Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

Tipping the Glass

There isn’t a part of our lives that hasn’t been touched by the economy in the last few years.  For some, it’s manifested itself as fewer dinners out, or maybe less expensive choices at the market.  For others, it’s meant the difference between a meal and no food at all.  Some – if not many – have been forced to part with cherished belongings to keep the more important bills paid.  That a food scene has survived at all in this chaos, much less thrived, is nothing short of surprising.  But no matter where you look, even if you just scratch the surface, you’ll find casualties.

On a recent Friday evening I found myself browsing the shelves at a local Half Priced Books store, not so much looking for bargains as the “hard to find” item.  I’m a book-worm from way back.  While in college I would regularly squander money designated for food on weekly trips to Woodland Park Bookstore, or maybe Black Swan Books.  Both stores were within walking distance of campus which made them, in my mind, practically irresistible.  The habit abated for a number of years while more adult priorities took hold, but recently has seemingly reasserted itself.  One never kicks the habit, only represses it by avoiding the temptation.  Living in what has to be acknowledged as a college town anyway you look at it, temptation is everywhere.  It was only a matter of time til the old habits told hold again.  Luckily it’s no longer a matter of skipping meals to get my reading “fix”, but in principle it’s the same.

On this particular evening the book I encountered was nothing for which I went looking, or even expected to find.  It was a like new copy of a book by a bar owner, nothing more, except that this individual happened to own one of the most famous bars in the world – Harry’ Bar in Venice.  Any bartender worth his margarita salt knows the story of Harry’s Bar.  Hemingway was a regular, as was Sinclair Lewis.  Orson Wells would regularly forget to pay his check.  Walking between Harry’s and the harbor billionaire Aristotle Onassis wooed the Greek soprano Maria Callas.  Queen Elizabeth dined there.  And these are just the tales told on the dust jacket!  The Bellini cocktail was invented as Harry’s, this much I knew as would any cocktail aficionado.  That beef carpaccio likewise owed it’s origin to Harry’s, or so the owners claimed, was a story with which I was unfamiliar.  But one learns something new every day if willing to dig through dusty volumes in search of culinary, or other types, of illumination.

It wasn’t until I arrived home and actually began to read the book that I discovered the inscription on the cover page.  As it turns out the volume had been signed, apparently as a gift, and read:

To our favorite bartender,

Pat and Heather

New Year’s Eve, Rainbow Room

2006

My mind immediately turned to what would lead a person to give up possession of what was obviously such a personal, and thoughtful gift.  Now, I’ve known a lot of bartenders over the years and have, on occasion, bought a drink for them as a token of appreciation.  But to give one a New Year’s Gift? I can’t say I’ve ever become that close to any.  Who were Pat and Heather?  And who was this bartender who evidently made such an impression on them in New Year’s Eve 2006?

The story of the Rainbow Room is of course famous in the history of New York City. The legendary supper club was founded in 1934 on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Center.  In his autobiography Kitchen Confidential, chef and Travel Channel host Anthony Bourdain devotes an entire chapter to the time he spent at the famous restaurant “making his bones”.  For the millennium party in 1999 the Rainbow Room was already booked as early as 1995.  A quick search turned up the cost of the 2007 New Year’s Eve party was $1600 per person.  As I read the book I couldn’t get these questions out of my head.  Then, like a light bulb on time delay, or perhaps a supernova in another galaxy that takes eons to make its presence known to us, it hit me.  I knew who the bartender had to be, one of the most famous mixologists of the modern era.  I raced downstairs and reach for the bookshelf that sits just outside my kitchen.   The book I pulled from the top shelf (where all the wine and spirit tomes reside) was The Craft of the Cocktail by Dale DeGroff.  DeGroff is credited with bringing not only the skill of the bartender back into vogue, but of promoting a gourmet approach to cocktail creation.  He is to this day one of the most sought after mixologists and speakers on the subject in the world, and DeGroff had worked at the Rainbow Room and made his name there.  Could it be him?  I read frantically through his book looking for confirmation.  But alas, DeGroff left the Rainbow Room in the late 1990’s.  The mystery bartender could not have been him.

The why bothered me as much as the who.  Was the economy to blame, as it was for so many problems these days?  Did the person behind the bar give up the gift as a financial expedient – a means to a better end?  Or, more troubling, was it never as big a deal to him as it was to the people who gifted it in the first place?  Bartenders, by their very profession, are expected to make the person of the other side of bar to feel special, welcome and befriended.  In a crude way they are prostitutes hired to sell liquor.  The best ones, however, transcend this and actually get to know their customers.  They remember the favorites of their regulars.  In some ways, they do befriend a certain select subset of their clientele.  Would I ever feel close enough in kinship to a bartender to bring in a gift on New Year’s?  Well, after careful consideration, I probably would.  The guys at the Bluegrass Tavern come to mind – Mark, Chris, Brad and Bobby – they never fail to let me know when a new bourbon arrives.  Jay at Malone’s / Harry’s knows what I’m going to order before I do.  Jeff at The Grey Goose has been known to hand me a Knob Creek on the rocks on the busiest of nights without me even making the pretense of asking for it.  There are a scattered, handful of others with whom I feel this cocktail bond.  So, after all, in a way I understand how a small token of appreciation could be warranted, even expected.  And hopefully, appreciated.  I still don’t have the answer as to who this mystery bartender was or why he/she parted with this gift.  However, I hope in some small way it lives on through me and through those with whom I trade, a union of imbiders and appreciators of the finest ingredients in those masterful creations we collectively term cocktails.

A final mystery added to the others: while researching the history of the Rainbow Room I discovered that in 1998 the Rockefeller family had ceded control of the famed establishment to another, a family named Cipriani.  Yes, the Rainbow Room from 1998 until it’s closing in 2009 was run by the very family who owned Harry’s Bar in Venice, the subject of the book I had been reading (which was originally published in 1996).  I wonder, and will continue to wonder, who these individuals were, and what roll they played in these bar-room encounters.

Whatever air of suspense I have created, falsely or not, around this chance encounter with a book, I hope at least it inspires you to remember – if not every bartender you run across – then at least the ones worth remembering.

This blog post is dedicated – a tip of the glass – to the hard-working guys and gals at Bluegrass Tavern, Malone’s/Harry’s, The Grey Goose and Skybar in Lexington, Kentucky.

Salut!  Cheers!

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One response

  1. I love finding gems like these at the book store! It makes the life of the book just a tad more interesting! They former owner of this book may remain a mystery, but in a way, I think that’s what makes this book even more interesting =)

    April 4, 2011 at 9:32 am

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