Cocktail Power

Behind closed wooden shutters on the ground floor of a nondescript hotel on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv, an authentic Victorian bar works its magic.

The hands of the clock pointed to six, the hour when all the world’s drinkers come out to refresh body and soul with the help of a magical glass. Wise foreigners call it “happy hour,” whereas in the White City of Tel Aviv, hardly anyone honors its sanctity. We were walking down Trumpeldor Street on the way to Hayarkon Street and the seashore, when a neon sign attracted our attention. “Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar,” the sign flashed temptingly, and a new hope stole into the heart of a drinker and fool. We entered. The new cocktail bar is located on the ground floor of a tiny, nondescript hotel we had never noticed. We sat at the bar and looked around.

Wooden shutters sealed off the small space from the outside world, creating a cool and welcome darkness. From one of the walls, which are covered with dark wallpaper decorated with golden tigers, the dour portrait of Queen Victoria, dressed in lace, stared at us. A barman in a bowtie − it’s well known that drinks taste better when served by people who are elegantly dressed − poured us a glass of watermelon-scented cold water. We asked for a Bloody Mary, a good way to stimulate the gastric juices before dinner, and drank the best Bloody Mary we’ve ever had in Israel: precise and rich in balanced sour umami-spicy flavors.

“Sensational!” we thought to ourselves happily (an expression and a sentiment that were especially popular with the Her Majesty’s subjects during the Victorian era), “even old Bertie, the impulsive crown prince who, like most members of his generation, was sloshed from morning to night, would approve of this good drink.”

We immediately ordered a Red Snapper − some people claim that the cocktail, based on gin instead of vodka, is the early ancestor of the Bloody Mary − and enjoyed that as well.

We returned the next day, at the same magical happy hour when you pay for one cocktail and get to drink two. The strains of jazz emerged from the sophisticated sound system, and a person could easily imagine herself dancing a flighty Charleston. Echoes of the outside world − traffic on crowded Hayarkon Street and awareness of the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy building nearby − kept their distance.

This time we delivered ourselves into the hands of one of the barmen, a different guy, just as elegantly dressed, who wore gold cufflinks in his starched white shirt. “Do with us what you will,” we said, indicating our favorite flavors and preferred drinks. In effect, we asked − though not in so many words − to embark on a journey to the unknown among literary images and distant continents: the Vesper – a light, transparent nectar based on gin and vodka – transports those who imbibe it to the tables of the casino in northern France and the adventures of James Bond; the Mint Julep, based on bourbon and mint, arouses fictitious memories of racetracks in the U.S. South; and a Jungle Bird Tiki cocktail, full of rum and pineapple, inspired by Polynesian culture, arouses images of Gauguin’s women and is served in a tall wine glass that looks like a totem pole.

Then the barman began to demonstrate his skill at drawing liquid fire. “To prepare a Brandy Blazer we use an ancient technique of igniting and pouring the liquor from one mug to the other, invented by the author of the first cocktail book,” he explained theatrically. At that point, we became immersed in a sweet Steampunk illusion.

Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that describes an alternative reality in a world that has frozen in time and is unfamiliar with the technological innovations of the 20th century. The steam engine, the blimp, mechanical calculators and gas lighting are prominent features in the futuristic worlds created by the authors of the genre. Even if their works did not reach impressive heights as a literary movement, when it came to aesthetics, the authors and their fans created a distinct and beautiful language − dramatic, visual and inspired by the Victorian era and the American Wild West.

The Imperial is crammed with objects that speak this language. On a wooden bookshelf (which has a window for transferring food from the kitchen to the bar, as in bygone days), there are old leather-bound books, glass bottles of medicines and elixirs, pocket watches with mechanical movements and cogwheels, a globe painted by an artist, a telescope and a variety of other stylized objects inspired by the era of great journeys and horizons that opened to those living during that period.

In the worlds that Steampunk writers created and continue to create, the mechanical and manual are preferred to the digital and industrialized. The term craft − in the traditional sense of manual expertise, a search for the unique, small-scale production − is a key concept. The owners of the Imperial, devoted mixologists (those who prepare mixed drinks) who are zealous about their art, can boast a collection of rare liquors from all over the world. They produce various syrups, bitters and vinegar used for seasoning the cocktails; age classic cocktails in wooden barrels; treat each cocktail they produce as though it were a minor work of art; and collaborate with an industrial designer on a selection of glasses and serving dishes to enhance the drinking experience. The artisanal approach is evident in the taste.

