My Great Uncle Willard was a bootlegger; I’m Italian-Irish … I was born to drink.”
But Don Marsh, manager of Bohanan’s newly opened street-level bar on Houston, was born to do more than rest his boot on a brass rail; he’s a natural behind the bar as well, and the drink he created in honor of his renegade relative, Runaway Willard, is eloquent testimony to his prowess. Composed of lavender-infused Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, and fresh pineapple juice stirred and garnished with star anise, the drink may seem a bit fine for a straight-no-chaser bootlegger, but it puts Marsh smack in the camp of modern mixologists who infuse off-the-shelf booze with botanicals — and who are in the thrall of St. Germain, an amazingly versatile tool in the current-day cocktail arsenal.
The core of Bohanan’s bar menu, however, is classic cocktails from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. The swank interior, featuring clubby chairs and a cherrywood bar as long and true as a bowling alley, was designed with the menu in mind. And a trio from Bohanan’s, including Marsh, spent three days (of which the bar-hopping nights were the most important) in Manhattan doing, er, research on both booze and barware. They returned with designs for custom cocktail glasses and buoyed by the conviction that they could try this at home. “I went out and bought every `liquor and liqueur` imaginable,” says Marsh. “I wanted a base in the classics.”
Marsh’s own foundation was first formed at Bennigan’s almost 20 years ago. “I didn’t know squat,” he says, “so I bought Gary Regan `The Bartender’s Bible` and started reading. I didn’t like the other bartenders making fun of me.”
He quickly caught up to his co-workers and then some — “to the point of needing to back off,” he admits. But the research served him well in subsequent jobs at places as diverse as Mama’s Hofbrau (“My first love is beer,” he says), Tequila Charlie’s, and then Pesca, where he helped establish the River Walk restaurant’s impressive tequila program. Oh, yes, tequila is another amor.
Don’t think for a minute that he loves it all, however. Marsh heaps scorn on vodka, hates Sambuca, and doesn’t have much truck with rum, either, calling it an excuse for a headache. (Don’t get him started on the currently chic 10 Cane.) Nor is Marsh a fan of lavishing high-ticket liquor on mixed drinks; Old Overholt Rye, El Jimador Reposado and base-model Bombay Gin (“Sapphire is ‘botanicaled-up’ for the ladies,” he says) appear often on the descriptive menu.
We now pause for a lesson in zesting. An orange, a lemon, and a lime walk into a bar — no, wait, that’s another story; in this one, they’re lined up on the bar. The right tool is brandished. It looks just like mine, with five small ports at the top for fine zesting, a larger “beak” at the side for bigger strips, but somehow Marsh makes it all look easy, prizing out a lengthy spiral of orange in no time flat. He then quickly wraps the strip around a swizzle stick in a tight spiral and, voila!, a “horse’s neck.”
The horse’s neck can be put to especially good use in a Sazerac, the drink Marsh and other local bar boys, such as the Green Lantern’s Steve Mahoney, consider the test of a savvy bartender. Yours truly has tried this at home with exactly the same ingredients (Old Overholt Rye, Peychaud’s Bitters, simple syrup, a rinse with Pernod’s Absinthe and an orange twist), but it just doesn’t taste the same. Ambience may have something to do with it, but attention to nuance — such as the squirt of orange-peel oil into the glass when zesting — no doubt helps.
We can also enthusiastically recommend the Blue Grass Fizz with Buffalo Trace, fresh lemon juice, and Noilly Prat sweet vermouth, all topped off with Fever Tree ginger beer. It’s got a great spicy ginger bite. Another winner is Marsh’s Monday Morning, compounded of El Jimador Reposado, Fernet Branca, and St. Germain. The drink’s elderflower nose is especially appealing. (Note that the bar will start serving lunch, supplanting the one served at the restaurant upstairs, in early January.)
But when asked which recipe of his own devising he’d like to share with Current readers, Marsh’s response was immediate: The Last Start (because “it’s the last drink you’re going to need”). Here ’tis:
The Last Start
1 oz. Bombay Gin
1/2 oz. St. Germain
1/2 oz. rosemary-infused simple syrup (say a cup of sugar, a cup of water, and a generous sprig of fresh rosemary boiled until the sugar is completely dissolved, then chilled)
5 dashes Fee Bros. peach bitters
The best ginger beer you can find
Put the first four ingredients in a shaker with ice and cap tightly. Marsh gave this 11 vigorous shakes. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice. (I also got the “importance of dense ice” lecture.) Top with ginger beer. There are a lot of aromatic components to this one.
Yet when all the hoopla over modern mixology has subsided, what does Marsh drink — when he’s not drinking beer, that is? Single malts. “My absolute favorite.” There’s an entire page on the bar menu devoted to single malts from all over Scotland, and the arsenal of bottles on the wall behind the bar will give pause to even the most avid aficionado.
But there may be no truer measure of Don’s devotion to single malts than this: The puppy his kids got for Christmas came complete with a name. It’s Cardhu, an homage to a Speyside single malt that makes up much of the Johnnie Walker Red blend. That the distillery was originally founded, in 1824, by a whisky smuggler surely didn’t figure into the naming decision. •