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WRITTEN BY CATHERINE M. ALLCHIN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
Enjoy retro lounge elegance in the comfort of home
"TO ORDER a cocktail is to enter another world," writes Philip Collins in "The Art of the Cocktail: 100 Classic Cocktail Recipes."
The word cocktail reverberates, he says, "echoing an earlier era and evoking an idyllic setting complete with sophisticated men in dinner jackets and glamorous women in little black dresses. It is a word suffused with images of mystery, wit, repartee, even love."
That's one powerful drink.
The 1990s witnessed a return of the classic cocktail. Young adults especially embraced the cocktail culture, and martini bars sprang up like crocuses in spring. Bartenders across the country continue to hail a martini renaissance, theorizing that customers have a deep need to socialize with class, to return to quality over quantity, to move toward sophistication and high culture.
The Tini Bigs Lounge in downtown Seattle quickly became known for its "big 'tinis" - whopping 10-ouncers. Today, the bar serves 27 different kinds of martinis, and general manager Patrick Haight says people have gotten much more sophisticated about what they drink. "Most people here call the alcohol they use and ask specifically for their drinks to be shaken, stirred or muddled. People have gotten pretty educated."
Now people are mixing drinks more at home, too. Sur La Table buyer Jeff Blanchard has seen a 50-percent increase in the cocktail category in the last year alone.
"People are celebrating the cocktail more," he said. Sur La Table offers a wide range of bar accessories, including several products that customers first requested to help them make cocktails at home, such as a salt and sugar glass rimmer.
While the traditional martini was made with gin and vermouth, martinis today often opt for vodka, cordials and fruit juice. At Tini Bigs, the single biggest seller is a vodka martini: the Backyard Martini with Razberi Stolichnaya and a splash of cranberry.
Traditionalists may look down on these "nouveau" martinis, but flavored vodkas and mixers are making a big splash on the cocktail scene. Consider that vodka producer Absolut offers Mandrin, Citron, Kurant and Peppar. Stolichnaya makes vodkas in orange, vanilla, lemon, strawberry, raspberry, peach, cinnamon, coffee and pepper. Gin producer Tanqueray now makes a line of flavored mixers - in pecan, tangerine and strawberry - to help you dazzle your guests with designer drinks.
My grandfather would roll over in his grave at the thought of a cinnamon or vanilla martini, but he would probably get a kick out of seeing the likes of his old cocktail shaker on the store shelves today. 'Tini mania, coupled with a recent retro look in kitchenware, has resulted in some catchy bar accessories from the cocktail age. Fortunately most of the retro barware is affordable, and with a few basics, making cocktails in style is a snap at home.
Assuming that you have a few bottles of liquor (gin, vodka, gin, sweet and dry vermouth), bitters, mixers, fruit and garnishes, and a set of classic martini glasses, you just need a few pieces of hardware to carry you back in time. You can go nuts collecting old-fashioned bar spoons, swizzle sticks and jiggers at antique stores, or you can simply buy a fun variety in mail-order catalogs or kitchen stores. For your home bar, you may want to match a few treasured vintage items with cheaper, modern gadgets that are easy to use and easy to clean.
Shaken or stirred? While James Bond may promote shaken drinks, he has formidable opponents in the stirred camp. Shaking cocktails will cool the ingredients faster than stirring, and the colder the better. However, some purists believe that shaking will "bruise" the alcohol, dilute the drink and make it cloudy. In a drink that takes its appearance so seriously, clarity is key.
Nevertheless, most cocktails are shaken, not stirred. Professional bartenders often couple a stainless-steel shaker with an inverted pint glass and pour over a strainer with a spring. You can get these supplies to use at home, but many people prefer an old-fashioned cocktail shaker with a lid and its own strainer.
When it comes to shakers, the choices are vast, from a basic stainless-steel cylinder to rare collectibles in cobalt glass or sterling silver.
In the 1920s, cocktail shakers were produced in the shape of the airship launched by Count Von Zeppelin. You can buy a replica of the classic Zeppelin shaker today at Restoration Hardware, which also sells the classic 1936 Penguin shaker. (They're $55 each.)
Pottery Barn offers a shiny stainless "retro cocktail set" for $59, with six glasses and a glass shaker covered with period recipes in red and black, and a Satin Collection, "reminiscent of 1930s barware" offering "elegance and sophistication." Pieces of that collection include small and large shakers, a pitcher, ice bucket and tray.
Sur La Table's best-selling shaker is the 24-ounce classic stainless-steel martini shaker for $29.95. The store also carries a sleeker, traditionally styled shaker called the Bullet by Metrokane, at $34.95.
For high-end shakers from the '20s and '30s, check out Web sites such as www.cocktailshaker.com (which sells shakers in pewter from $300 or sterling silver for upwards of $3,000) or www.thejazzage.com (dedicated to "collectors of cocktail shakers, barware and the cocktail culture of America's Jazz Age).
Once you've decided how to mix your drink, you must choose the ice. Most of us will simply use ice cubes from our freezer, but some people swear that crushed ice makes better drinks. And there are a couple of cool retro products out just for that purpose.
The Lewis Ice Bag takes you right back to the 1940s. It's literally a canvas bag that you put ice in and whack. At $17.95, the package says it's "for home, cottage or boat" and includes a recipe book with 16 classic cocktails.
If you're really eager to experiment with crushing ice, retro hand-crank ice crushers are also on the market. Your kids may appropriate this contraption for making Slurpees in the summer.
The increasing popularity of cocktails has resulted in an abundance of cool swizzle sticks, olive picks and other fun bar accessories.
Look for reproductions of novelty napkins and bar towels from the '40s and '50s such as the Estelle and Alvin Drink Napkins at Restoration Hardware. Commemorating the golden age of the cocktail, these square vintage napkins have cocktail recipes printed on them and add flair to any cocktail table ($20 for a set of 12).
Fans of dry martinis may want to pick up an atomizer. These little spray bottles allow you to mist a martini glass with vermouth. Bartenders often use them to make consistently dry martinis. It seems easier than swirling a drop of vermouth around in a glass or shaker and dumping it out before making the drink.
Unquestionably, the most charming accessories I've seen lately are glass markers, or charms, that attach to the stems of glasses. No more tracking down your glass at parties, or, as some of us have been known to do, matching lipstick marks on the rim of the glass. Instead, pick a symbol for the evening - perhaps a cluster of grapes or a corkscrew - to distinguish your glass from your friends' glasses. Look for these clever charms in mail-order catalogs, or at Sur La Table ($19.95 for a set of six).
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle writer. Barry Wong is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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