By Enrique Fernandez
Cocktails are having their day in the sun -- or rather the dim light of the bar. Witness this weekend's South Beach Wine & Food Festival, where a half-dozen bar-themed events, from "Bourbon Mixology" to "Forgotten Greats from the Golden Age of the Cocktail," dot the schedule.
It's been a long road back. From the 1930s to the 1960s, cocktails exuded a slightly decadent air of elegance, a la The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles. But then came the '70s, a white-wine-and-Perrier era in which the formality of mixed drinks did not match the jeans-and-gym-clothes lifestyle.
By the 1980s, a new generation was discovering the martini, though made almost exclusively with vodka rather than the original gin. At the same time, in pickup bars all over America, yuppies were getting hooked on degraded versions of a Mexican classic, the margarita.
By the '90s, what passed for martinis would have been unrecognizable to the gin-swilling characters of John Cheever's suburban Connecticut stories. The term became a catch-all for anything poured into a martini glass, from chocolate concoctions to seafood appetizers. At decade's end, the same stemmed glassware brought us the cosmopolitan craze, courtesy of Sex and the City.
From the martini, it was a quick dash to its sweeter, darker cousin, the manhattan (bourbon or rye plus sweet vermouth), while just around the corner one could hop on a sidecar (brandy, lime or lemon juice and triple-sec or Cointreau).
At the same time, an old hot-weather drink from Cuba, the mojito, became what master mixologist Dale DeGroff calls ``the cosmopolitan of the new millennium.''
Although bartenders continue to invent cocktails, the classics have not only returned but remain the foundation of mixology.
''A good bartender is going to make a good gin martini,'' says DeGroff, an award-winning mixology writer and founding president of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans.
He and fellow festival presenter Tony Abou-Ganim, a beverage consultant and TV personality, consider mixology an extension of the culinary arts. And they see the cocktail revival, and a corresponding status boost for the bartending profession, as part of the larger gastronomic revival that allows us to know the provenance of the brussels sprouts and pork belly we order at better restaurants.
DeGroff, one-time bartender at New York's famed Rainbow Room, believes that Latin drinks will continue to rule. Beyond the mojito, he sees growing popularity for the Brazilian caipirinha and is enthusiastic about the pisco sour, a Peruvian drink with 19th century roots.
Abou-Ganim, who created the cocktail program for Las Vegas' Bellagio Resort, is also hot on the pisco sour. It's easy to make, he says, but you must use fresh ingredients and take the same kind of care required by fine cooking.
''If I'm going to plunk down $15, you better make a great cocktail,'' he says. ``Otherwise, I'm not going to come back and tell people about the place.
``Most of all, I'm not going to have a second one, that's for sure.''
2 oz. Dewar's White Label
1 oz. Cointreau Liqueur
.5 oz. Sour Mix
Chill all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, strain, serve straight up in a martini glass. Garnish with a cherry or orange peel.
One sidecar we're dying to get into.