A dynamic Saugerties bartender is shaking (or stirring) up the local scene with a reverence for forgone mixology techniques muddled by time. Mitch Kane, 28, is a font of boozy knowledge. He prides himself on knowing at least little bit about each bottle behind the bar and aims to know his regulars’ taste buds better than they do — both pointing out liquors for Kane to spout off facts about and entrusting him to surprise them with new drinks are common practice among his regulars.
The experience starts before you pull up a barstool. Fermenting in a jar before it reaches your glass are Kane’s bitters, a guarded recipe perfected over time. The bitters take three months and include 17 ingredients (a few elements: bay leaves, cloves and anise stars).
Kane made an original cocktail for local spiciness enthusiast Joey Naccarato, an insurance agent and Annarella’s regular. Kane muddles and boils down Thai chili peppers along with honey and agave into a simple syrup. He boils it down and presses a lime.
At the bar, after rinsing the glass with elderflower liqueur, he mixes the homemade ingredients with Cointreau and an ounce and a half of green chili-infused vodka and then garnishes the drink with sparkling ginger and “smacked” sage (the hard-handed treatment of the herb opens up the aromas). Kane wagers that he’s invented about 80 specialty drinks, two of which have been featured in Hudson Valley Magazine and most of which are carefully recorded in a binder under the bar.
I pulled up a seat, ordered a twist on a traditional gin fizz (embellished with lavender and homemade brandy cherries) and let Kane, house bartender at Annarella Ristorante and the Tuesday night barkeep at The Partition — pour me a shot of insight into the industry.
Christina Coulter: What eras were the best and worst for mixed drinks and why?
Mitch Kane: Worst by taste would probably be the period between the ’70s and the ’80s because vodka came about — that’s really where bar owners stopped caring about quality and cared more about profit. That’s when candied maraschino cherries came out, when vodka came out. [Bartenders reasoned] why muddle when you can use Smirnoff orange? That’s when bartenders got cheap. Worst era other than that for health: Prohibition, because people were making their own homemade stuff not knowing what they were doing and filling their stuff with cheap things that they didn’t know what they were. A lot of people died in that period. During that era, that was the highest amount Americans ever drank in the past hundred years. The best, I would say, just prior to Prohibition and possibly just after Prohibition for two reasons. Prior, [bartending] was a profession, it was really respected and they had a high respect for quality. Right after post-Prohibition, it’s because a lot of bartenders left the country and brought knowledge back to this country. We were more open-minded. Mojitos, Mai Tai’s — we brought back tropical cocktails. Back in those days, bartending was a respected profession. If you were a mechanic, you were a mechanic. If you were a bartender, you were a bartender.
What is your advice for someone who is interested in breaking into the industry? What books would you recommend?
MK: The second you think a 16-year-old barback can’t teach you anything about cocktails is the second you stop learning. One thing I always tell everyone: never look [for cocktail recipes] online. Wikipedia, anyone can have whatever, web results are never going to be a 100 percent accurate. I always tell everyone to have a [modern] bar book and a copy of the Mr. Boston Official Bartender Guide — [the Mr. Boston brand] makes sh—y booze, but they have the most traditional bar book you can get. You’re going to get those people who want the muddled bullsh-t Old Fashioned — use the new bar book for those people, it’s your job to read the person. If you want a good read about the history of bourbon, Bourbon Empire. It’s a really fun read, it doesn’t have any recipes in it but it tells you everything about bourbon down to the fact that the original guy, Captain George Thorpe, who is credited for inventing bourbon actually hosted the first Thanksgiving.
How do you make a proper Cosmopolitan?
[That’s contested] because of one thing — Cointreau. That, and people eat and drink with their eyes before they even taste things. So, people judge a Cosmo off color, whether or not you use too much cranberry juice. The second you see someone lift a bottle of triple sec instead of Cointreau, that’s when you know you’re not in a good bar.
Do you have a go-to ratio for a proper Martini? What kind of gin do you consider to be best?
MK: It’s my job to be the expert and coach the customer to what they like. The thing about gin is it’s pretty much flavored vodka and they are so many flavors. It’s up to the customer, and it’s my job to know what they like more than they know. The ratio should be three ounces gin, traditionally, or vodka and then a half ounce of vermouth. Nowadays a lot of people want a dry martini, but dry means different [things] to per customer. First thing I ask: “How dry? Do you want no vermouth at all or an in-and-out,” which means that you put vermouth in the glass, swirl it and dump it out? I find that’s the most popular trend nowadays. My go-to vermouth is Antica Formula for traditional cocktails — you don’t use that for a traditional martini. The second you see Antica Formula in a bar, you know you’re in a good bar.
What are your favorite and least favorite cocktail to make and why?
They’re the same drink: an Old Fashioned. So many people around here expect a bullsh–t old fashioned with candied cherries that have been deemed inedible by the FDA — it’s been deemed a garnish, not a food. At most bars, they’re going to muddle an orange and one of those bullsh–t cherries. The reason that you thought you should muddle that fruit: [older traditions dictate that] you use raw sugar cubes. You’d put a sugar cube in your shaker, three dashes of bitters, three dashes of water. Basically you’re making Angostura bitters simple syrup. Then traditionally it’s with rye whiskey, not bourbon, which a lot of people don’t realize. Most bars have one rye if they’re lucky and nine different bourbons. Someone hears whiskey and there’s a 90 percent chance that they pick up a bourbon rather than rye. Even though it’s a process to make a traditional Old Fashioned, I love making it and enjoy that someone is bringing back traditional cocktails. A traditional Old Fashioned is meant to have the oils of the orange, not the juices. You’re muddling the sugar cube instead of the orange and cherry. Once you pour it over the ice you use an orange suave and the oils are supposed to be up top, not the juices. It’s supposed to be garnished with a brandy cherry — an aged cherry as opposed to a candied cherry. Another fun fact — the Old Fashioned got its name because prior to this, when they started making cocktails pre-Prohibition, the old timers who just drank whiskey, they heard people talking about cocktails and they said, “No, give me the old fashioned cocktail.” What that meant was “pour me a glass of whiskey.” If you look it up in the dictionary, an Old Fashioned is a combination of sugar, bitters, water and a spirit.
Are there any common misconceptions about bartending or classic cocktails?
You know how often we get, “Oh, what’s your real job?” What people don’t realize about bartenders that take it as a career. They don’t realize that it’s not just a waitress at a diner. It’s, we take it as an art and we’re lucky enough if we have the right boss to let us play with our creativity. Also, I hate the term mixologist, I think that’s the term that someone can call you, but I hate anyone who calls themselves that.
What are some emerging cocktail trends? What is the future of the mixed drink?
Trends: garnishes are getting way, way more creative than they ever have … With social media it’s more of a camera focus. People forget that garnish is an ingredient; the orange suave is an ingredient.
Another cocktail trend — smoking. I have a smoking gun where I burn different flavors like woodchips to infuse spirits, sometimes whiskey itself or I’ll infuse a syrup I make myself homemade and sometimes I’ll even just smoke the glass to order. I’ll smoke the glass, let it sit and rest, put in one large homemade ice cube and pour it over that. When I serve it, smoke is pouring out.
These cocktail machines in airports that can pour mixed drinks, some people are afraid that they’re make bartenders obsolete. There’s no way — a bartender has a certain touch, and they’re also your therapist. [Customers] come to the bar to talk about their cocktail, or about their bad day.
Kane’s Instagram, where he catalogues his intoxicating creations, can be found at kane_mitch.