The coming of age of American drinking was easy to mistake for a goofy urban trend. Samurai-serious bartenders who waxed their mustaches and wielded ice picks to create perfectly sized ice chips--the parodies almost wrote themselves. There were the "Mixology Certification" episode of last season's Community, the spot-on spoofs this winter on Portlandia, the recent viral video about "S--t Bartenders Say." ("You should try my cherry-bark cayenne bitters.") It was all a joke. Everyone knows that real bartenders wear T-shirts, pour Jack and Cokes three at a time and keep a plastic jug full of sour mix in their speed rack. Until, overnight, they didn't. They started serving something better.
It might be an obscure cocktail with a modern twist, as at Elliott's Oyster House in Seattle, where the $10 juniper flip combines gin, elderflower liqueur, hibiscus syrup, pink-grapefruit juice and a whole beaten egg into an intoxicating booze smoothie. Or a $19 rose-petal nitrotini at Grill 225 in Charleston, S.C., where the drinks are chilled to -320F using liquid nitrogen (which, the menu disclaimer notes, "will cause frostbite or severe burns" if handled improperly). Whatever it is, you can be sure a lot of effort went into making it and a lot of adventurousness went into ordering it.
Welcome to the platinum age of mixology.
It's not to be confused with the golden age of cocktails: that ended with the start of Prohibition. The new term, coined by Jim Meehan of New York City's celebrated PDT cocktail lounge, applies to the "craft cocktail" movement, which has popularized small-batch spirits, specialty botanicals, house-made bitters and the like in the same way chefs have fostered the emergence of heritage breeds, microherbs and foraged mushrooms. The culinary world is taking the trend seriously. The James Beard Awards--the Oscars of the food world--will give their first mixologist prize in May. The Cooking Channel has a new show, Drink Up, airing alongside Nigella Lawson and Bobby Flay, and Bravo's Top Chef contestants have come to expect a cocktail challenge at least once a season. This is officially no longer a New York or Portland phenomenon. "A guy came up to me the other day," cocktail historian David Wondrich tells me. "He said, 'I'm from Boise. We only have two craft-cocktail bars there.' He was actually apologizing."
Wondrich's Imbibe!, which in 2008 became the first cocktail book to win a Beard Award, has developed a cult following among the bartenders of modern speakeasies. In addition to good drinks, these places are serving up good theater by adding a secretive flourish to the drinking experience. To get into Meehan's PDT (short for Please Don't Tell), you have to go to a hot-dog joint in the East Village, step inside a vintage phone booth and lift the receiver before a panel slides open to let you into a tiny, plush and supremely cool space. At least the bar has a listed number; you used to have to call a secret one to get into New York's Milk & Honey. Now entrance is by referral and appointment only.