Inspirational Cocktails in New York City

There was fog hugging the ground at La Guardia Airport. Flights had been cancelled all day. My companions and I sat in Ottawa, checking the board and watching our fl ight get delayed. We sipped Pinot Grigio. We ate nachos. Finally, finally, we boarded our plane.

Two of us were supposed to be in New York promoting Yukon food at a dinner that had already started. Adam Gerle of Northern Vision Development, which owns the Downtown Hotel in Dawson, home of the Sourtoe Cocktail, was travelling with the toe, in order to surprise and amaze 48 hardened American travel and food writers with a Sourtoe Cocktail, made with the spirit of their choice. Jasmine Sangria of Yukon Brewing was keeping him company.

I had with me spruce tips, juniper berries, and Labrador tea for a show-and-tell of Yukon herbs, many of which were featured in the dinner we weren’t at, prepared by Chef Will Harris at the National Restaurant in the Benjamin Hotel. Months of planning had gone into this dinner, presented for selected journalists attending the annual Canada Media Marketplace conference put on by the Canadian Tourism Commission.

We entered the air over La Guardia. The pilot announced that the fog had descended once more. We circled. I attempted the EnRoute Magazine crossword puzzle.

After 40 minutes, the pilot said, “Well folks, we don’t have the fuel to keep circling. We’re going back.”

Farewell, Yukon dinner. Enjoy the pineapple weed crème brulée with rhubarb compote and goat’s milk yogurt sorbet, you hardened American journalists.

And back we went, to Ottawa, to an empty airport and a lone Air Canada employee who gave us a number to call to reschedule our flights, and hotel vouchers for the Delta in downtown Ottawa, a nice hotel with a great bar, where we repaired for a soothing Pinot Grigio, and called it a day.

The next afternoon we arrived in New York in time to attend the second scheduled event showcasing Canadian foods and liquors. The rest of the Yukon team reported that dinner at the National was a smashing success. One hardened American journalist, waiting in line for his Sourtoe cocktail, told me, “Based on what I ate last night I would come to the Yukon for the food alone.” Music to my ears.

And then, official duties concluded, we scooted across town to Death & Co., the fabled New York bar I’ve wanted to visit ever since I bought their cocktail cookbook last fall. As expected, the doorman, clad entirely in black, told us there was no room and sent us down the street to their sister bar, taking our cell number. He’d call when we had a table.

The sister bar was a tiny, funky, tiled hallway lit with fairy lights. The suspendered, white-shirted bartender set us up with water. I ordered a Sazerac, a house variation of the classic New Orleans cocktail, made with a blend of several Amaro bitters. It was bitter, sweet, mysterious, and powerful. We relaxed, soaking up the atmosphere, waiting for our call — which did not come.

We were just getting miffed when a bartender from Death & Co appeared, discretely spoke our names and escorted us down the street and into the legendary dim, wood-lined space, lit by chandeliers and candles. The abashed doorman had called us several times — but it was the wrong number. Never mind, full marks for perseverance.

We knew every cocktail on the pages-long menu would be superb, and we were right. Adam’s classic martini, made with a gin we’d never heard of, was subtle, herbal, and bracing. My Fistful of Dollars was a strange and delicate balance of Old Grand-Dad Bourbon, lemon Cointreau, Davis Mix #2, Campari, and Bitter Truth aromatic bitters.

We ate crispy fries layered with blue cheese. We sampled each other’s cocktails. We toasted each other, and New York, and the long and winding road that had brought us here for an experience graced by cheerful doormen and bartenders, uplifted by cocktails we would not sample again for a long, long time.

Back in Whitehorse I visited the Woodcutter’s Blanket and requested a Sazerac from bartender James Maltby.

He said, “I’d like to make you a Sazerac, but I want to get really good at it first. Can I offer you a Pisco Sour instead?”

That is the mark of a truly excellent bartender.

The Pisco Sour was superb.

But I still wanted a Sazerac, so I made myself one at home. Here it is. Not Death & Co calibre, not Woodcutter’s Blanket quality, but aspirational.

Aspirational Sazerac

Jean Boyer Absinthe

1 ½ oz. Last Mountain Distillery rye

½ oz. St. Remy VSOP brandy

1 tsp. Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup

4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

1 lemon twist

Rinse a rock glass with Absinthe and dump. Stir remaining ingredients over ice, strain into the glass, add lemon twist and serve. 

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