Last Sunday afternoon—a stupendously sunny Sunday afternoon—a dozen journalists (plus a few bartenders) went blinking into the dim of the Sorrento Hotel for a Drinking Lesson. The Drinking Lessons series, in honor of the Sorrento's 100th birthday, is subtitled "The Study of the American Cocktail." Since summertime, the hotel's mahogany-paneled bar has hosted bartender-experts from near and far to spread the good word of the rebirth of the craft cocktail. Twelve barstools' worth of people pay $50 each for education, cocktails, and snacks (to assist with education and cocktail absorption).
The media was asked to seat itself boy-girl-boy-girl. The man on my left was Tan Vinh of the Seattle Times (outfitted with a special Seattle Times–logo'd reporter's notebook), while on my right was Murray Stenson (redoubtable Zig Zag bartender, prior Drinking Lessons instructor, understated charmer). On my coaster: Henny Youngman, in the form of a quote: "When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading." A member of the media poured herself a large tumblerful of pisco (a powerful Peruvian liquor) from a bottle on the bar, thinking it was water, and took a very surprising gulp. Hilarity ensued. Pisco is distilled from grapes, its history wreathed in transcontinental legend: the innovations of Peruvian peasants, the celebrations of California gold-rush miners.
The pisco authority, Duggan McDonnell of Cantina in San Francisco, describes himself in his bio as "a renaissance individual" who "believes wholly in the Beverage Lifestyle." McDonnell had just returned from a Beverage Lifestyle–related trip to Peru. As he detailed the history of pisco, a bottle made its way around the bar for traditional tasting: a shared glass, each pouring for the next except for ladies, who (chivalry lives, hence the seating arrangement) should never have to pour a drink. (The emphasis was heavily on the Lesson rather than the Drinking; a Philistine might have found the hour-long circumnavigation of the pisco excruciating. Due to the abstemious atmosphere, the snacks—truffle fries, pistachios, olives—went largely untouched.) Pisco—best known in the pisco sour, which was not served—is fiery and faintly floral. The highly praised Encanto pisco was, it emerged, produced by McDonnell himself. He plans to market it worldwide.
For hour two, Neyah White of San Francisco's Nopa expounded on the economics of barrels, the chemistry of yeast, and the lapstrake European history of Scotch and sherry. (Yeast is "like The Force—it's all around us," he said, his eyes shining.) Illustrative samples of Scotch and sherry were administered, and, finally, the Barrel to Barrel cocktail, deploying both (along with Nocino walnut liqueur) in a strikingly chocolaty concoction. Stenson said, in summation: "Alcohol and education—a great combination!" Class was dismissed, out to catch the last of the sun.
Drinking Lessons, www.nightnightnight.com