For some people, a party is a great excuse for a cooking adventure. For Gene Gualtieri, a soiree is a fine excuse for another kind of quest: his pursuit of the perfect cocktails.
Bring on the bags of fresh lemons for squeezing! Special-order the aged rye and rare Italian vermouth! Polish the crystal and steep fresh cherries in brandy! There will be no lurid red, jarred maraschinos sullying his Manhattans.
"They're a pollutant," he shudders. "My fresh cherries are the treat at the end of my drink."
Gualtieri's exacting standards are his guests' good fortune. By day, the Philadelphian may be an imaging scientist with a background in nuclear physics. But at night, he morphs into a home mixologist extraordinaire, inspired by some of the city's best bar pros (and his own "research") to pursue a hobby that is tailor-made to please a crowd with its blend of liquid alchemy and showmanship.
His 40th birthday present? He got to bartend his own party! His wife's 40th birthday present? He got to bartend her bash, too, his freshly shaved dome buffed to a gleam, his cocktail shaker a silvery blur as a stream of guests diligently sipped their way through the 25-drink menu taped to his bar.
Whether it was a textbook Red Hook or a stellar twist on the French 75 (subbing cognac for the usual gin), mixing drinks fulfills an innate hospitality instinct that Gualtieri says he inherited from his mother, Lola, an outgoing host and accomplished cook.
"I'm not a chef, so I can't do that," he says. "But this is something I can do . . . that one thing I can take a little extra care with."
What makes Gualtieri's amateur cocktail exploits so special are the same traits that distinguish the best pros - his dogged pursuit of the best spirits, a wonkish obsession with cocktail history and miscellany, and a zeal to produce as many homemade mixers as possible, from pumpkin ale liqueur to fresh grenadine, a growing trend in local bars.
"It's just a matter of using the best ingredients you can find," says Katie Loeb of Chick's Cafe in Bella Vista, where she has been a proponent of the house-made mixer movement. She makes everything from ginger beer to a lime cordial that substitutes for the typical Rose's mixer she likens to "lime-flavored furniture polish."
Loeb has also experimented with simple syrups infused with herbs, like the honeyed sage elixir that sweetens her Blackberry Beret. Named in honor of Prince, this blackberry vodka-grapefruit drink gets topped with a "spanked" leaf of sage, the herb smacked between her palms ("Bad sage! Naughty sage!") before being floated atop the cocktail. No wonder Loeb calls herself a "bartendrix."
"It's all about releasing the oils and aromas," she said coolly after making one for Gualtieri one Saturday night.
The herb-spanking was an eyebrow-raiser for Gualtieri, who has spent most of his quality bar time at old-school Southwark in Queen Village, where owner Kip Waide and bartender George Costa have become his gurus in the classics. Gualtieri got his grenadine recipe from Costa, who steeps it from pomegranate molasses, pomegranate juice, and orange blossom water.
Southwark has also nurtured Gualtieri's fascination for the vast world of ryes (he now has nine), various vermouths, obscurities like Luxardo maraschino liqueur, and the myriad shades of bitters essential to any pre-Prohibition repertoire.
"Gene's more into it than most," Costa says of the growing number of home cocktail aficionados. "He's always asking, 'What's new?', always trying to figure out how to make his drinks taste right."
Two keys to producing pro-level cocktails at home? Fresh vermouth is essential to a good Manhattan, Costa says, as old vermouth too often is oxidized. He also suggests using bagged ice, which melts faster in the shaker than big cubes from a home freezer, emphasizing the alcohol's natural sweetness.
It helps, of course, to have a cocktail repertoire as big as Costa's, with as many as 400 recipes in his head. Gualtieri has mastered 25, but stashes 75 more nearby on his iPhone. A beginner might want to attempt no more than four at one party, or adopt Gualtieri's clever trick: for Christmas, he's planning a punch to keep the waits for special-order drinks at bay.
But more important than any of these techniques or acquiring the rare ingredients, Costa says, is to master the right attitude. Too many cocktail geeks, he said, become competitive, know-it-all bores.
"You can't take this too seriously," he says. "Because the hardest part of this job is not mixing the drinks. It's learning grace behind the bar, and how to talk to people. It's about making it look easy."
It's a message that resonates with Gualtieri, who aspires to become so smooth that his guests will stop asking if he minds being stuck behind the bar.
"I love getting to mingle, but this way I get to a see little of everyone," he says.
One drink at a time.
Frankie's Brandied Cherries
Makes enough to garnish about 20 drinks
1 pound dark, sweet cherries, pitted
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 cinnamon sticks
1 1/4 cups brandy
1. Put the sugar, water, lemon juice and cinnamon sticks in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add the cherries (if you can't find and pit fresh cherries, a can of pitted Bing cherries in syrup, drained, isn't bad). Simmer for five minutes.
2. Remove from the heat, toss the cinnamon, and stir in the brandy. Will keep in the fridge for a week or two.
George Costa's Grenadine
Makes enough for 36 cocktails
8 ounces pomegranate juice
1 cup sugar, superfine
2 ounces pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon orange flower water (See note)
1 ounce vodka
1. Add the juice to the sugar and dissolve well.
2. Add the molasses, orange flower water, vodka and shake. Will keep in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
Note: Orange flower water and pomegranate molasses are available at Bitar's, 947 Federal St., 215-755-1121. EndText
Katie Loeb's Honey Sage Syrup
Makes 2-3 cups syrup or enough for 20-24 drinks
2 cups honey, divided
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup plucked sage leaves
1. Bring 1 cup honey and 1 cup water to a boil, add sage leaves, and simmer for five minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water and simmer for another five minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes.
2. Put into a blender, careful to hold down the lid with a kitchen towel, and blend until pureed. Cool overnight and strain through a fine-meshed sieve.
3. Blend the remaining cup honey with one cup hot water until combined. Combine with the sage-infused syrup. Keep in the fridge for up to one month.EndText
Makes one drink
2 ounces rye whiskey
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed orange juice
1/2 ounce grenadine
1. Shake the ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
2. Garnish with a cherry.EndText
Katie Loeb's Blackberry Beret
Makes one drink EndTextStartText
2 ounces blackberry-flavored vodka (other berry flavors can be used)
3/4 ounce honey-sage syrup (see accompanying recipe)
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1 1/2 ounces fresh grapefruit juice
1 sage leaf for garnish, "spanked" to orderEndTextStartText
1. Mix the first four ingredients, shake over ice, and strain into a cocktail glass.
2. Garnish with a sage leaf, first smacked between your palms ("spanked") to release its oils.EndText