Seasons by the Sea: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The craft of mixology
A glo-sour made with turmeric-infused gin. Laura Donnelly

Craft cocktails are not a new thing, nor is the transformation of bartenders into mixologists. But has the trend gone too far? How does the American Cereal Killer sound? It is a drink served at the Clocktower in New York City and is composed of Fighting Cock whiskey, Cheerios cereal milk, Madagascan vanilla syrup, and Angostura bitters. How about a Buttervardier? This is butter-washed Buffalo Trace bourbon, walnut wine, Banane du Bresil, and Campari. Cereal milk? Butter? Blech.

Besides the tremendous variety of esoteric bottled spirits such as Elicser Combier, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, and the Bitter Truth violet liqueur, you will now find house-made tinctures, shrubs, infusions, eye droppers to dispense minuscule droplets of magic, more fruit on the bar than at a Harry and David’s warehouse, and smoking apparatus for that extra touch of . . . smoke.

My friend Philip Greene’s day job is as a lawyer for the Marine Corps at the Pentagon. In his “spare” time he has written three cocktail books: “To Have and Have Another,” “The Manhattan: The Story of the First American Cocktail,” and “A Drinkable Feast.” He is also co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans and a cocktail columnist for The Daily Beast.

“I respect the craft of mixology just as I respect a talented chef,” he said recently. “I’m likely to either stick to the classics, or improvise and innovate using readily available ingredients. If I’m at a bar, sure, part of me wants to have something new, something I can’t/won’t make at home, but they can be hit or miss. If you know and trust the bartender, your chances are better. But when in doubt, stick to the classics, the dry Martini, Manhattan, Negroni, well-made Sazerac, daiquiri, Sidecar, Mai Tai, etc.”

This was also pretty much the consensus among my Facebook friends. “There is, in my opinion, an appreciable difference between making a great cocktail and being a jackass,” replied Myles Romanow. Elizabeth Peabody concurred with “simple always best with quality products.”

My favorite bartender/mixologist on the East End is Kyle Fengler of the Bridgehampton Inn. On a recent visit, I interviewed him as he prepared the Unrest in the City for some friends. The menu describes it thus: “This toothsome tipple uses Hendrick’s gin infused with fresh pine, mandarin gomme syrup, cardamom, lemon, egg white, and just a dash of Jade 1901 Absinthe, garnished with star anise and cardamom.” Everyone agreed this drink was unusual and supremely delicious. Barbara Dayton even called the next day to say she would go back just for that drink.

I asked Kyle to make something between a Cosmopolitan and a Lemon Drop, but not too sweet. He whipped up a combination of Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom vodka with fresh lemon juice, Elicser Combier, and Rosalio di Bergamotto. It was perfect. When one friend asked for gin to be substituted in his Unrest, Kyle strongly advised against it because the pine essence would be missing. Is this the same as a great chef being told that the guests at table number four have requested ketchup and A.1. steak sauce for their $65 dry-aged, perfectly cooked Porterhouse steak? Probably.

Kyle admitted that he has, on occasion, come up with a combination that just didn’t work. He also had some interesting opinions on premium liquors. He thinks Patron and Grey Goose are overrated, and Jack Daniels is as fine a Tennessee whiskey as you can get. When he goes out, he often orders Chartreuse or a whiskey, and the only booze he’s tried that was a total turnoff is Mekhong, a whiskey from Thailand that is infused with herbs. He found it to be cloyingly sweet and artificial tasting.

In Charleston, S.C., a place called the Gin Joint has a huge cocktail menu divided into categories such as the Loony Bin, Sweltering Shakers, and Satisfying Stirrings. Ah, the alliterations. Drinks have names like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Sake to Me, and Room Service for Two. Some of the cocktails contain — I kid you not — sugar snap peas, cream cheese, duck sauce, orange oleo, raisins, biscotti, and shiitake mushrooms. Yup, some bars have gone too far.

David Arnold’s book “Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail” is a comprehensive, scientific tome. Mr. Arnold says “cocktails are problems in need of solutions,” and he encourages “learning, studying, practicing. The premise: no cocktail detail is uninteresting, none unworthy of study.” The book is fascinating and educational, but it did not send me out to buy a chamber vacuum machine, liquid nitrogen, rotary evaporator, centrifuge, or refractometer. I actually think it’s pretty cool that I have a Soda Stream to carbonate water and a microplane to zest citrus; that’s how advanced I am. 

I got a few interesting tidbits from the book. One is to add a wee bit of salt to a drink (makes sense, just as a pinch of salt works wonders in desserts). I also learned how to make turmeric-infused gin, which becomes an electric neon yellow and has a mild, mysterious flavor.

I’m a good cook but I will probably never attempt Peking duck in my own kitchen. Same goes for these off-the-leash cocktail concoctions. It’s far more fun to go out, engage in a discourse with a bartender like Kyle Fengler, try his imaginative adult elixirs and potions, and save the simple dry Martinis for home.

Have fun and please drink responsibly, my friends.

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Kyle Fengler’s Unrest in the City is a perfect holiday drink if your idea of holidays is “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Nonetheless, it tastes delicious. Laura Donnelly Photos