It wasn't too tough this year to pick our favorite drinks. And that's not because there aren't a lot of good cocktails out there, but because these three drinks were so memorable, so inspired and, in one case, so frickin' weird that we'll carry the memories and taste to our graves (and hopefully be able to sneak them into our reincarnated next life as a short-order fry cook in Hong Kong, as well). Herewith, Drink of the Week's favorites, 2006.
The Monarch Martini is one of a dozen-plus drinks that bartender Ted Kilgore has created for Monarch in Maplewood. The establishment has quickly become one of the area's best restaurants in part because of its smart hires, not the least of which was luring Kilgore from Springfield, Missouri, to man the bar. He and sommelier Chris Hoel unveiled a new cocktail menu this summer, and one of many highlights is their signature martini.
Kilgore makes the martini with housemade orangecello, Cognac and fresh orange juice, which he tops with moscato. Then he adds a little touch of cassis, which drops to the bottom and sits there like a lavender pearl. The result is an otherworldly nectar: soft with orange, sweet with Cognac and, as a little bonus, a touch of tart at the end as the cassis meets the lips.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was this year's oddest concoction, which we would encourage all drinkers to experience. Namely, the nikolashka (nick-oh-LOSH-kuh), offered at only one place we know of probably because it's such a pain in the ass to make Al Smith's Feasting Fox on South Grand.
It's fun to watch proprietor Marty Luepker Sr. make a nikolashka, because he's such an amiable guy. He'll chat your ear off while in the background guitarist Ron Reichard sings and plays pre-rock-&-roll pop songs. First, Luepker pours Cognac into a little cordial glass. Then he cuts a thin circle of lemon, trims the rind off of it and sets the yellow disc on top of the glass, so it's like a little citrus lid. He sprinkles a tiny mound of Folger's instant coffee on it, then an equal amount of powdered sugar on top of that.
The goal is to drop the lemon, coffee and sugar onto your tongue in one fell swoop, add a little of the Cognac into the mix and chew it all up. Be careful not to inhale, though, or the powdered sugar will make you cough. The resulting is, literally, bittersweet, as the sour mixes with the coffee, sugar and Cognac to create a little mess of flavor. Once the chewy bit is swallowed, you drink the rest of the Cognac, and the palate is cleansed and ready for another nikolashka.
The best drink we had all year was the pisco sour at Mango, partially because of the circumstance (meeting for the first time a handful of fascinating men from throughout the Americas), partially because of timing (game four of the World Series played on the TV) and partially because Mango, a Peruvian restaurant on Watson Road, offers a pisco sour that is the cocktail's Platonic ideal.
The "National Drink of Peru," pisco is a clear brandy that, drunk straight, is clean and strong and recalls a glass of nice mescal. Take a whiff of pisco's bouquet and you're liable to burn your nose hairs. Used as the base for a sour, though, it's a different story; the brandy provides a sturdy foil for the citrus. Mango uses a blend of fresh lime and lemon juice, squeezed daily, and a simple syrup, also fresh. To this they add egg white to create a meringue-like froth, the remnants of which stick to the sides of the lowball. As a final little accoutrement, the bartender adds a few drops of bitters, which sit on the froth and add a touch of clove-y spice.
A round of applause for creative inspiration, fresh ingredients and lively conversation! Here's hoping '07 will trump '06.