Jeret Peña keeps a mirrored tie rack behind the bar he mans at downtown’s Le Midi. An experienced bartender with stints at places as varied as Pesca, Bohanan’s, and The Green Lantern, Peña disdains the term “mixologist,” but that doesn’t mean he’s averse to a little showmanship. Hence the ties, the patterned shirts, the suspenders, the sneakers, the Trilby or other hats … “This isn’t my job,” he says, “it’s my craft.” And he’s certainly going to dress to suit.
The look isn’t altogether arbitrary, though; with allowances for personal quirks it goes right along with his interest in classic cocktails from the so-called “golden” era of the 1930s. And it dovetails with his passion for collecting vintage cocktail glasses. “I go antique hunting `for the bar`, and there are almost no two glasses alike: gold rims, sorbet cups, different shapes and sizes … all so I can gauge what cocktail goes in what.”
To prove the point, and with our agreed-upon fall theme firmly in mind, he embarks on the first cocktail, using Cognac as a base, the Champs Elysées, a variation of the classic Sidecar as created at Harry’s Bar in Paris.
1 1/2 oz. Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac or other favorite
1/2 oz. green chartreuse
1/4 oz. lemon juice
1/8 oz. simple syrup
dash angostura bitters
Put all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake with theatrical flair. Peña prefers to float his bitters on top after double-straining the drink into the glass (“I don’t want any ice pieces”), in this case a chilled, curvy coupe with etched designs that does indeed recall Paris between the wars. “I just got a glass chiller, and it makes all the difference,” he says. Personally, I’d cut back just slightly on the chartreuse (sorry, Harry), but I like the floated bitters, which leads to another discussion. “If I’m doing a drink with egg white foam, I sometimes put the bitters in a sprayer and spray it on the foam. I can really get geeky with designs.” Why not?
The sprayer is used again in the next drink, the Gibraltar, one from the bar menu’s House Specials side. It’s Peña’s variation on the CE/Sidecar theme but with pear liqueur and Sombra mezcal sprayed lightly into the glass before filling. (If recreating the drink without a sprayer, just pour in a little mezcal, swirl it around, then dump it. Or drink it if nobody’s looking.) But since we have moved along to talking about Calvados, a fall-and-winter spirit made from apple, he decides to sub it for the Cognac he would normally use. Here it is:
1 1/2 oz. Calvados
1/2 oz. Mathilde pear liqueur
1/4 oz. lemon juice
1/8 oz. simple syrup
mezcal rinse or spray
Spray or rinse glass with mezcal. Shake and strain as before. This was served in a glass with a broad, gold rim, and the balance was beautiful, the pear reinforcing the apple and the mezcal adding a touch of wintry smoke.
Peña is doing a number of intriguing infusions, all on display in vessels behind the bar. I taste the haunting, chamomile-scented Pisco and the brawny, bacon-infused bourbon. But it’s a more logical next step from Calvados to applejack, America’s first native spirit. Here comes the challenge: create something on the spot. And here’s the result — I’m calling it the ABC while he comes up with a more evocative name.
2 oz. Laird’s Applejack
1/2 oz. Benedictine
1/2 oz. Carpano Antica Vermouth (red, off-dry and worth seeking out)
Large strip of orange peel
Spray a cocktail glass with orange oil by holding the strip of orange peel above it and twisting; you’ll see the spritz. Put all remaining ingredients into a tall glass filled with ice and stir, ritualistically, 35 times (you can watch Peña’s lips move as he counts), and strain into cocktail glass (this one had an Americana-like hob pattern on the base). Peña used a vintage julep strainer that fit beautifully into the mixing glass. Garnish with the orange peel.
Peña sees the intimate bar at Le Midi turning into a late-night venue with live music, playing into what’s becoming a destination Houston Street strip that includes the bars at Bohanan’s and the Palm. “We all geek-out together,” he says of the bartending fraternity. And for fall he’s contemplating some spiced foams, more use of aged whiskeys … “I’m also fiddling with a cider drink,” he says. So what if we don’t have falling leaves? •