Cocktail culture is thriving in large part due to a passionate contingent of exceptional bartenders and mixologists. This feature places a spotlight on the craftspeople behind the bar, and not just the structure itself. Bartender Christian Gaal works at Apothecary Bar + Lounge in Philadelphia.
Joshua Lurie: Do you consider yourself a bartender or a mixologist? What’s the difference?
Christian Gaal: I consider myself a bartender, because that is what the job was and is. “Mixologist” is a word for press releases and magazine articles.
JL: How did you become interested in tending bar?
CG: While working in a restaurant, I admired the cool, stony face the service bartender would put on when he was weeded. I wanted to learn whether I was made of similar stuff. Once behind the bar, I naturally gravitated towards the historical aspect of the craft.
JL: What’s your first cocktail memory?
CG: I had my first cocktail at a house party in high school. I think it was a Ketel One martini. I remember the slight warming sensation, the loosening of the neck muscles and shoulders, and inhibitions. Everything looked crisper and softer at the same time. But that night, I was focused on the other people; on their personal rates of consumption, the raise in volume of their voices, the changes in attitude, and I was fascinated by the other-worldly weirdness of it all.
JL: What’s your current favorite spirit or liquor?
CG: I have been really into absinthe, into stretching my boundaries as to what it pairs with and what it can do to a cocktail in different proportions.
JL: Which cocktail is past its prime?
CG: At this point the same person who might have hopped on the cosmo bandwagon a few years ago may today order a gin daisy or a brandy crusta; and I think the traditional dirty martini should be left to those who truly love it, and liquor-phobic poseurs should move on to newer salty drinks, so I don’t have to consider putting prep buttons in my point-of-service system for “ultra-dirty” and “mega-dirty”. The “extra” button should be enough for all sensible drinkers.
JL: What’s the cocktail of the future?
CG: In the future, we will be able to flash distill anything a customer brings to us, be it a handful of raspberries, an old shoe, and place it in an relativity-barriq to instantly achieve any amount of aging we want. Then a mechanical arm scoops the ice into the glass, and we pour the ambrosia in, and the whole thing will cost the same as a redbreast 12 neat today, when adjusted for inflation.
JL: Describe one of your original cocktails. What’s it called and what was your approach?
CG: I call it the Scandal in Bohemia. Two ounces of good rye, an ounce each of absinthe and port, a three-quarter-ounce pour of orange curacao, a few dashes of regan’s orange bitters. Stir on good ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and flame some orange peel over it. I find my favorite cocktails come when I am not behind my bar, reaching for the usual bottle, but when I am elsewhere, imagining the flavor of a particular ingredient, and another ingredient blindsides my train of thought. Sometimes you gotta take a peek at your bottle sideways, as at a dim star.
JL: Do you have a cocktail mentor, and what did they teach you?
CG: I know this may sound cheesy, but my best friend and co-worker, NIck Jarrett, started bartending before I did, and he has always inspired me to hit the books. I’ve always admired his tireless work ethic regarding cocktail research. Nick taught me that if you are serious about a project, don’t be afraid of homework. A good bartender has to be able to hot-dog, but a good bartender prepares whenever possible.
JL: Outside of your bar, what’s your favorite bar in town and why?
CG: The first bar where I fully and thoroughly enjoyed a cocktail was Southwark. Kip and Sherry Wade, George Costa and the gang know what the hell they’re doing, and the traditional, dark wood-and-mirrors, Charlie Parker ambience is the perfect complement to the beautiful eats and the gorgeous drink. One of the most profoundly relaxing locations on the face of the Earth, for me.
JL: Who’s another bartender/mixologist you respect and why?
CG: In addition to his wit, kindness, and passion, Tony Abou-Ganim never seems to forget a name. I find that power of retention remarkable, and am a bit jealous of that ability.
JL: If you had a bar of your own, what would you call it?
CG: Which one? Bar concepts grow on trees. There you go: Treehouse. Wait…nope. The rope ladder would be a liability nightmare.
JL: What’s the best simple cocktail for people to make at home, and what’s the recipe?
CG: If you are caught under-dressed for a chilly spring evening, put the pot of water on immediately upon entering your house, even before removing your jacket. That way, when you’ve changed into something more comfortable, you can immediately top up a couple of ounces of good whiskey with the now-boiling water and cut yourself a long swatch of lemon peel (no pith), mist the top with oil, and drop it in. Enjoy your whiskey skin!
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August 24, 2009 at 8:29 AM
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April 14, 2009 at 2:58 PM
i like the whiskey skin. a less-lemon-y toddy. we need more absinthe in LA.