ORIGINALLY, whiskey cocktails were the mixed drink of choice for Americans, but shortages of high-quality aged liquor after Prohibition and World War II rationing led to the practice of combining liquor with soda water and ice to make highballs. This, according to Haigh, ushered in a dark period that lasted through the 1970s.
The museum features a large section on the midcentury Martini craze popularized in Vegas by the Rat Pack. However, "the whole Rat Pack thing might have been most people's image of the cocktail era, but it was, in fact, the end of it — the thing that killed it," Haigh says.
"By the '60s," he says, "every cocktail was served on the rocks, including the Martini."
Gimmickry and prepackaged, artificial ingredients compromised the quality of drinks at many American bars and restaurants. Not until the late '80s did the cocktail world start to recover from the era of Harvey Wallbangers and Fuzzy Navels, Haigh says.
But now, he believes, we're back from the brink, with bartenders reviving classics, making their own bitters and concocting creations with fresh juices and other top-notch ingredients.
"We're seeing some amazing creativity," he says. Of course, good liquor helps. "We are in a golden era in terms of the quality of spirits."
DeGroff agrees. "There's never been a more interesting time to be in the business. Super premium is the fastest growing segment. Whiskey is back; [there are excellent] single malt Scotches, Bourbons, fine rums."
The museum, through its seminars, dinners and awards show, showcases the work of contemporary master mixologists. With Commander's Palace executive chef Carlos H. Gula, DeGroff collaborated on a menu featuring such dishes as Gulf shrimp and Louisiana crawfish paired with a Scotch cocktail called Blood and Sand and Baked Alaska paired with an Espresso Martini; Abou-Ganim did a rum-pairing dinner, offering a classic and original rum-based drinks with each course.
Such concoctions feature fresh fruit purées, imported high-quality cordials, the best liquors and house-made syrups and infusions. The museum focuses attention on and documents how cocktail menus at many restaurants are becoming as sophisticated as wine lists.
"The cocktail as a culinary experience is the best trend today," Haigh says.
Still, DeGroff believes there's a long way to go before consumers outside the largest cities become as serious about cocktails as they are about food and wine. Many restaurants are "still a little behind the cutting edge," he says. "It's happening, but it's happening slowly. I go around the country like a missionary trying to get people to use real juices, real recipes, real drinks."
DeGroff and Haigh hope the museum inspires an appreciation for the cocktail and its colorful history, which might educate consumers to experiment and demand higher quality when ordering. Of course, they're also hoping people simply drink up and enjoy the collection.
"People are there to have a good time," said Commander's Palace co-owner Ti Martin. "With cocktails available, it's easy to do that."
Total time: 5 minutes