Craft Cocktails Reach the Queen of American Lakes
Over the last decade, as the brash young mixologists of the cocktail renaissance have gotten older, started families, and bought country homes, I’ve watched as craft cocktail culture has slowly inched ever northward along the Hudson Valley.
Natasha David and Jeremy Oertel, who between them bartended at such Manhattan bars as Maison Premiere, Mayahuel, Donna and Nitecap (which David co-owned), have started cocktail programs at Lola Pizza and the Kinsley Hotel in Kingston, not far from their home in Red Hook. Jessica Gonzalez, who made drinks at Death & Co. and Nomad, and now lives upstate, has revamped the cocktail menus at the historic, and historically expensive, Mohunk Mountain House; and handled the beverages at the Liberty Street Bistro and Jet Set, both in Newburgh. Gonzalez also worked with Lynnette Marrero on the drinks at Wonderbar in Beacon. And Cochecton Fire Station, on the Delaware River in the western Catskills, is run by Josiah Early and Ezekiel Miller, both of whom put in time at Flatiron Lounge. (The bar is housed is an actual former fire station.)
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One of the first New York cocktail figures to venture north of New York was Sasha Petraske, famed founder of the Manhattan speakeasy Milk & Honey. He was, in fact, working on the cocktails at Wm. Farmer and Sons in Hudson, New York, a restaurant owned by the husband-and-wife team of William Kirby Farmer and Kristan Keck, when he tragically passed away in 2015 at the too-young age of 42. Wm. Farmer was his final cocktail program.
After Petraske passed, the beverage program in Beacon was picked up by Richard Boccato, a longtime Petraske associate. The two were co-founders of Dutch Kills in Queens.
Wm. Farmer is still going strong. The drinks list still bears Petraske’s mark. It is a mix of classics and cocktails invented at Milk & Honey, Dutch Kills and other bars founded by Petraske.
Now, Farmer, Keck and Boccato have nudged New York cocktail culture even closer to the Canadian border. In June, the three, along with Boccato’s wife Patricia (who has family roots in the area), have opened The Gem in a charming shingle and clapboard structure along Lake Shore Drive in Bolton Landing, just along the western shore of Lake George. Next to it is Little Gem, a boutique liquor store that most certainly carries the best booze selection in the area.
There’s nothing I like better than finding a craft cocktail in the wild. It’s like plucking a four-leaf clover in a field of dandelions. You just can’t believe your luck. There’s also something life-affirming about enjoying a sophisticated drink far away from the world’s hectic hubs of sophistication which, let’s face it, can be rather enervating. And so I dearly hoped, during a recent visit with friends in the Lake George area, that a visit to The Gem would be on the agenda. Since my host was a cocktail-minded type, he didn’t take much convincing.
The name of the restaurant and store, by the way, alludes to the Lake George islands of Gem and Little Gem near Bolton Landing. (The lake boasts more than one hundred islands, most of them owned by the state.) The modest building has the charming look of something that has been a business of some kind stretching back to the 19th century. Most recently, it had been the Sagamore Pub, but it had been left unoccupied for some years.
The long back bar will be familiar to anyone who has ever been to Dutch Kills. Hanging in front of every bottle is a number indicated the price per serving. The drinks list, too, has Boccato’s fingerprints on it. It is a mix of classics, modern classics, and modern spins on old drinks. Each item is adorned by a footnote, detailing the historical provenance of each cocktail.
A few observations on the drinks:
The Gibson is made with Citadelle gin and sports housemate cocktail onions. I admit I was surprised when I saw my Gibson order would cost me more than a Martini because the onions came with a $2 surcharge. What kind of cocktail onion costs $2? Then I realized the drink came with a little ramekin full of onions that you can snack on while you drink, and I calmed down.
It’s great to see a Ramos Gin Fizz on the menu anywhere, let along in the Adirondacks. But Gem’s Ramos would rate as unusual even at the trendiest of New York bars. It is not shaken, but blended in flush-mount countertop blenders that are built into the Brazilian soapstone bar top. A specific amount of crushed ice is used to arrive at the proper water content. It is made with pasteurized egg white powder, which Bocatto says lends a smooth and creamy aspect to the cocktail. It also eliminates the waste of disposing of egg yolks. Another ingredient unique to the recipe is the chef’s house-made charcoal salt.
