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Bottoms Up

Drinks to slake a thirst for retro

By Christian M. Chensvold

For H. L. MENCKEN, the cocktail was "the greatest of all the contributions of the American way of life to the salvation of humanity." For the rest of us, less prone to grandiloquence, the cocktail is either a pretentious, foul-tasting witch's brew or a relaxing daily ritual--like a hot bath or a back rub.

Despite heavy competition from the microbrewery craze, the cocktail--especially the king martini--is making a gradual comeback. And in yet another peculiar example of the exaltation of their grandparents' pastimes, the main imbibers of mixed drinks are those under 40.

The cocktail is the ideal alcoholic beverage for those who crave infinite variety. Take the mint julep, for example, that one-way ticket to a Southern veranda, or the old-fashioned, with its soft amber color, tantalizing taste of sugar and bitters, and the orange slice that bobs gently on the surface like a toy in a swimming pool.

Then there's the tried-and-true Scotch and soda, that golden elixir made by a bartender alchemist, conjuring up images of Hollywood's golden age and Manhattan supper clubs. Finally, there's the classic martini, served in that unmistakable glass, with its crisp, bracing kerplunk on the palate, like the plucking of a violin string, and the green olive that lends a drop of color to its crystal clarity.

Why settle, one wonders, for the neighborhood platitudes of beer and wine when one can just as easily voyage to the exotic land of cocktails?

Denise Hillman, bar manager at Santa Rosa's Caffe Portofino, has gone so far as to post a martini menu to satisfy her new cocktail clientele. This includes about half a dozen creative concoctions, all of which deviate radically from the traditional gin, splash of vermouth, and green olive. "Nowadays," Hillman says with a knowing smirk, "anything chilled and served in a martini glass is a martini." Portofino's most popular is--you purists may chortle--the chocolate martini, which consists of Stolichnoya vodka and Crème de Cacao.

Over at Equus at Fountaingrove, patrons partake of the 80-odd Scotches, often enjoying a cigar with them, says bartender Diane Fox. Meanwhile, crooner Ron Cameron sits at Equus' black baby grand Friday to Sunday evenings, contributing to the ambiance of quiet civility. Dressed in a pink shirt and a pink striped tie, his face marked by a pencil-thin mustache and slicked-back hair, Cameron plays the old standards--Berlin, Gershwin, and Porter. Occasionally he spices the music with his throaty, well-aged voice.

Suddenly Cameron breaks into Noel Coward's "I'll See You Again" and seems to address the old fads themselves, joyfully welcoming their return:

    I'll see you again/ Whenever spring breaks through again.
    Time may lie heavy between/ But what has been
    Is past forgetting.

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From the May 15-21, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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