No one knows a bar better than the people behind it. For “My Bar in 3 Drinks,” the people running the best bars around make and discuss three of their bar’s most representative cocktails.
When NYC’s Booker and Dax closed its doors in fall 2016, science-minded cocktail lovers were saddened. After all, this was the bar that pioneered and popularized clarified drinks spun in centrifuges or heated with electrictrified “pokers.” Now, New York once again has a cocktail lab: Existing Conditions opened last summer, led by Booker and Dax frontman Dave Arnold, PDT alum Don Lee and Cocktail Kingdom’s Greg Boehm.
Molecular cocktailing still leads the way: Ingredients are often clarified, acid-adjusted, nitrogenated, etc. There’s also an Old Fashioned-style drink engineered to taste like a waffle, and an already legendary 1960s-era soda machine that has been hacked to dispense bottled cocktails, including one meant to suggest movie popcorn and a Coke.
Don Lee explains three cocktails that sum up this unusual bar.
(image: Eric Medsker)
Clarified comice pear, Mount Olympus tea
That’s right—no booze is listed here, as nonalcoholic drinks are a regular feature on the menu. “One of the most important things for us starting out was that we wanted a serious nonalcoholic program,” says Lee. “It’s something that you see more often in the fine-dining sphere.”
The emphasis on N/A drinks is driven by the impulse to make the bar inclusive to people who aren’t drinking or are drinking less: “We think of bars as our living rooms, especially in NYC,” says Lee. “This is where you meet people; this is where you entertain. That was a huge priority for us.”
Yet too often nonalcoholic drinks are just cocktails with the booze removed and often read like super-sweet soft drinks. “The challenge was: How do you give something the body, texture, nuance and dryness of an alcoholic drink but in a nonalcoholic form?” says Lee. “It was honestly the hardest thing we did.”
For the Doyenne, a white-wine-like experience was the goal. The drink starts with comice pears. “Right now, they’re out of season, and we have to ship them in from New Zealand,” says Lee. Each week, 10 cases of pears arrive, and the pears are ripened, juiced at peak sweetness and clarified in a centrifuge. “It’s a process that literally takes the whole day,” he says. Using an iSi canister, the now-clear juice is rapid-infused with tea. The end result has a racy acidity and subtle fruitiness reminiscent of sipping on a crisp sauvignon blanc.
“While people are waiting, we don’t want them to leave because they’re thirsty,” says Lee. “This is a way you can go to the host, swipe your credit card and immediately get a drink. You don’t have to wait for a server or for someone to talk to you; you can just go right to it.” Guests purchase tokens to dispense drinks from the machine, where they’re kept at -4 degrees Celsius. “The way most people do bottled cocktails wrong is they pull it out of a refrigerator; you’re coming out at 25, 26 degrees,” says Lee. “It’s cold but not as cold as a cocktail had you shaken or stirred it.” The machine provides “a reliable way of serving a bottled cocktail at the right temperature.”
The Cinema Highball is a PDT drink from 10 years ago, a Don Lee original. “People mostly know me for the bacon thing [the Benton’s Old Fashioned, made with bacon-fat-washed bourbon], but I think this is much more interesting,” says Lee.
Lee says he particularly likes this drink for its evocative qualities. Specifically, it can remind people of the experience and emotion of going to a movie theater, “one of the few experiences that we can all relate to.” He views this drink as a Venn diagram at the intersection of two joyful experiences: a popcorn and Coke at the movies, and a Rum & Coke.
(image: Eric Medsker)
3. Saratoga Paloma
Tequila, Saratoga Hathorn Spring No. 3, clarified grapefruit juice, clarified lime juice
This bubbly drink, based on the classic Paloma, may remind some of the carbonated Gin & Juice once served at Booker and Dax. That’s no accident. “Dave loves bubbles more than people,” says Lee.
But this is no ordinary Paloma. For the effervescence, Arnold and Lee drove upstate to Saratoga Springs and drew water from a natural water source called Hathorn No. 3. “The water is a third as salty as the ocean and comes out of the ground cold and naturally carbonated,” says Lee. Combined with tequila and a duo of clarified juices (grapefruit and lime), this becomes a drink you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else—and that’s the point. Lee refers to ingredients like that spring water as “unobtainables.”
He likens standard drink ingredients—spirits, syrups, juices—to colors in a painter’s palette. Tracking down spring water or manipulating ingredients into clarified or other formats is, he says, “more akin to us going out there and mining for a mineral and grinding it up into a pigment.”