Lukas Flippo

John Ginnetti sits on a barstool, a drink in hand, his face illuminated by the glowing onyx bar. He is reading, reviewing the chapters for his class, “Cocktail Culture,” a residential college seminar in Benjamin Franklin College, dedicated to the history of the drink. It is early on a Tuesday evening, and I’ve come from the stacks of Sterling Memorial Library to the techno music of 116 Crown. Most of my conversations with professors take place in small offices with books spilling over the shelves, not the leather-tiled lounge of a cocktail bar. I’ve never met a professor at a bar before, but then again, John Ginnetti, 42, owner of 116 Crown, is not your average Yale academic.

In no other course could you find Benjamin Franklin’s “The Drinker’s Dictionary,” with 228 phrases to describe drunkenness, on the syllabus. Nor would you be assigned an article on the once-common practice of drinking champagne out of women’s shoes (actually referred to as the “shoey” in Australia). The rule against alcohol consumption in class has done little to deter the 130 students who apply to the seminar each spring. As a reporter rather than a student, I consider myself exempt from the drinking policy. Part of the job, I decide, is to try a cocktail myself.

The class readings, however, haven’t prepared me for the real question: my order (vodka cranberry wouldn’t do here). Sensing my hesitation, Ginnetti turns to the bartender, points to the top of the menu, and orders an Outré. “On the rocks,” he adds.

When I ask what’s in it, Ginnetti doesn’t even glance at the menu before listing off the ingredients and pointing to each — toki Japanese whisky, grenadine, roku gin, egg white, agave syrup, lemon juice and basil and hibiscus crystals. He gestures to the gin and grenadine on the back bar, a painted fiberglass shelf stacked with 180 spirits.

Sitting in the small lounge, Ginnetti leans back against the cushions, his hands in his pockets and his long hair falling just over his shoulders. He wears jeans and a flannel, an outfit which reminds me more of the crew at the axe-throwing bar down the street than the chic crowd of 116 Crown.

The cocktail world can have a reputation for pretentiousness. But Ginnetti does not fit the stereotype. “John is understated about how good he is at what he does,” said Lenny Jenkins ’20, a student in Ginnetti’s course, “but he’s an artist.”

A moment later, my drink arrives. The Outré looks like it belongs in a museum — not just in a glass, but behind glass. It tastes like a whiskey sour, full-throated and frothy, topped with a cloud of cottony egg whites with a single large ice cube. I remind myself to sip slowly. “Any good?” Ginnetti asks. “If not, I’ll have to get behind the bar myself.”

Ginnetti was trained as a bartender. His first job was working at BAR New Haven — the dance club, brewery and pizza place — where his then-wife and current business partner Danielle Ginnetti was a manager. Bar was known for its beer rather than its cocktails, but even back then Ginnetti was drawn to the spirits. Anyone could pour a beer, but mixing a drink was alchemy.

During his first week of training at BAR New Haven, his co-worker made him buy the book “Mr. Boston: Official Bartender’s Guide.” Ginnetti read it cover to cover and committed each of the recipes to memory, from a classic gin and tonic to the Tom Collins. A week later, on a busy night, his co-worker was suddenly called away and, for the first time, Ginnetti was alone at the bar. The first order he got was for a Tom Collins, the spryly sweet cocktail with gin, lemon juice, soda and simple syrup. The only problem — they didn’t have lemon juice and there was no simple syrup. Thinking quickly, Ginnetti took the lemons used for garnish and, as the crowd of customers watched, began squeezing them, one by one, into a cup, making his own fresh lemon juice. In another small bowl, he sprinkled sugar and slowly stirred in hot water for simple syrup.

The mix was almost complete by the time his co-worker returned, took one look at the line by the bar, and hip-checked Ginnetti out of the way. Taking over, his co-worker grabbed vodka and sour mix, poured them into a glass, and handed it to the customer. Then, he turned to Ginnetti and gave him a piece of advice. “He told me, ‘No one drinks gin, so use vodka. And sour mix is just as good as lemon juice, but no one wants something that sour anyway, so just use 7-Up.’”

Ginnetti turned to me, shook his head and laughed. “Well, that drink just isn’t as good.”

There’s a certain kind of reverence in Ginnetti’s description of a drink. He talks about the Tom Collins like a philosophy professor rhapsodizing about the Platonic forms. “There was potential in the bones, but the expression wasn’t true to the recipe.” He leans in, animated. “The Tom Collins is supposed to be something that when you sip it, you think of sitting on a porch swing in the summer. When you drink something that has sour mix in it, it feels like you walked out of the hospital.”

