Erik Ellestad is the Julie Powell of the cocktail world. About six years ago he began to take a serious interest in cocktails, started a blog called SavoyStomp, and pulled a Julie & Julia by making all 750 cocktails in The Savoy Cocktail Book. The collection of 1920s and 1930s cocktails was written by by Prohibition-dodging American bartender Harry Craddock, who bartended at London's Savoy.
Ellestad developed a following and eventually started bartending, at Alembic and now at Heaven's Dog. In this interview he talks about his decision to drink his way through The Savoy Cocktail Book, how the cocktail world has changed since, the revival of lost ingredients (and which should probably stay lost), and the next generation of influential cocktail bars.
So how did you get into cocktails and what attracted you?
I've always been interested in food and the culinary arts. But I got interested in the idea of the Sazerac and it led me down a path to learning more.
Why the Sazerac?
Because it's a really basic cocktail in some sense, but it also has this really cool, somewhat elaborate ritual involved in the preparation. You chill the glass, make the drink, empty the ice out of the glass, coat the glass with absinthe and pour the drink into the glass and then the lemon twist into the top. It just kind of appealed to me being someone who's maybe a little bit obsessive.
How did your quest to make every cocktail in The Savoy Cocktail Book come about?
When I first started really getting into cocktails around 2005/2006 there weren't many resources on the web, so I started posting on eGullet. As I got more involved, I ended up becoming the host of the spirits and cocktail forum and I was looking to educate myself about cocktails in a way that other people might find interesting. So, I said, well, why don't I just make a bunch of cocktails from a book and document it. So that's sort of how it happened.
What was the cocktail landscape like back then?
Well, the appealing part of being in the forums is that there were a lot of people from around the United States, some of them bartenders and some of them drinks writers, who were participating in eGullet at the time. David Wondrich would occasionally pop in, as well as Toby Maloney other people have gone on to open well-known bars in Austin, Chicago, and other cities. So there was definitely a community that was obsessed with research, certainly, and being a little bit "sticklery" about researching ingredients and recipes.
So looking back would you say that some of this sort of discussion was, in some ways, laying the groundwork for the classic cocktail revival?
Yeah. Pegu Club was already open by then. There were a couple of bars in San Francisco—Absinthe certainly, as well as some bartenders doing great stuff at Enrico's. So I think the base of interest was there and we just sort of built on it. At that time, most of the ingredients that we take for granted now weren't really available yet. Absinthe wasn't available in the U.S. and none of the Haus Alpenz stuff was available yet, save for a few things. So ingredients were a lot more challenging then than they are now. We knew we should be using fresh juices, good ingredients, fresh herbs, but it was the research and interest in some of the ingredients that have been lost in the U.S. that lead to the next level of the classic cocktail renaissance.
Are there any lost ingredients that you think deserve a revival and haven't had one yet?
As far as lost ingredients go, it's great that we've gotten some of these things back, of course, but I think that some ingredients that died sort of died for a reason. It's funny when you talk to people about things like Crème de Violette, for example. The Aviation is a great cocktail and there are a couple of other great cocktails with Violette, but the application is, well, limited.
So it's sort of a natural selection thing and some of these ingredients are lost for a reason?
Yeah. My frustration with some ingredients is not that they've been lost, it's that manufacturers have changed them so much that they don't resemble their original incarnations. And sometimes you don't have a way of knowing for sure what they used to be like. Kina Lillet is a great example (the lost precursor to Lillet Blanc); the Lillet people won't admit that there was ever anything other than Lillet Blanc and they wont bring it back. It's also frustrating when a company makes a significantly better product for Europe and for Canada than they do for the U.S. I am more interested in having some of these things addressed.
So lets talk about some of the negative effects of the cocktail renaissance. Do you think that some of these more obscure ingredients are being used simply for the sake of obscurity?
Yeah, probably. I think the best example of that is maybe the explosion of millions and millions of different kinds of bitters. It's cool, but on the other hand, how many uses are there going to be for lavender bitters? I also think you see a lot of over-complicated cocktails. I was talking to a friend of mine who works for a bar, he had made a very tasty flip, and when he presented the recipe to his bar manager at the bar, the bar manager told him, "Well, that's pretty good but it needs one more ingredient to go on our list." It was a really good drink and the only reason that they wouldn't put it on the list was because it didn't have a long enough ingredient list.
Do you think that there's going to be a long run for more complicated or experimental cocktails or do you think the trend is to rein it in a bit?
In San Francisco, there is sort of a movement back to basics. Several of the very successful bars don't have menus—they're kind of like dive bars with really good cocktails and really good bartenders. I think that's great. I'd like to see more bars focused on the hospitality aspect of bartending more than the spectacle of drink making as a culinary art form. The pendulum is swinging back to a taking a simple approach, but you still see a lot of ? you know the sort of modern culinary cocktail.
What's the next big ingredient you think that we'll start to see more of in cocktails?
Flavored or fortified wines. I really like amaro, especially wine-based amaros. Barolo Chinato is one of my favorite things in the world. I like that there are more producers in the U.S. and small producers that are taking a crack at making things like that. Maybe not all of them are great yet, but I think it's really cool that people are discovering that kind of Italian tradition of bitter spirits and wine. And the new vermouths that people are producing in the U.S. are also cool even though they don't always behave properly in cocktails.
You said that you believe that PDT was really the bar that signaled what was next for cocktails. Which bars are influential now and have the potential to be influential going forward?
I tend to get more excited about people than I do bars. But Bar Agricole is a really cool idea, just the whole restaurant, the way they structured the whole thing around sustainability and having a very limited list of spirits that they think are worthy to serve. It's just kind of amazing to see something that's so carefully curated. Their list is like 99% classics with a couple originals and they're all really good. Smuggler's Cove is one of SF's best bars; it was one of the first bars to serve really good rums and well-made rum drinks. And I'm sure that they'll be around forever. The group behind Bourbon and Branch have been incredibly successful at opening bars. Their newest bar, Tradition, is probably their most ambitious. And there's Rio Grande from the guys who opened 15 Romolo. It's a dive bar with great bartenders and great drinks that doesn't take itself very seriously at all.
[Photo: Jesse Friedman]