Spark of genius

There are three people behind the new Tel Aviv cocktail bar: Bar Shira (35), Dror Alterovich (31) and Gilad Livnat (29). They have all worked as barmen, bar managers and guides of drinking culture in the best local institutions, bars and restaurants. The three were joined by Oron Lerner (31), who has a master’s degree in psychology, is an autodidact in the field of mixology, and owns the blog Al Habar Halomot Retuvim (At the Bar − Wet Dreams). “He’s the only hired worker who has total control over his employers,” is how one of the partners mournfully describes the nature of the relationship between the barman with a spark of genius, who believes that service behind the bar is just as important as that of the Temple priests .

The group set up the new bar on the ground floor of an old hotel belonging to Livnat’s family. The building was purchased by Livnat’s grandfather in 1972. Since then it has been a simple, modest hotel, in recent years especially popular among Eastern European tourists. From 1992 to 2002, the Cactus restaurant, a Mexican restaurant opened by Livnat’s father David, operated on the side facing Hayarkon Street.

It may not be the Ritz, the location of a famous bar that hosted world leaders and alcoholics, nor is it the spacious and atmospheric bar of the Lutetia Hotel in Paris, but now we too are blessed with a proper hotel bar, a place where a person can wax nostalgic about the style of the colonial period, even in the era of the politically correct, or dream of exciting cosmopolitan adventures in the company of men of the world.

Above all, it is a place that genuinely respects the cocktail culture. Cocktails are liquid romance in a glass, but also an entire world of combinations of flavors, textures, fragrances and preparation techniques. You can drink a Gimlet, an Old Fashioned or other classic cocktails here, prepared by a slow and meticulous artist.

There are traditional drinks to which the four musketeers − the only ones who stand behind the bar − add a personal touch (such as Clover Club, originally a gin cocktail served in an American men’s club in the late 19th century, here made with a homemade strawberry syrup instead of raspberry); there are modern cocktails originating with famous mixologists in the popular cocktail bars of New York, London and Paris (such as a Gin-Basil Smash, based on gin and basil, which quickly became a local hit).

There are also original cocktails concocted by members of the staff: Cross Country is a refreshing creation with rye whiskey and fresh orange sections; Spicy India, inspired by the aromatic Indian spice mixtures, is a pleasure, composed of gin, orange liqueur, almond syrup and rose water, topped by chocolate slivers and nutmeg. Along with the drink menu there is a small Asian-inspired food menu; it’s nice, and it fulfills the need to line a drinker’s stomach, but doesn’t reach the level of the cocktail menu.

In the few weeks since the place opened, barmen and liquor experts have been gathering there every evening, and there is hardly a Tel Aviv restaurant that hasn’t sent its staff members to see the wonder and taste the creative variety of cocktails. This summer, journalists and public relations people will have a lot to say about the return of the cocktail − although it’s not certain that return is possible where such a culture never existed in the first place, and where there is no drinking tradition. The words “trend” and “buzz” will be mentioned often.

Meanwhile, in chef’s restaurants, both old and new, they are fixing cocktails to suit the flavors of the dishes; some of the new Tel Aviv restaurants opened along with a cocktail bar, for a less expensive evening; mixologists are acquiring an aura and a reputation parallel to those of the celebrity chef. The Imperial continues a trend begun by places such as 223 or the Social Club.

Even with a long series of cocktails in your bloodstream, it’s hard to believe that the cocktail culture will take off. It is a relatively expensive pleasure − even more so when it comes to fine cocktails whose ingredients include expensive liquors and homemade ingredients, as well as ingredients from the British drinking culture, with its meticulous mannerisms and refined nuances, almost none of which adhered to the inhabitants of the former colony. Still, it’s pleasant to think that there’s a new place where one can discover the world and at the same time find a refuge from it.

Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar, 66 Hayarkon Street Tel Aviv, 03-5177002. (The happy hour, when two cocktails are served for the price of one, is from 6 to 8 P.M.)

Dan Peretz