Stirred, not shaken: A history of cocktails

By Ben Marshall

Scott Benjamin speaks to Food Writing students about the history of cocktails. Benjamin is owner and executive chef of 4 Olives Wine Bar in Manhattan.

Propped up on a bar stool, Scott Benjamin watches intently as bartender Griff  Letch carefully bruises a few sprigs of mint at the bottom of a mixing cup containing simple syrup.

“You don’t want to rip or tear the mint leaves, because if you tear the leaf of an herb, it releases a foul taste as a defense mechanism,” Benjamin said. “That’s where you get a bitter flavor.”

So Letch sure-handedly presses the leaves with a pestle-like tool, called a muddler, gently releasing the aromatic flavors. Next, he takes a wooden mallet to a canvas bag full of ice, beating it for about 30 seconds.

“The material of the bag soaks up a lot of the excess water, so this technique gives you a nice fine, dry ice,” Benjamin said, “almost like a Sonic ice.”

Adding Knob Creek Bourbon to the mint, syrup combination, Griff stirs deliberately for another 20-30 seconds. He pours the concoction over a classic julep metal cup teeming with ice, garnishes it with a few more sprigs of mint and passes it off to Benjamin for a sip. Benjamin swallows, satisfied.

“We stir our classic cocktails, rather than shake them. They’re just not as good shaken – it waters them down,” Benjamin said.

As owner and executive chef at 4 Olives Wine Bar in Manhattan, Benjamin brings an extensive passion for and knowledge of cocktails to his tiny and tucked-away fine dining restaurant. He said initially he was drawn to the study of cocktails because, out of all food inventions, he considers the cocktail “completely, uniquely American.”

With a stack of notes in hand, Benjamin spilled the history of great American cocktails, from pre-colonial times to post-prohibition. As Benjamin talked,  Letch concocted – pouring, stirring, zesting and serving; from a classic 1790s mint julep, to a fiery Blue Blazer from 1850, to a fruity 1940s Mai Tai and, fittingly, a Manhattan from the 1870s.

Benjamin said he likes to study the way cocktails were made in the past to provide a more classic drinking experience at his restaurant. And diners have responded positively. Prior to this year, the classic cocktail menu was only available behind the bar at 4 Olives. The drinks had become so popular, however, Benjamin decided to include the classic cocktail menu on all restaurant tables.

In addition to adhering to classic techniques, 4 Olives also makes a lot of its cocktail components in house, including many of its own bitters, ginger ales, tonics and brandied cherries.

Griff Letch the bartender bruises sprigs of mint leaf as he prepares a classic mint julep.

As Letch prepares another cocktail, Benjamin explained how, in pre-colonial times, water-purification techniques were not yet mastered and the water was unsafe to consume. So people drank alcohol as a means to survive. Today, drinking alcohol is less about survival, and more about unwinding and having a good time. Or – in the case of 4 Olives – celebrating the end of Prohibition every year.

“Drinks at 4 Olives are made classically, they’re made with a lot alcohol, they’re made with a lot of heart,” Benjamin said, “and it’s a lot of fun.”

(Editor’s note: Scott Benjamin was host and guest lecturer in the Food Writing class on March 3 at his restaurant, the 4 Olives. His topic was the history of the cocktail.  Students chose how to cover the afternoon.  Chef Benjamin served a light lunch, too.)