Meeting my cousin David Wolowidnyk is like going to Cocktail University. Having a few of his drinks and discussing them with him is akin to getting a degree from said university.
My main interest in beverages these days is in mocktails. This isn't new. I've accompanied some of my best and priciest meals with mocktails: Justin Lord's mocktails at Per Se were considerably better than the ludicrously expensive food there, and the mocktails accompanying my meal at Jose Andre's equally hard to get into and equally expensive E restaurant in the bowels of Jaleo in Vegas were infinitely better than its world-altering food. One drink in particular, made from pear nectar, green tea (despite 17 years in Japan, I have no tolerance for green tea) and "jasmine air" (whatever that is) remains the finest beverage that has ever passed my lips. The finest cocktail was also in Vegas, a passion fruit sour that accompanied the John Dory at Pierre Gagnaire's (the guy who turned Fernan Adria, for several years considered the world's best chef and Jose Andres' mentor, on to molecular gastronomy) Twist restaurant, also in Vegas. If you see a theme emerging here, it is that I have found Vegas to be the source of the best tastes I've ever encountered, and I've put a lot of effort into finding such tastes in the past decade. I'll be in Vegas for the 6th time in a couple of weeks. In particular, I'll be attending something called For the Love of the Cocktail with master mixologists Tony Abou-Ganim, Salvatore Calabrese and Francesco LaFranconi, in between my usual sublime dinners at Le Cirque, Guy Savoy, et al. So I had some prep to do. Just today, I got The Everyday Guide to Spirits and Cocktails: Tastes and Traditions from the library and will study its 6 lectures anon. But back to my cousin...
David certainly has the right genes. His mother Sonia, technically a cousin but more an elder sister since she moved to California when I still lived there in the mid-60s, turned me on to the great Ukrainian food that never interested my mother, who never stopped denying her Ukrainian heritage though her mother spoke ONLY Ukrainian and made some great borscht on the few occasions I met her. I lived with Sonia's parents when I returned to Saskatchewan in 1969 and her mother, my aunt Kay made the best pastry I've ever tasted. So good taste buds run deep in David's family.
My interest in beverages goes back at least to 1959 when I began attending a discussion group where the only available beverage was coffee. It was new to me, and it was delicious. The following year my family was making its regular trek from LA back to Saskatchewan and we stopped in Montana. I recall it was very cold, even though it was mid-summer. On the telly, maybe a political convention? Something relevant to the US presidential election that dominated the news that year. I had a cup of tea to warm me up. It instantly became my favourite beverage, and remains so to this day. Never went back to coffee. In the early 60s I did a lot of experimenting with different kinds of tea, both hot and iced. I still try new teas all the time. A universe of flavours one can never exhaust. Alcohol wasn't part of my beverage diet until I moved to Japan in 1971 and had no choice. Like green tea, you aren't asked whether you want it or not- There it is! Drink or die of thirst! But I never actually liked any alcoholic beverages until David turned me on to cocktails a decade ago. And that was also a slow process. The first cocktail he served me at his previous restaurant West was an alcoholic borscht, "in honour of our shared Ukrainian heritage" he told me. I preferred the actual soup. Next, he tried to interest me in a cocktail that tasted just like pumpkin pie. I preferred the pie. But gradually in visits to West, he introduced me to drinks that actually tasted good. More than good. One, called the Jolie Coure won him World's Most Innovative Bartender honours and certainly deserved to. He made it with and without alcohol for my wife Fumiyo and I, and then mixed them up, so we couldn't tell which was which. That's what a great mocktail should do. If you miss the booze, the bartender isn't doing it right.
I had studied the list of mocktails on the Cin Cin website before venturing there. I looked forward to Buddha's cup: fresh pressed pineapple, lime, chamomile syrup and sugar; Orchard Breeze: apricot puree, lemon, sugar and orgeat; and finally Delizia: blueberry puree, lemon sugar and basil syrup. The best for me was the blueberry based beverage. I've been looking for a substitute for the sangria I've been guzzling since my last trip to Spain, and this was it! I drink a lot of blueberry juice anyway, and adding basil leaves really does eclipse sangria for my palate. I have loved apricots since growing up in LA (Applets and Cottlets for those who remember such candies) and mixing them with the almondy orgeat was quite inspired. I would never have guessed they would pair so well. I love pineapple in any form, but the addition of chamomile syrup didn't register. "You'd notice it if it were missing," David tells me. After the peary perfection at E, my 2nd favourite mocktail there was called Pineapple Upside Down Cake and it really made use of pineapple superbly, though not in the same taste pantheon as the pear mocktail. That's right- it Made Use of pineapple, this was just pineapple, with a bit of an addition, perhaps my palate isn't subtle enough to fully appreciate.
After the menu goodies, David made the best glass of ice tea I've ever had (and I drink a lot of ice tea). 3 parts orange pekoe, one part mango rooibos, plus the usual lemon and sugar. I must find mango rooibos somewhere and get into that. To the extent that I have a favourite fruit, it would probably be apples, and David then concocted an apply beverage that was the best non-alcoholic use of the beverage I have ever encountered. I love mulled cidre, full of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and allspice and this drink was indeed full of those spices. Made hot, and then cooled down, it reminded me of all the great mulled cidres I've drank over the decades, and my parents traditional Christmas wassail bowl with the cloved oranges bobbing about. I'm drinking a glass of Longueville sparkling apple juice now as I write. You don't have to be William Tell to know you can't lose with apples.
Next week it's back to the Keefer, Vancouver's most famous bar where Chinese herbs meet modern mixology. When my plane touches down in Vegas, and I meet its drink deities, I will certainly be prepared.
Thanks for the education, cousin.