For Ginnetti, the goal is to engage the imagination as much as the senses. Instead of writing down recipes, he writes down concepts. He keeps them on his phone with a running list of titles: “A Meditation on Bitter,” “An Expression of Place,” “Make Everything Personal.” From there, he starts building the idea out, sourcing the ingredients and then testing each one. And it’s not just the ingredients he’s assessing. He’s attuned to the age of the spirit, the proportions, the distillation process, even the type of resting wood. It’s only when he takes his first sip and imagines the porch swing in summer that his work is complete.

These were the cocktails that Ginnetti wanted to make — not knockoffs with sour syrup and cheap substitutes. At BAR New Haven, he was already trying his hand at different recipes and researching online, reading antique cocktail collections and combing through old recipes like a biblical scholar.

In 2007, he finally got his break. A friend had bought the property of the old National Hotel on Crown, by then a shell of a building, and was planning to turn it into condominiums. Ginnetti convinced the friend to rent him the ground floor with the idea of opening a bar.

Ginnetti spent the next year preparing. He turned the galley kitchen into a workshop and tested cocktails on anyone who was willing to sample them, from family members to friends and neighbors down the road. On one occasion, he even harvested lavender from his aunt’s flower garden, snipping off the stems and perfecting a lavender-infused simple syrup that made the whole house smell like herbes de Provence.

At the same time, the cocktail renaissance was quietly making its way through the bars of New York, from the back-alley saloon of Milk & Honey on up. The word was spreading. Martinis and Manhattans were back in fashion again, and orders for juleps, cobblers and sours slipped off the tongue like syrup.

But Ginnetti wasn’t interested in opening a bar in New York. He wanted to bring cocktail culture to New Haven, where he had roots and a community. “You could feel it on the wind,” said Ginnetti. “I’d [make cocktails] at home and it felt new and I remember running it by some people I respected and I was like, ‘This is good, right? Have you ever had anything like this?’ And they’re like, “No, I don’t know what the hell this is, but this is great.’”

At the time, few people in New Haven even knew what a real cocktail tasted like. There was no competition, precisely because no one knew the niche existed.

Jessica Spector, co-lecturer of “Cocktail Culture” and a former New Haven resident, remembers that time well. “Back in 2007, there were very few cocktail bars anywhere. It was still the early days of the renaissance,” Spector recalls.

The beginning, Ginnetti admits, was rough. It was 2007. Facebook was still in its infancy. Twitter and Instagram didn’t even exist. Instead, Ginnetti and his business partner Danielle walked door to door like canvassers, hand-delivering invitations to their opening. They spammed stores and sent invites across town. But the invitations worked. People showed up.

“I walked in, and I was blown away,” said Spector. “I’ve been around the cocktail and whiskey industry for 25 years, so anytime there was a new cocktail place, I liked to check it out. John’s drinks were just on another level.”

From the start, 116 Crown’s menu was different from most. There was no “well drink,” a cheap staple, like the vodka cranberry. Each item was listed as labeled, from Aalborg Akvavit to Green Chartreuse. For certain customers, the brand names didn’t matter. Few could distinguish between the Booker’s Bourbon and Maker’s Mark Bourbon.

But it was a part of Ginnetti’s larger commitment to total transparency. Everything happened above board, from selecting the spirit on the shelf to the pinch of cayenne pepper from the cordial glasses lined up on the bar. “It was a bit of education, but we wanted people to feel as though they had gotten a proper value,” Ginnetti said. “A lot of times you see bars and restaurants cutting corners to satisfy the demand for price and we just weren’t willing to do that.”

The culture was changing too. 116 Crown opened in 2007, the same year the iPhone was released. Suddenly, customers had Google at their fingertips. Not only could they observe the process, now they could look up the label, the price and the brand of the spirit within seconds. Quality mattered more than ever.

The rise of Instagram only added to the appeal. 116 Crown was known for making good, strong drinks. But it didn’t hurt that their cocktails were camera-ready too. The drinks were immediately “Instagrammable,” from the sparkling glitterati to the deep ash blue of the margarita noir, rimmed with a dusting of charcoal. These drinks were meant to be idled over, even admired. They weren’t just libations. They were accessories. Instagram and its exhibition culture brought a new pretentiousness to the production, a quality Ginnetti had consciously tried to avoid. The photos could capture the aesthetic appeal, but what they missed, in Ginnetti’s eyes, was the authenticity of the experience.

“Cocktails don’t have to be ‘fancy.’ But they should be special, and they should be presented as special,” said Ginnetti. “Cocktails should be unique; they should be creative; they should be original; they should be innovative; they should be quality. And, above all, they should be authentic.”

