Mastering the Winchester with Brian Miller

In "Masters of Tiki," we spotlight bartenders chasing perfection in one drink. Here, Brian Miller on tiki's only modern-classic cocktail, the Winchester.

An iconoclast by nature, Brian Miller made a name for himself turning tiki on its head—from incorporating unlikely spirits into the genre’s existing template to utilizing cocktail blueprints that pre-date tiki. “If you tell me I can’t do something,” he says, “I’m going to work really hard to try and do it.”

It’s this rebellious streak that led him to the creation of the Winchester, a gin-based take on the Zombie. Described by tiki authority Jeff “Beachbum” Berry as “the first and best 21st-century cocktail… to push the boundaries of classic tiki,” and simply as “a hell of a good drink” by Martin Cate, the Winchester builds off of the Zombie structure, with a few significant alterations. For starters, Miller swaps in gin—an uncommon base spirit in the rum-soaked genre—that he layers to achieve an effect not replicable by any single brand.

Built on a trio of London dry (Tanqueray), Old Tom (Hayman’s) and navy strength (Miller’s Wesbourne) gins, Miller compares the cumulative effect to the ineffable chemistry of two people falling in love. “It’s like Sleepless in Seattle,” he explains, recalling the 1993 romantic comedy. “It was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up, they meant [they] were supposed to be together.” To better suit the lighter base, Miller then adjusts the supporting ingredients, adding a measure of St-Germain and a proprietary ginger syrup to the expected grenadine, lime and grapefruit.

The Winchester is not only one of the few non-rum tiki drinks out there, it represents the first addendum to a genre that’s particularly rooted in historic recipes. Where tiki enthusiasts typically dedicate their time to re-creating long-extinct rums or recipes from the era of Don the Beachcomber or Trader Vic, Miller set about bringing the tiki sensibility to a whole new range of spirits—first with his Conference, a tikified Old-Fashioned, and then the Winchester.

“Who the hell do I think I am that I can add to a genre that hasn’t been added to in decades,” Miller wondered shortly after creating the Winchester. “I don’t know where I got the ego.”

Mastering the Winchester

Despite his reservations, the formula stuck, becoming tiki’s first unequivocal entrant to the ranks of modern classics. But true to the obsessive nature of tiki-philes, Miller felt that there was room for improvement. Years later, with a slew of new gin brands on the market, he created his Double Barrel Winchester.

As the name suggests, the Double Barrel Winchester, which graces the menu at his newly opened The Polynesian in New York City, reads as a slightly bolder rendition of his original, calling on four gins rather than three. From the earlier blended base, only the Westbourne remains. “It’s probably the most irreplaceable gin in the drink,” explains Miller. To this, he adds Monkey 47 in place of Tanqueray, citing a similar botanical character, while the last ounce is split between Greenhook Ginsmiths Old Tom and the overproof Perry’s Tot from New York’s Allen Katz. “I just use the Perry’s Tot like I use Hamilton 151 to see if it can boost other things up,” he says, referencing his go-to high-proof Demerara rum.

To accommodate the altered base—and the few detractors of the original who labeled it too sweet—Miller had to adjust the syrups and modifiers, bringing down the St-Germain and boosting the grenadine and ginger, for a spicier end result. “Yes they’re one needle in the haystack,” explains Miller of these critics, “but I want my haystack to be perfect.”

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