Spirits Writer Emma Janzen Talks Mezcal, Japanese Cocktail Bars, and More at Tales of the Cocktail | Food and drink | Weekly Gambit
Spirits writer Emma Janzen is visiting New Orleans this week to attend Tales of the Cocktail, where she will sign books and participate in panel discussions. Two of these panels focus on topics related to his books. Due to her book “Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit” and more recent magazine reports, she will speak at a panel on Mexican spirits. His book on Japanese cocktail bars, “The Way of the Cocktail”, written with bar owner Julia Momose, won an award from the James Beard Foundation earlier this year. His latest book is “The Bartender’s Manifesto”, written with veteran craft bartender Toby Maloney. For more information, visit emmajanzen.com and talesofthecocktail.org.
Gambit: What do you think of the recent rise in popularity of mezcal?
Emma Janzen: Some sales figures raised eyebrows. For the first time this year, sales of tequila and mezcal exceed sales of whiskey in the United States. And they’re about to beat vodka next year to become the #1 spirit in America, which is pretty crazy.
They share that DNA of being agave spirits, but historically mezcal sales have been much smaller than tequila. I think there is more interest. More brands (mezcal) are coming out in the US every year, but the growth is exponential.
From a commercial market perspective, in the late 90s, Ron Cooper of Del Maguey Mezcal was traveling through Mexico saying, hey, these spirits are super cool and so much more diverse and interesting in flavor and technique than what we know tequila. He started introducing this brand and it caught the attention of all these bartenders.
The version of mezcal that had been available in the US for so long was of poor quality. It was industrially produced. There was a worm. It wasn’t the more artisanal spirit that existed in Mexico – which we just didn’t have access to yet. It’s nice to see people’s understanding expand as we discover more varieties.
The industry is at this precarious moment where there are all these traditional producers and because there is so much demand, there is a pressure to rationalize production to be more efficient and meet this demand. This threatens many traditions. When made the traditional way, mezcal is a magnificent spirit that takes time to prepare. When you speed up these processes, you lose much of the character of the mind. I feel like there’s a perception that mezcal is only smoked and that’s what Americans want to drink. Smoke is only one aspect. They can taste herbaceous, they can taste vegetal. The best ones for me are where you taste more agave and less smoke.
Tales offers a wide range of events, from large parties to invitation-only tastings, dinners and seminars.
Gambit: What do we see with the rise of Japanese cocktail bars?
Janzen: I think the most interesting Japanese-style or Japanese-inspired cocktail bars come from people who are native to Japan or of Japanese descent. They have this interesting challenge of operating a bar with these sensibilities in a different country. You have to adapt a bit to the American market, what they are used to and what they want to see, while trying to broaden their understanding of what this (Japanese) culture is all about.
Julia (Momose) says (her bar Kumiko) is not a Japanese cocktail bar, as we are not in Japan. It’s not Japanese-inspired because (she’s) Japanese. She is originally from Japan and moved here when she was 18. For her, the bar exists in a space between these things. This is the experience of a Japanese woman who rose through the ranks of the bar in America.
There are several pillars (which define a Japanese cocktail bar). There are obvious things like tools and ingredients, and I’m not just talking about using Japanese ingredients like sake or shochu or shiso leaf or cherry blossoms. These things naturally come into play, but a Japanese cocktail is all about choosing the right ingredient for the drink.
It’s easier to talk about what a Japanese cocktail is not. It’s not just the cocktails invented in Japan, although these things do exist, like the Million Dollar or the Bamboo. It must reflect the technique. It should reflect the interdependence between the bartender’s intention and the way he brings it to fruition.
We asked Chockie Tom how to become a bartender, how drinkers can embrace change, and his upcoming Tales seminar.
Gambit: What is the idea behind “The Bartender’s Manifesto”?
Janzen: Toby Maloney is an industry veterinarian. He has worked in the bar world for 25 years. He came to school Sasha Petraske. He worked (in New York) at Milk & Honey, worked for Audrey Saunders at the Pegu Club and Julie Reiner at the Flatiron. He was on the floor when the whole movement of cocktails started to stir.
For this book, what he wanted to do was put the Violet Hour training program into a kind of manual for people who want to make drinks at home. It’s funny. It’s fun because Toby is an amazing character, and he has so many stories. It’s a guide to understanding cocktails and bartending in a way that goes beyond what you can get out of a recipe, mix it up at home, and make it taste great. The thing is that after reading it, you should be able to assess your ingredients and put them together in a way that will taste good. There is innovation and invention on the fly.
We were inspired by “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” by Samin Nosrat at the beginning of our book. We talk about cocktails through the prism of texture, temperature, aroma and balance. It’s a different way of thinking about drinks that I’ve never seen presented before in books.
Self-taught chefs with in-depth knowledge of Mexican ingredients and traditional dishes.