Next to me at the Kingfish bar is a 20-something guy with a scruffy goatee, and he's just asked head bartender Chris McMillian for a bramble. What he gets is a violet-streaked cocktail poured over hand-crushed ice, and this: "The bramble is the British version of a modern classic, like our cosmopolitan."
The kid, a bartender from Austin, later tells me, "He'll forget more than I'll ever know."
Meanwhile, I'm lingering over the Kingfish cocktail list - there are local classics (no surprise that the bar earned this year's Seal of the Sazerac), modern concoctions (like Tony Abou-Ganim's spiced rum Cable Car) and originals (Chris expects his staff of bartenders to eventually add their own).
Which drink best sums up Chris McMillian, a fourth-generation bartender who so impressed Dale DeGroff behind the bar that Dale asked him to help launch the Museum of the American Cocktail?
Sensing my confusion, Chris mentions his stash of rose syrup, courtesy of chef Mary Sonnier (wife of Greg, Kingfish executive chef), made from roses in their backyard. Yes, yes.
Chris pairs the lush rose syrup with gin and sparkling rosé, which provides "a bit of cannon," he says. A thick orange twist adds aromatics to this floral and softly boozy sipper.
We chat, then Chris tends to other customers as they drift in on a late night. When he comes back to me, he has one question: "Do you like mezcal?" Maybe I squinted; for sure I hesitated (for me it's been an acquired taste).
"Okay, then," he says, and makes up something else off the menu. I assume it will have mezcal, and that he will convert me for good.
What I get is a play on the Paloma, dolled up with grapefruit vodka as the sweetener. Chris adds to it young tequila (I'm increasingly looking to Don Julio, used here, as my tequila of choice), fresh-juiced Ruby Red grapefruit and lemon. Earthy agave grounds the tartness, giving this sour a beautiful complexity.
I may not have known what I wanted, but Chris, a master host, gave it to me.
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