Vintage Spirits


By David Moye
Photos by Brevin Blach

In his 40 years as a bartender, including 27 spent slinging drinks at Nunu’s cocktail lounge in Bankers Hill, John Watson has seen the rise and fall of the Fuzzy Naval and several martini fads.

In her 23 years mixing drinks at Qualcomm Stadium and the Red Fox Room in North Park, Linda Hanover has witnessed the same parade of cocktail kicks-from shooters comprising a blend or layers of liquor (such as a kamikaze or B-52) to the current furor over immersions, in which fruit, peppers or other ingredients stew for days in vodka or other spirits to give drinks an added flavor profile.

With 60 years of liquid psychiatry between these seasoned sixty-somethings, patrons are drinking in a little knowledge between sips.

“You know, back in the 1980s, there was a whole martini craze,” Hanover says. “I’ve been seeing revivals of older cocktails for years.”

Shaken or stirred? What makes a true martini remains something of debate among connoisseurs.

“I only shake them when people request it,” Watson says, with a laugh. “To me, a good quality martini is made with good gin. I have to be careful when I’m out on the town to make sure bartenders don’t shake them. I think that ruins the true flavor.”

Hanover is more like James Bond when it comes to martinis.

“I do like them shaken,” she says. “To me, a good martini has to be really cold.”

Though their knowledge is vast, these classic cocktail creators don’t take a condescending tone with thirsty whippersnappers. In fact, Hanover believes today’s young adult drinker has a more educated palate than in recent generations.

“There is a more discerning culture these days,” she says. “I see them ordering classics like side cars and old fashioneds, and I do think they understand what makes a good cocktail.

“If someone doesn’t know what they want, I’ll suggest my favorite, a Mandarin Madras,” she says. “That has Absolut Mandarin vodka, orange juice and cranberry juice.”

Watson also sees hope in the current generation of drinkers, though he is a strong believer that good drinks require the proper proportions and the proper perspective.

“I look at some books and the recipes are wrong,” he laments. “Like mai tais with cherry juice? Or brandy? Also, I don’t recommend ordering high-end vodka like Grey Goose with cranberry juice, because it just negates the taste.”

If you want to impress Watson with your alcohol acumen, try ordering a “Smoky Martini,” a variation that uses whiskey instead of vermouth.

“I had a guy ask for that once,” he says. “I usually make it with Belvedere, and this guy wanted me to add Glenfiddich whisky on top. He said the one I made was the best he’d ever had.”

Hanover-who recommends good ol’ rum and Coke for folks having their first legal drink (“It tastes good and is a grown-up drink”)-has some motherly advice for those seeking the truth about what they tipple.

“Honestly, those foo-foo cocktails that are popular-bartenders make them up because they’re bored.”

Catch these seasoned mixologists weekdays at Nunu’s and the Red Fox Room.,