State of the Spirit Address

Story by Kate Verotsky

Next time you want to learn a thing or two about America's cocktail scene, arrange a chat with Lucy Brennan over one of her beet martinis - or perhaps an avocado daiquiri is more your style.  Without a doubt, Brennan is a bona fide celebrity bartender.  The proprietor of the much lauded restaurant Mint and adjacent 820lounge in Portland, Oregon, her list of big name kudos is approaching intimidating status.  Nightclub and Bar magazine recently named her one of America's most successful women in the industry.  She landed a coveted place of Playboy.com's 'A-List," as one of America's Top 10 bartenders.  The list goes on.  Food and Wine magazine named her one of the nation's top 5 mixologists in January 2006.  Of course by that time she was well-accustomed to the attention, given her November 2005 recognition in Spirit magazine as one of the best nine bartenders and her (now familiar) moniker as one of
the nation's top mixologists by Bon Apetit in 2004.  Brennan is also the author of Hip Sips, published in January 2007 by Chronicle Books.  The book includes both traditional standbys that evoke vintage-style hedonism (the Sazerac) as well as bold new creations such as the award-winning "Ad Lib," vodka shaken with muddled fresh cilantro and mixed with citrus and sweetener.

There are a number of factors that have launched Brennan to the top, not the least of which is her uncannily accurate perception of the nation's drink trends.  If she began with an inherent ability to understand those trends, she is now helping to shape them.


It seems that identifying the hip drink Du Jour happens to be has a lot to do with location.  "We definitely see different trends on the East and West Coasts," Brennan explains.  "The East Coast seems to be more traditional.  They prefer the classic drinks.  I think the West Coast is a little more liberal and more adventurous in terms of trying new cocktails."

So while East Coasters are busy concocting first-rate, archetypal Manhattans and Martinis, as a transplant Oregonian Lucy is breaking the rules with innovative flavor combinations and savory ingredients.  "i respect both styles.  Any bartender should know the classics before they start getting adventurous," she says.  As a current Oregonian, Brennan refers to herself as "new school" because of her experimental style.  "I'm trying new drinks - using things like rosemary and cilantro.  I don't think my Avocado Daiquiri would go over very well on the East Coast."


Regardless of geography, there are trends that have taken hold industry wide.  Starting in the nineties, flavor infusions took hold, most notably with Absolut's flavored vodkas.  Now, infusions have taken on a new level of freshness and variety.  For instance, Brennan has noted a rise in the use of fresh fruit purees, her repertoire even includes fig, blueberry and red currant purees.  And it isn't just the sweet flavors making their way into cocktails - savory and herbal ingredients are an increasing presence.  Hence Brennan's renowned beet martini, a concoction called the Ruby, which was inspired by a beet and goat cheese salad that she enjoyed over dinner with friends.  "I dream about cocktails," she admits.  'I went home and dreamt about how I was going to infuse beets with vodka."


The resurgence of interest in the traditional cocktail begs the questions - what makes a classic a classic?  According to Brennan, the answer is balance.  "Not too heavy on the alcohol," she advises.  "A lot of people think that the more alcohol there is, the better the cocktail.  I disagree.  It has to be well-balanced to be fun on the palette."  Just as important, today's drinks are simple.  "If you put more that four or five ingredients in a cocktail, you'll start to lose the integrity of the drink," she explains.


If you're tired of the classics and you just can't summon the enthusiasm for the Mr. 820 (that's chilled gin with fresh rosemary), perhaps you need a drink designed specifically for you.  Another industry trend, mixologists today are working right alongside event planners to design custom cocktails for clients from socialites to brides to corporations and philanthropic organizations.  Brennan recently designed cocktails for an event hosted by the local ballet - a Martini with pear sake garnished with a cucumber, a blackberry Bellini with vodka garnished with a flower and a watermelon infused strawberry lemon drop.  "They were all beautiful, and they satisfied three different types of palette," explains Brennan.

In the hustle of the present day, a little relaxation can be hard to come by.  This is why it is more important than ever before that a cocktail be more than a thirst-quenching precursor to dinner.  Done right, it's an event in it's own right.  A well-made cocktail, whether classic or trendy, East Coast or West, is a statement of taste and style, and invitation to explore a region and to celebrate the pleasures of the palette.


During a vodka cocktail competition, I spontaneously created the Ad Lib and won first prize.  The drink has since become a refreshing patio-season staple at my restaurant Mint.  The cilantro is first muddled to release its spicy bite, then shaken with vodka, simple syrup, and lemon-lime juice.  A fresh alternative to margaritas, the Ad Lib is a great reminder that your next favorite cocktail may be a glorious accident.

Cocktail ice cubes for muddling and shaking
5 to 7 fresh cilantro leaves
2 1/2 ounces Crater Lake vodka
1 ounce Fresh Lemon-Lime Juice
1 ounce simple syrup
Lollipop Rim for garnish

Strain  into a 10-ounce martini glass garnished with a lollipop rim.  Serve immediately. ~ Serves 1. 


The lollipop rim is the signature garnish of many Hip Sips.  Much more than a decorative side note, it's an important accent to the drink.  The sugar lightly sweetens the tart flavors of ingredients such as passion fruit or green apple.

The Lollipop Rim works best on a 10-ounce martini glass.  The over sized wide-mouthed glass is substantial enough to feature a generous 2-inch coasting of sugar.

1 Cup baker's sugar
1 wedge lemon or orange

Put the sugar in a moderately deep, wide-mouthed bowl.  Make a deep slice down the center flesh of a lemon or orange wedge.  Slightly squeeze the wedge to begin to release the juice.  Place the slice on the rim of a 10-ounce martini glass and, holding the glass upside down, rotate the wedge around the glass to lightly coat the rim with citrus juice.  When you are finished, insert a quarter of the lip of the glass about 2-inches into the sugar.  Quickly spin the stem to coat the entire rim with sugar; holding the cup upside down, and gently tap the bottom of the glass to remove any excess sugar. 

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