A Brief History of Redbird’s Cocktail Program

What’s really, really old is new again (or so says barman Julian Cox)

According to Julian Cox, Downtown is looking for something new to drink. The barman had worked at the recently closed Rivera for six years, so he would probably know. But for his cocktail program at Redbird–the new restaurant from chef Neal Fraser, Amy Knoll Fraser, and Bill Chait, which officially opens on Wednesday–Cox, instead of introducing something completely brand-new, decided to go with old, really old, to complement the historic Vibiana cathedral where Redbird is located.

For his opening cocktail menu, Cox and his crew of bartenders, which include bar manager Tobin Shea and Soigné Group’s Nick Meyer, decided to resurrect long-forgotten cocktails. We’re talking drinks that were the overlooked supporting players to well-known classics like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned. This involved digging up recipes from reprints of old cocktail books ranging from Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks (1862) to Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1947).

“We went through more books than I can even count,” Cox says. “Most of them are from the birth of cocktails.”

But it wasn’t as easy as it is with recipes nowadays where you pull up something on your iPad and follow that. Rather, replicating these vintage drinks involved a sort of cocktail archaeology, making sense of vague measurements and finding adequate stand-ins to long-lost spirits. However, thanks to the micro-distilling movement nowadays, with small companies recreating vintage product, we’re getting to taste things that haven’t been tasted in a long time. “Some of these cocktails we’re going to make almost for the first time again. That’s kind of exciting,” says Cox.

One such obscure ingredient is kümmel, a caraway and fennel liqueur, that was used in the KCB, a cocktail that dates back to 1963. “I don’t think anyone has made that drink in a very long period of time, like, ever. There wasn’t any good kümmel on the market,” says Cox. But that’s no longer an issue with companies like Combier and Helbing producing quality kümmel.

Here’s a walk-through of some of the Redbird cocktails that Cox is most excited about.

Alice Mine (Recipes for Mixed Drinks, 1916): “This is one of those cocktails that’s been mentioned a few times, but it dates back to 1916. Again, it’s one of those drinks that has that one ingredient that you need to make it all work. The kümmel in this is awesome. Just a fun drink to taste the difference,” says Cox.

KCB (Leo Cotton, 1963): “This is the one we have been getting the most response for and what I was a little nervous about putting on the menu because caraway and fennel are not the most agreeable to everybody in terms of flavor profiles. I thought it was delicious. The clarified lemon just lets the kümmel shine in it,” says Cox. The drink when first presented looks like a shaken drink, but after a minute of settling it clears up.

The Good Bishop (Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks, 1869): Inspired by the corbezzolo honey chef Steve Samson used at Sotto: “It’s really hard to find corbezzolo, so we got buckwheat honey that has a lot of the same characteristics, a lot drier, and there are bitter elements. We actually had to put more honey than we thought in that cocktail to get it to be balanced as it was acidic. And that’s why you taste a lot of the honey but it’s not overtly sweet,” says Shea. Because the honey is bitter and not as sweet as your everyday honey, it lends cool, bitter elements to the drink.

Mint Chocolate Chip: This original cocktail will actually be one of a series of dessert drinks available on the menu. “We’re trying to bring back dessert cocktails. There’s going to be a lot of classic desserts, like pineapple upside-down cake, German chocolate, Baked Alaska,” says Cox.

Redbird opens Wednesday. Hours will be Tuesday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

redarrow Redbird, 114 E. 2nd St., Downtown, 213-626-1507