By Bob Townsend
When it comes to beer cocktails, call me an agnostic.
Of course, I love beer. I love spirits, especially whiskey, too. And there are times when the two go together in a sublimely proper way.
Like many people who grew up around that bastion of democracy, the working-class bar, I have always called that way “a shot and a beer.”
Even now, as an older, more sophisticated consumer of a well-made American IPA, or a London Dry Martini, or a Perfect Manhattan, mixing beer and booze in any way other than alone together has never seemed quite right to me.
In fact, sometimes the thought of a Michelada, or even that benign beer-and-soft-drink splash-up, the shandy, gives me a sensation of the dry heaves.
But (you knew there would be a but) I have at times been convinced that there are exceptions to these uptight notions.
The first of those times was many years ago, when the great Atlanta barman, Greg Best of Ticonderoga Club, was tending to things at Holeman & Finch Public House.
As we both recall, I told Best, “I really don’t like beer cocktails.” In response to my sudden, surly pronouncement, he simply set about mixing one I might like. And I did.
Delving back into the subject, recently, over beers at another bar, we struggled to remember the exact ingredients or even the name of the drink. But we knew it was a riff on bourbon and lager. Or, you might say, a shot and a beer.
I admitted my ideas about drinking beer cocktails had evolved over the years, and I wondered if Best’s ideas about making beer cocktails had evolved, too.
“Surely,” Best said. “In the beginning, it was really about seeing if it could in fact work. And it was about using what I’ve now come to consider some tropes of that model — which is let me get a big, hoppy IPA, because it will be a recognizable ingredient.”
That interested me, because one reason I started thinking about beer cocktails again was in response to an email from a PR company touting a new drink called the Rusty Pale.
The recipe calls for a pairing of two Southern products, Coopers’ Craft Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Terrapin Recreation Ale, as the main ingredients.
Coopers’ is said to have “a soft, light flavor profile,” making it easy to mix with the hoppy-bitter but lower-alcohol Terrapin “session” IPA.
“That’s absolutely reasonable,” Best said when I told him about the essence of the Rusty Pale. “That’s the way I started. I thought it was an opportunity to bridge the gap. In fact, I think Neutral Ground is what we called that cocktail I made for you. The whole idea was that these were disparate cultures. Beer culture is so different than cocktail culture. But brewing culture is not distinct from distilling culture. You think about a brilliant, modern distiller like Todd Leopold of Leopold Bros., he started as a brewer.”
As he is wont to do, Best approached the beer-cocktail dilemma philosophically, diagramming it as a kind of dialectical opposition, and asking if it was merely a novelty or something that could sate both beer and cocktail drinkers as legitimately delicious.
“To be completely honest, it’s still an ongoing quest for us,” Best said. “We just rolled out a brand new cocktail menu at Ticonderoga, and this ideal is part of the quest. We have a cocktail called Champ-Ale. You may remember Champale was a really shitty brand of malt liquor that was supposed to drink like champagne. Nonetheless, we wanted to take that name and create a cocktail that lives in the low-proof suppressor family. The idea was to celebrate the beer by not hiding it behind a high-proof spirit.”
To that end, Champ-Ale is shaken with Spanish vermouth, lemon juice and cane syrup, and strained over a mixture of brut sparkling wine and (somewhat in the spirit of Champale, I suppose) Genesee Cream Ale.
“So in our beer cocktail evolution, we went in the absolute opposite direction,” Best said. “We found that using a split of sparkling wine and cream ale gave more body to the wine and everything together gave more flavor to the beer.
“But, yes, the question is still on my mind, and we’re still exploring the answer in all possible ways. Many of the things that are being put out there as beer cocktails, including many things I’ve abandoned, are still novelties, at best. They still don’t represent a sustainable, long-term evolution of a category. Not yet, anyway.”
Beer Cocktail Recipes
These four recipes with notes from Greg Best of Ticonderoga Club in Atlanta represent the evolution of years of thinking about beer cocktails, from Neutral Ground to Champ-Ale.
“The OG drink.”
1 oz. bourbon
.5 oz. Benedictine
.5 oz. Punt e Mes
.5 oz. lemon
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Build in a Collins glass on ice, and top with a crisp pilsner. Garnish with a pinch of fennel pollen.
“This drink from H&F represented a move towards the bold-flavored approach.” The drink was created at H&F by Evan Millman, who helped concoct the Champ-Ale at Ticonderoga Club.
1.5 oz. rye
.5 oz. curaçao
.5 oz. honey pepper syrup
.5 oz. lemon
1 bar spoon of Herbsaint
Shake and strain into an old-fashioned glass over a big ice cube, and top with rye IPA.
“This used beer as an ingredient, but only after we beat it up some.”
1.5 oz. cognac
1 oz. curaçao
.75 oz. lemon
2 bar spoons of Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout syrup
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
Shake and strain up into a stemmed glass. No garnish.
“Current TC menu hit.”
2 oz. Genny cream ale
2 oz. brut sparkling wine
1.5 oz. Spanish vermouth
.75 oz. lemon juice
.5 oz. cane syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine ale and sparkling wine in a large tumbler over ice. Shake and strain remaining ingredients over the ale and wine mixture, then top with more ice if necessary. Garnish with lemon peel.