Michael Waterhouse , co-owner of Dylan Prime steakhouse in New York's trendy Tribeca neighborhood, is giving a whole new meaning to dinner and drinks. His bar concoctions have customers not so much skipping dessert as drinking it. Pie a la Mode, Peach Cobbler and ten other familiar pies and cakes make up the dessert cocktail list at the restaurant.
"With a steakhouse, you are so full but you still want dessert -- a little bit of something sweet," Waterhouse says. "This is liquid so it's not that filling. But people say 'Oh my god, it tastes just like it.'"
The drinks were so well received that he has already trademarked the terms "Caketails" and "Pie-tini."
Waterhouse is one of many bar experts who will be speaking or hosting demonstrations at Tales of the Cocktail (July 19-23). Seminars and parties feature a collection of bar professionals, aficionados and food and spirit writers who are driving the burgeoning craft cocktail movement. The four-year-old event started out by focusing on cocktail recipes and bar lore but has grown and spilled over into culinary areas and subjects like entertaining, party planning and design.
Waterhouse's dessertinis are remarkable for a combination of flavor and technique. Shots with funny names and flavors are nothing new and bartenders have come up with all sorts of mixes for shooters like the Girl Scout Cookie or Wedding Cake, which are sweet and taste like what they are named for. But Waterhouse has pushed the envelop by making a layered drink in a martini glass that offers the same flavor from start to finish.
"I found that heavy cream slightly sweetened will float above liquor really well," he says.
A martini glass tilts in a way that allows both the liquor on the bottom and the cream to reach the rim, offering the taste of both layers with every sip. Waterhouse also rims the glass with appropriate garnishes, like graham crackers to simulate a pie crust. At his Tales of the Cocktail seminar (3 p.m. Saturday, July 22, Hotel Monteleone, $25), he'll show how to make the drinks and offer samples.
Waterhouse came up with the idea in the fall of 2004 when a friend suggested he come up with a menu of holiday drinks. He set out to create a pumpkin pie cocktail but canned pumpkin and vodka never went well together. Instead, he came up with Pie a la Mode. It had an apple liqueur base, similar to an apple martini, and a layer of sweetened cream on top, meant to taste like ice cream.
From there, he created Key Lime Pie, Lemon Meringue Pie and Peach Cobbler. Then things got a little fancier. The German Chocolate Cake used Godiva liqueur as a base with Malibu Rum for coconut flavor and Frangelico for a nutty flavor. He added the sweetened cream and served it in a glass rimmed with toasted coconut shavings. Once he got the pattern down, it was simple, he says. Many popular desserts are now on the list, including Pineapple Upside-down Cake, Strawberry Cheesecake, Tiramisu and the most challenging in the bunch, Carrot Cake, a mix of carrot juice, cinnamon, Goldschlager and Licor 43, a vanilla liqueur.
The drinks caught on fast and diners from neighboring places were moving to Dylan Prime for rounds of dessert drinks. Other restaurants started offering versions as well, which Waterhouse took as flattery, but he did send a cease and desist order when a chain restaurant put his trademarked terms on their menus. But what he hopes to share with participants at his seminar is that the drinks are actually easy to make.
"They're not that difficult at all. Three or four layers is hard but these are just two. The key to the drink is getting the proportions right for the flavor," he says.
Waterhouse is in the midst of opening a second New York restaurant and he will be taking a more classical approach to the bar there. Dylan Prime uses fresh ingredients and he trains the bartenders to entertain guests with a little showmanship. But the new restaurant will go further with bar service. The staff will make their own syrups, like bitters and a pomegranate syrup instead of using bottled Grenadine. They'll marinate their own maraschino cherries and eventually pickle their own olives. The bar will also revive classic cocktail recipes. And while it takes longer to muddle fruit for drinks, that's the kind of drinks and service he wants. The attention to detail is more involved than a high volume bar would want, but he believes that's what customers will want.
"Anything good is worth the wait. People will wait for a souffl. It takes time but it's worthwhile," he says. "It's just like a pint of Guinness. A properly poured Guinness takes time to pour. You pour some, you wait, then you go back and pour another layer."
He says that cocktail appreciation is coming, just like Americans have gained appreciation for finer wines and microbrewed beers in recent decades.
Robert Hess, a Microsoft engineer from Seattle who became interested in cocktail history and will be at Tales of the Cocktail, agrees. He points out that many classic cocktails have been twisted beyond recognition by simplification. The first thing he says bars should do is get rid of the sour mix. Since many cocktails call for simple syrup and lemon juice, it makes sense to combine them, but it also creates a one-taste-fits-all proposition. Not all cocktails call for the same proportions and bars usually don't stock a range of citrus juices. Hess says that reviving classic drinks requires getting back to basics and learning to mix drinks again.
The concept of a cocktail used to come with the understanding that it included a liquor plus bitters, a sweetener and water. If it didn't include bitters, then it was not considered a cocktail. The Sazerac was an early cocktail, though many area bars no longer add the bitters. Martinis are another drink that have seen the bitters disappear from the standard preparation. Hess says people don't know what they are missing.
"Bitters in a cocktail plays the same role as salt in soup. You don't want it to taste salty, but without salt it doesn't taste right," he says.
The craft cocktail movement is mixing an emphasis on freshness with a little history. While Waterhouse is busy creating new drinks, others are researching old ones. The golden age of the cocktail was from the late 1800s when distilling advances started to generate better spirits until Prohibition closed the bars in 1920. Most bartenders found other work or moved to Europe, effectively killing off a lot of knowledge. But there are recipe books and menus and odd notes in journals that offer insight into how drinks used to be made. Bartenders were often referred to as "chemists" not because they mixed drinks, but because they made their own syrups and mixers. Restaurant and bar owners are returning to that approach to make better drinks.
"At the end of the day, fresh is better. You get a better cocktail," says Waterhouse. "You've got to give people something that will make them come back."
For more information about Tales of the Cocktail events visit www.talesofthecocktail.com.