – venerable classics
It was during the Prohibition era in the USA, a period from 1920 to 1933 when the production and sale of alcohol was banned throughout the USA, that the cocktail tradition really began to make its way to Europe. During this time, numerous bartenders and drinkers came to Europe, and they brought jazz musicians with them. One of the first hotspots for this ‘American way of nightlife’ was Paris. It was the most liberal in Europe, slightly more open than Berlin and far more so than London, and its most important establishment was a bar at Rue Daunou No. 5 called the ‘New York Bar’. In 1911, former jockey Tod Sloan had shipped the interior of a bar on 7th Avenue in Manhattan across the Atlantic, and when the Scotsman Harry MacElhone took it over in 1923, he added his own name, giving rise to the legendary ‘Harry’s New York Bar’ that would quickly become the meeting place of the Bohemian scene. Jean-Paul Sartre, Coco Chanel, George Gershwin and the ubiquitous Ernest Hemingway all made this their haunt, and the bar gave rise to the sobriquet by which ‘ambitious’ bar-goers are still known: barfly. In 1924, MacElhone established the I.B.F.: International Bar Fly association. France’s first hot dogs were served here, and today the bar boasts a patina and hotchpotch of mementoes. The classics that were created in MacElhone’s bar and detailed in his cocktail manual ‘Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails’ continue to be served here today, including the ‘Side Car’, ‘French 75’, ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘Harry’s Pick Me Up’.
For those who are looking to follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, a trip to the legendary bar in the Ritz Hotel is absolutely essential. This little bar seating only 25 people served as his home away from home whenever the writer and world traveller was in Paris, and today it even bears his name.
Venice – yet another Harry
The ‘Negroni’ is perhaps the most famous cocktail to come from Italy, and last year it celebrated its 100th anniversary. It was invented by Fosco Scarselli, the bartender at ‘Bar Casoni’ in Florence, which is where he first blended gin, Campari and red vermouth for Count Negroni. While this bar is sadly no longer with us, picturesque Venice is home to another historic location and yet another Harry. In 1931, US-American Harry Pickering provided the financing for Giuseppe Cipriani’s bar, which was then christened ‘Harry’s Bar’. It rapidly developed into a social gathering spot that attracted members of high society, including Charlie Chaplin, Truman Capote and Peggy Guggenheim. The bar's manager had a fondness for artists from the distant past, and named his most famous creation after Giovanni Bellini, a Venetian painter from the early Renaissance. The drink, an elegant combination of peach purée and sparkling wine, has become a classic. In the 1950s, Cipriani created a dish for one of his regulars, naming it after the painter Vittore Carpaccio.
And one more Harry for London
Credit: Savoy, Peter Eichhorn
Today, London is considered to be Europe's most important city for bars, and rightly so, as an international avant-garde of mixologists there are providing inspiration for bar staff all over the globe. Furthermore, people here view going to a bar for cocktails the same way they do going to a pub for a pint. The ‘American Bar’ in the Savoy Hotel continues to play a major role in London’s bar scene, and expectations are always high for the team working there. The list of outstanding bartenders who have wielded the cocktail shakers here is impressive. One name that really stands out is Harry Craddock, author in 1930 of the essential ‘Savoy Cocktail Book’ that continues to offer countless drink ideas today. He was also the brain behind the ‘Corpse Reviver #2’. This fashionable establishment was also run by one of the leading female bartenders of the day, Ada Coleman, who created the ‘Hanky Panky’. One of her successors, Joe Gilmore, dedicated his ‘Moonwalk’ to the astronauts who made the first moon landing. Erik Lorincz continued the tradition, and the menu was characterised by his drinks, including the ‘Millennium’ and ‘Pioneer Cocktail’, until 2018. With its elegant blend of classic and modern, London continues to lead the way into new cocktail realms, always staying innovative without letting go of tradition.
Our stroll through the world of cocktails could continue indefinitely, allowing us to imagine ourselves thirstily occupying a stool at our next legendary stop (in spite of travel restrictions), perhaps in Cuba, for a daiquiri in the ‘La Floridita Bar’ or a mojito in the ‘La Bodeguita del Medio’. Or maybe we should opt for a ‘Singapore Sling’ at the ‘Long Bar’ in Singapore’s ‘Raffles Hotel’?
Hopefully we will soon be seeing one another in Germany’s capital city at Bar Convent Berlin, where we can enjoy a suitable cocktail at one of the fine establishments found between Charlottenburg and Friedrichshain, Mitte and Kreuzberg. Here’s to old times – and to the future!