The Mai Tai is made with orgeat made by Orgeat Works, a Brooklyn company. Yet, the use of it is a nod to the local community as well; Adam Kolesar, the owner of Orgeat Works, has a place nearby, and makes some orgeat locally.
Don't miss the short list of dessert cocktails hiding at the back of the menu, including the McKittrick Old-Fashioned, an old favorite by former Milk & Honey bartender Theo Lieberman from back in the day; and the Dominicana, a rare original by Petraske himself. It’s a simple drink he came up with to counter order for White Russians, a cocktail he didn’t care for. It’s equal parts aged rum and coffee liqueur, served up with a float of sweet whipped cream. I’m with Sasha. I like it better than a White Russian, too!
All the drinks were made and/or served with Hundredweight Ice, a custom-made-and-cut ice company Boccato runs in Brooklyn. This brings the story of fresh cocktail ice full circle in the United States. In the 19th century, ice was cut out of lakes in New England and upstate New York and then shipped down to the cities. Now, Hundredweight is ferried upstate from New York City.
The ice gets to Bolton Landing by way of a kind of relay. Ice is set to Wm. Farmer & Sons, and then some of that ice is transported to Lake George. You’ll see some ice-cutting tools, looking very old school indeed, hanging behind the bar. It is, in fact, the very same ice-cutting station that once stood behind the bar at Dutch Kills, said Boccato.
So, when you order a drink at The Gem, take a moment to appreciate that crystalline cube as it floats in your Old-Fashioned. It took a lot of work to get that cube in your glass!
(The house Old-Fashioned, by the way, is served Dutch Kills style—simple, austere, strong, with long bunny ears twist of orange and lemon. The menu states that the Old-Fashioned has been declared “the absolute best Old-Fashioned in New York.” I have no idea who could have said such a thing.)
The fare here is barbecue, which Farmer, a tall, friendly North Carolinian, told me he he had never tried his hand at before this. That is strange, since he has knocked it out of the park on his first try. He is producing some of the best barbecue I’ve tried outside of the South.
We indulged in the Family Combo, which included “St. Louis” ribs, brisket, a half a chicken, smoked beer bratwurst, and pulled pork (these are all available as sandwiches as well, save the ribs); and sides of pulled pork and beans, coleslaw, potato salad and “Kansas City cheesy corn.” There wasn’t a weak link on the metal serving tray. All were served with pickles, potato rolls and a choice of four sauces: Texas red, Georgia mustard, Alabama white (great with the chicken) and a unique creation called Carolina Copper.
There was also a little gem salad on the menu. How could there not be?
Odds and Ends…
Sad news out of Cincinnati. Molly Wellman, the cocktail queen of the Queen City, has sold Japp’s, the cocktail bar she has run over the past 12 years. She will be staying in the area “doing private classes, events, bourbon tastings, history talks, book writing, bar consulting, guest bartending and whatever else comes my way.” Wellmann has in the past mentioned to me a book on Cincinnati bar history that she has been slowly working on. Perhaps it will now be finished!… Trick Dog, the San Francisco cocktail bar, unveiled its 17th thematic menu on July 8. Titled “In Good Spirits,” each cocktail is paired with a poem selected by Katharine Ogle, and an illustration by Alyssa Rusin… Bartender and bar owner Natasha David is holding a “Keep Our Clinics” fundraiser. Among the items being auctioned off are books, furniture, hotel stays, food and jewelry. Winners will be announced at the end of Monday, July 11 (today!). A $20 donation gets you a chance to win… Apotheke, the Chinatown speakeasy most famous for occasionally setting its bar on fire, will be moving uptown to a new location. It’s new address is 9 West 26th Street in the Nomad area of Manhattan. Nicolas O’Conner is behind the cocktail menu… The holiday Lightscape will return to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden this holiday season, beginning November 16 and running through January 8. This fall promises to be rocky. We will need all the yuletide magic we can get.