Katz talks cocktail culture

Cocktail consultant, mixologist and self-proclaimed “professional drinker” Allen Katz told Yale students the secret to becoming a skilled bartender Tuesday: Drink a lot and take pleasure in tasting different alcohols.

The Yale Sustainable Food Project, along with the Branford College Master’s Office, co-sponsored a master’s tea and a later cocktail tasting with Katz, the director of mixology and spirits education for the New York branch of liquor distributor Southern Wine & Sprits and the chairman of the board of directors for Slow Food USA. As part of the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s “Chewing the Fat” speaker series, Katz came to speak about the history of the American cocktail and its sustainable future of what he calls “the second Golden Age of cocktails.”

Zeenat Mansoor
"Professional drinker" and Slow Food leader Allen Katz discusses sustainable cocktails.

“After the 1950s, there was a resurgence of formalized social drinking,” Katz said. “The drinks that were around during that period were throwaway, but that process is still good.”

Katz began the talk with an explanation of his background in the food industry. After living on a farm and working at a cooking school in Italy, Katz returned to the United States and later took a job as a consultant for Slow Food USA, which emphasizes the use of sustainable, locally-grown ingredients. During this time, Katz said he often asked himself about the definition and character of “American slow food.” He said he came up with two responses: the Southern-born barbeque and cocktails. Katz said he was more interested in the latter, and began to research the place of cocktails in American culture.

Katz said this exploration left him with an intricate knowledge of the history of the American cocktail. Katz said he still believes that American mixology is deeply rooted in and can be traced back to colonial days. Rye whiskey, America’s first spirit, was popular with the early colonists because rye was in abundance. The Prohibition era, he said, “dumbed down the taste of American drinkers.” With no good spirits available, Americans were forced to turn to “bathtub gin” — a nickname given to any liquor made by amateurs — to satisfy their cravings, he said. After Prohibition was repealed, Katz said, vodka became popular because it was easier to distill than the more “complex” gin.

“Gin was popular [before Prohibition] because it was a different taste,” Katz said, adding that distilleries could easily change the flavor of gin by infusing it with different botanical elements.

With historical knowledge and experience as a Slow Food consultant under his belt, Katz switched to cocktail consulting and mixology. He said he is adapting the Slow Food movement’s emphasis on sustainability in the manufacture of spirits. Katz said he plans to open a distillery in Brooklyn next spring that will manufacture gin and rye whiskey, and adopt sustainable practices such as collecting rainwater to wash the floor and to heat and cool the facilities. Such practices have not caught on at larger distilleries because they are hard to implement on a large scale, he said.

Zan Romanoff ’09, a full-time employee of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, said the organizers selected Katz, who once worked with former YSFP Executive Director Melina Shannon-DiPietro, because he was an “engaging” speaker.

Adam Begley ’12 said he enjoyed hearing about trends in cocktail mixology, such as the shift in taste that followed Prohibition.

Attendee John Knapp said he appreciated how knowledgeable Katz was about alcohol distillation.

“It was nice hearing from someone who is not only interested in mixology but has also put a lot of work into it,” he said.

Katz, president of the New York branch of the Bartenders Guild of the United States, hosts a weekly satellite radio segment called “The Cocktail Hour” on Martha Stewart’s Living Radio Program.

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