Either way, people noticed. They kept coming back, even after the initial buzz faded. The bar, known to host birthdays and formal events, was a hotspot for students, particularly Yalies. It also caught the eye of a Yale administrator who, after visiting, asked Ginnetti to help with the mixology course as part of Yale’s bartender training program (offered through the Alcohol and Other Drugs Harm Reduction Initiative).

During one of the sessions, Ginnetti was teaching students about the properties of gin and mentioned its use as an antimalarial during British colonialism. “I offhandedly remarked, ‘You could teach a whole class on colonialism through cocktails,’” Ginnetti recalled.

The next day he got a text from Kevin Bendesky ’19, a Yale student and acquaintance of his, whose suitemate had been in the mixology class. Along with the message was a link to Yale’s residential college seminar program.

Ginnetti was interested. But he wasn’t sure about teaching the class alone. He posed the idea to a friend of his, Jessica Spector, an instructor with the Academy Drinks and holder of a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. Spector had taught philosophy at Hartford’s Trinity College, but left in 2003 to focus full time on writing. The two had met more than a decade earlier around the time 116 Crown first opened. She and Ginnetti had collaborated on writing projects before, including a book on cocktails. Spector hadn’t intended to return to academia, but when Ginnetti pitched the idea of a class on cocktails, she was sold.

“I had the academic historical background, whereas John had worked hands-on in the industry,” said Spector. “A lot of times academics suffer from talking about something rather than doing it, but John had actually been doing it for 20 years.”

The idea was to model polite discourse, bringing their debates on theory and history from the barstools of 116 Crown to the classroom of Linsly-Chittenden Hall. Tara Campbell, a senior in the seminar, described the dynamic through Ginnetti and Spector’s different approaches to defining a cocktail. “John’s like, ‘It’s a quality liquor, there’s a sweet ingredient, there’s a bitter ingredient and then sometimes a fourth ingredient. But usually liquor, bitter, sweet.’ And Jessica’s like, ‘Think about it like a date night for your favorite spirit. Or think about the cocktail like a beautiful frame for your favorite photo.’”

Since his early days sourcing cocktail recipes from old books and archives, Ginnetti has always had an interest in the literature of different drinks. In class, he draws on that knowledge, not only describing the ingredients of the drink, but the liquor’s evolution from the decks of pirate ships to mojitos on the dock. Often, he begins simply by setting the scene. For example, Campbell said that Ginnetti will tell them, “‘Imagine you’re on a boat and you’ve got a cold glass in your hand. What do you feel?’ And we’re all sitting there thinking, ‘What are you trying to get at?’ He asks us, ‘Don’t you think this cocktail exudes X, Y, Z?’ He tries to put us in the shoes of the people from the time period we are talking about.”

On a basic level, the Old-Fashioned is nothing more than whiskey, bitters, sugar and ice. But Ginnetti pushes his students to see the greater picture: how a well-crafted drink can transport people to the dark, wood-paneled room of a speakeasy, beside the bearded men at the bar wishing for the good old days of straight whiskey.

In many ways, “Cocktail Culture” is a class about taste. But the actual tasting takes place outside the seminar. After two hours talking about the history of Manhattans, margaritas, and Old-Fashioneds, most of the students are dreaming of what they’ll drink that night. “It’s like describing music,” said Jenkins. “Someone tells you all about these songs you’ve never heard and the first thing you want to do when you stop learning is go and listen to them. It’s the same with cocktails.”

Campbell has the same restless feeling when she leaves class. “It’s funny because the class is at 1:30 p.m. and we get out at 3:20 p.m. After that we think, ‘G&T sounds really good right now,’ but then we remember, ‘It’s 3 p.m.! Why are we feeling this way?’”

The doors of 116 Crown are always open to Ginnetti’s students, where they can find him in his element.

In the lounge of 116 Crown, I can hear the rattle of the bartender shaking drinks in the background. He’s making a martini. Of all the drinks on the menu, the martini is Ginnetti’s personal favorite. It’s one of the simplest drinks.

“In [the martini], the only improvisation you have is proportion and brands. So any mistake in there and it’s toast,” says Ginnetti. “It’s exacting, but when it all comes together — the ice, stirring versus shaking, twisting the lemon over an ice-cold glass — it’s just alchemy.”

Nothing more than gin, dry vermouth and a twist of lemon. But, for Ginnetti, the beauty is the simplicity.

Aidan Campbell | aidan.campbell@yale.edu