By Ben Marshall
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.
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.)