Liquids: Locally Inspired Cocktails

The last thing I expected to discover at the Nantucket Wine Festival was a great vodka. But there it was. After a bumpy ride on Cape Air, I checked into the Harbor House Village and headed straight for the bar. There I told bar manager John Michalak that I needed something to settle my stomach. His response? “How about an ice-cold martini?” Before I could specify my vodka preference (Ketel One), Michalak reached for what looked like a grappa bottle, with a long, thin neck and a periwinkle label with three eight balls on it. “What on earth is that?” I asked. When he placed the drink in front of me, I steadied my hand, picked up the glass, took a copious sip, closed my eyes, and thought: Smooooth. Without a word, he placed the bottle in front of me. The label read: Triple Eight Vodka, Product of Nantucket.

It was love at first taste. And it got me thinking: What is a cocktail? What makes
a cocktail great? And, most important, who makes them well, and where?

The short answer to the first question is, just about anything mixed with booze and drunk from a glass (as opposed to directly from the bottle). For a proper, longer answer, I turned to my friend Dale DeGroff, otherwise known as “King Cocktail.” DeGroff made his mark when he reopened New York’s Rainbow Room in 1987 with a cocktail menu modeled on the supper clubs of yesteryear and single-handedly converted thousands of white zinfandel and chardonnay drinkers into sippers of cosmopolitans. To define a cocktail, DeGroff defers to his mentor, Jerry Thomas, whose 1862 book, How to Mix Drinks: Or, the Bon Vivant’s Companion, defines the cocktail as a base ingredient combined with modifiers. “He demonstrated the absolute necessity of using simple syrup in a cocktail program that utilized freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice,” DeGroff says.

Therein he answers my second question—what makes a cocktail great: fresh ingredients.

Christopher Myers, who with business partner Michael Schlow owns both Radius and the just-opened Via Matta, couldn’t agree more. “A summer cocktail should be refreshing, but, above all, it should take advantage of fruit that’s seasonally available—otherwise, why bother?” says Myers. “We don’t make a fresh tomato-and-mozzarella salad in the winter here, so we don’t use fruits in our drinks that are out of season.” With that in mind, he concocted the Bellini Tini, made by combining fresh-squeezed white peach juice with Prosecco (an Italian sparkling white wine) and a splash of fresh pomegranate juice.

At the Good Life Downtown, proprietor Brian O’Neill says the secret to his famous Good Life Cocktail is the fresh orange juice. “We buy it fresh-squeezed five times a week and still we run out,” he says. “It’s that good.” But O’Neill says that beyond fresh ingredients, cocktails “also gotta be fun.” What defines fun? “We always serve our classic martinis and all other up drinks (meaning strained) in swimming pool–size glassware—they’re fun to drink from.” And the same formula works at O’Neill’s other bar, the Vault, where bar manager Peter Greerty created the Tangerini, inspired by a crate of fresh tangerines sitting on the bar one day.

I found Triple Eight vodka at No. 9 Park, where bartender Doug Taylor, a New Zealand native, uses it to make his Kiwitini every summer. “I came up with it a few years ago,” Taylor says, “because the kiwi is the national bird of New Zealand, and the kiwi fruit is our unofficial national fruit.” Asked why he likes Triple Eight, he answers: “Because it’s clean.”

I agree with him.

Bellini Tini
4 oz. Prosecco (or sparkling wine)
1 oz. fresh-squeezed white peach juice (or regular peach juice)
Splash fresh pomegranate juice
Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled pitcher. Mix, then strain into martini glass. Garnish with a peach slice.

Good Life Cocktail
3 oz. Bacardi Silver
1 oz. Cointreau
2 oz. fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 oz. cranberry juice
Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled pitcher. Mix, then strain into martini glass. Garnish with an orange wheel.

3 oz. Grey Goose L’Orange Vodka
1 oz. Cointreau
2 oz. fresh-squeezed tangerine juice
1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled pitcher. Mix, then strain into martini glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

3 oz. Triple Eight vodka
2 oz. fresh kiwi juice (use a juicer)
1/2 oz. melon-infused simple syrup (recipe follows) if kiwis aren’t sweet enough
Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled pitcher. Cover, shake, then strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a kiwi wheel.

Simple Syrup
Combine equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan over a low flame and heat until fully dissolved. Cool and store in refrigerator indefinitely.