Just what San Francisco needed - a $650 cocktail.
Twenty-one floors above the ground at Harry Denton's Starlight Room, it's no longer just the beautiful view that will turn your head.
Sidle up to the bar and if you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Jacques Bezuidenhout mixing a drink into a giant Champagne flute. From one hand, a rust- colored, infused Armagnac streams out of what can only be described as a beaker reminiscent of seventh-grade science class. From the other, bubbles cascade over the lip of a bottle of Dom Perignon. But this is more than just your average Champagne cocktail.
The price tag: $650.
The cocktail is called Drinking the Stars, one of four "million-dollar cocktails" Bezuidenhout introduced two months ago. Ranging from $80 to $650 in price, the drinks blend super premium spirits like Louis XIII de Remy Martin Cognac and Herradura Selection Supreme tequila with mixers like walnut liqueur and a South African red-herb rooibos tea. Bezuidenhout is the Starlight Room's master mixologist, which is essentially a fancy term for bartender. The difference, he says, lies in his passion.
"I'm not just a frustrated actor or musician biding my time here," Bezuidenhout says. "This is my career, and I take it seriously."
Of his price-bending cocktails, Bezuidenhout recommends starting with the Heavenly Dram.
"At $80," he says with a chuckle, "it's the most affordable of the four, so it's usually the first one people choose to get their feet wet."
A better selling point is that Heavenly Dram showcases the Mac Allan's 25- year-old single-malt Scotch. The depth of character -- smoke, citrus, dried fruit, cloves and toffee -- makes it a difficult spirit to blend, yet Bezuidenhout has discovered a worthy partner: Garvey Pedro Ximenez Sherry 1860. It tastes and smells like a perfect raisin, and the sweetness counteracts the smokiness of the whisky beautifully. He mixes the whisky and sherry with lemon juice and honey-flavored simple syrup, chills the drink ever so slightly, and serves it in an oversize martini glass.
The Elegance cocktail is also on the "low" end, selling for $90. The starring spirit is Herradura Selection Supreme. Its tequila, although Bezuidenhout doesn't like to refer to it that way, saying it's on a different level.
"The Herradura is really more like Cognac ," he says.
A touch of Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes, a sweet wine, floats on top of the Herradura; the two are not mixed. Bezuidenhout stresses the importance of tasting the flavors on different levels.
"You can take a sip," he says, "and your next sip will taste slightly different as a new flavor emerges."
The hardest part in creating this drink, Bezuidenhout says, was finding a mixer with which to finish it. He wanted something that would bring out the citrus flavors, but would not overpower the anejo (aged) tequila and Sauternes. What he ended up with was rooibos tea and orange bitters. It works strangely well.
His other two drinks are as much about show as sip.
Angels Share showcases Louis XIII de Remy Martin Cognac . Cognac is aged in barrels, and the evaporation that floats up is called the "angel's share," hence the cocktail name.
The spirit is mixed with Domain Char bay's Nostalgia Black Walnut Liqueur and Porto Rocha 20 Year Old Tawny. The fun, however, comes in the form of green Chartreuse VEP, an herbal liqueur made by monks of the Order of the Chartreuse. The 110-proof alcohol in this liqueur would probably be enough to produce hallucinations. Here, however, Bezuidenhout simply coats a snifter with Chartreuse VEP before mixing the drink, and then sets the whole thing on fire. The temperature contrast between the hot glass and cool liquid is exciting, but beware of burned lips - it's quite a juggling act to drink it.
That leaves drinking the Stars, the most expensive concoction. It's sold in two sizes -- $375 for a 750 ml bottle of 1996 Dom Perignon Champagne and $650 for a magnum (the equivalent of two bottles). The table is left with the remainder of the bottle after its first use.
To make this drink, Bezuidenhout infuses 1979 Chateau de Ravignan Armagnac with Madagascar vanilla bean, orange peel and raisin, which sweeten the Armagnac . The spirit is poured directly into flutes, and finished with Champagne . Bezuidenhout leaves the infused Armagnac and the bubbly at the table, so customers can mix their drinks to their liking once the first glasses are finished.
So who's buying these drinks?
"Exactly who you'd expect," says Bezuidenhout. "Mostly celebrities, musicians and wealthy men looking to impress their dates."
So far, he says, only about half of the people who order the cocktails actually care about the ingredients.
"It's a status thing, and most people can't afford to indulge." But that's OK with him. "I'd hate for these to become the next Cosmopolitans," he says, laughing, "because bartenders would inevitably butcher them."
For now, Bezuidenhout is happily selling a few of these cocktails each week, and hopes that people will appreciate the quality.
At $650 a pop, one can only hope.
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