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How to Build a Concept Cocktail

A look at how four bartenders are translating literature, architecture and music into drinks.

Where do we look for contemporary cocktail inspiration? Backward, mostly. Riffing on classic drinks by stretching the time-tested bones of a recipe in every direction is standard operating procedure behind today’s bars. And it’s a practice that’s sustainable for a reason: What better way to create something new than to springboard off a format that’s satisfied for centuries?

For a certain fastidious subset, however, historical research alone is not enough. For them, tangible direction springs not just from pre-Prohibition-era texts, but from popular culture—a wide-cast net snagging ideas from literature, film, music and even modern architecture. Here’s how they translate seemingly unrelated sparks of inspiration into a cocktail.

Toby Cecchini | Architecture

By dint of his pristine reputation or his penchant for the esoteric—or both—Toby Cecchini has been asked to participate in a number of unorthodox projects over the years, but this one stood out. A few years ago, the D.C.-based American Institute of Architects (AIA) approached the proprietor of Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar and asked if he’d be open to developing drinks that embodied the work of famous architects.

The AIA’s resulting “Cocktails and Conversation” coaxes the world’s most noted architects onto a Manhattan stage to talk shop. But before they do, Cecchini hits the podium to introduce a conceptual recipe he’s built to reflect the subject’s personal style, which is then distributed to the gathered audience of 200-plus architects and architecture students—“a very different crowd than I’m used to playing,” he says.

Cecchini participates in six to eight “Cocktails and Conversations” installments annually. The first step is connecting with the featured architects one-on-one to glean their personal tastes before examining their work. In large part, architects “are whiskey drinkers,” but Cecchini says an inordinate percentage of them compare their aesthetic to a Martini (“very pure, very light, very classic”) even though there are often a number of less-heralded cocktails that better embody their work.

One of Cecchini’s most representative “Cocktails and Conversations” builds involved the husband-and-wife team of Michael Manfredi and Marion Weiss. Manfredi’s go-to is a Negroni; Weiss prefers prosecco. Cecchini immediately seized on the Negroni Sbagliato as a starting point. The couple incorporates ambitious glasswork and green space into their work, so Cecchini referenced this with the use of Carpano Bianco vermouth and Swiss bitter liqueur, Suze (run through a borrowed rotovap to make it even clearer), and a cucumber garnish. The architects loved the drink. Another involved Daniel Libeskind, best-known in New York City for his post-9/11 rebuild of the World Trade Center. To convey the feel of a towering glass monolith, Cecchini infused Absolut Elyx vodka with flavors of pomelo and shiso leaf, garnishing with a towering isosceles triangle of transparent ice.

“It’s almost invariably an insane blast,” says Cecchini of the series. “The project is so kooky, and [the architects] are so incredibly grateful and blown away. I’m used to dealing with cocktail geeks for the most part. Oh really, why did you use Turkey Rare Breed in that, why didn’t you use a local distiller?” The AIA folks, meanwhile, “have nothing to do with [the cocktail world],” which makes building something for them from scratch a satisfying challenge. “It’s about how you’re tethering it to the architects,” he says. “I forget what regular people are like.” 

Chantal Tseng | Fiction 

Chantal Tseng’s lifelong fiction addiction inspires the drinks she mixes at the Reading Room, the 20-seat literary-themed bar tucked behind Northwest D.C.’s Petworth Citizen. About two years ago, she began her ambitious project: At the outset of every week, Tseng selects a novel and begins reading it, a habit she lovingly refers to as “my book club of one.” By Friday, she’s developed a proprietary menu of cocktails inspired by that title.

As it happens, a good amount of her selections feature conflagrations of some sort, which is as good an excuse as any to play with matches at work.

“I definitely light things on fire—it happens in stories a lot,” says Tseng. Recent controlled blazes have come courtesy of pivotal events in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, for which she created a Kir-like cocktail garnished with a dehydrated lime sheel filled with flaming overproof rum. The touch has also found its way into The End of Apartment No. 50, a stirred tequila, absinthe, Montenegro and crème de cassis drink referencing Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita; and The Fallen Angels, a Scotch and sparkling wine cocktail shouting out the ever-pleasurable beach read, Paradise Lost.

If spirits are mentioned by name in any of Tseng’s texts, it’s a mitzvah. But there are many other elements to consider. With the menu honoring Milton’s epic poem, for instance, she tipped a cap to its religious connotations with the use of apples (brandy and cider), Bénédictine and Dios Baco oloroso sherry. Outside the narrative, she’ll also dip into the exploits of the authors themselves (“Hemingway is the easiest thing ever”), geographical proclivities (yerba mate for South American writers) and more abstract, moody motifs (green Chartreuse for nature stories).

Tseng, who’s been working in D.C. since 2000, views this system as a means to marry her two biggest passions. It’s rarely easy—she never reads faster than on Wednesdays and Thursdays, as her self-imposed deadline looms—but positive reactions from her bar patrons, many of whom are superfans of the authors she features, motivate her. People visit her bar not just because they like her cocktails, but also because “they’re really into a book,” she says. “It’s exciting.”

André and Tenaya Darlington | Music and Film

Equal-opportunity classic film and cocktail nerds, André and Tenaya Darlington spent months building Movie Night Menus, a book and recipe collection the Philadelphia-based brother-sister writing duo developed for Turner Classic Movies. (You can also catch them in action on the cable channel itself, mixing up their recipes in the bumper segments between films.)

Much of this cinematic cocktail work ended up being excavational: In 1932’s Grand Hotel, for example, protagonist Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) spends the entire movie ordering a cocktail called the Louisiana Flip. Despite sounding like a legitimate New Orleans specialty, it doesn’t exist, which afforded the Darlingtons a blank starting point, using only snippets of dialogue (“I’ll have something sweet and cold, please”) and brief glimpses of the apocryphal drink as context. Their Louisiana Flip consists of a whole egg, grenadine, orange juice, rum and triple sec.

The siblings’ next collaboration sees them stretching the idea of conceptual drink design. For the duo’s forthcoming third book, Booze and Vinyl, they’ve compiled a diverse list of classic LPs, approaching each with a simple question: If you were going to sit down with friends and listen to this record front to back, what kind of beverage would you have in your hand?

To answer, the Darlingtons created recipes to match iconic albums from Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye, A Tribe Called Quest, Neil Young and more. Their meanderings range from the straightforward (gin plus fresh grapefruit and orange juices to toast the third song on Snoop’s debut) to the left field (Björk’s Debut is paired with a riff on the old-school Swan, a nod to the unforgettable Oscars dress the Icelandic singer wore in 2001).

For Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a nostalgic record both for the Darlingtons and in and of itself, they developed a new-look fishbowl, a move that references both their collegiate alcohol proclivities and Jeff Tweedy’s cryptic opening line on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” (“I am an American aquarium drinker”).

During this process, “the cocktail becomes the character and chooses the album,” according to André. “An album has tone, setting, place and characters. We’re trying to figure out, if an album jumps off the record player, what would it drink?”

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