Utah's Zion Curtain hides the art behind craft cocktails
The bar in the back of the room commands attention at the Salt Lake City restaurant Pallet. A paneled, antique mirror declaring "Cheers to All" hangs behind the marble counter, which features stools for a rapt audience.
With the overhead glass globe pendants, the bar is every bit the stage it is meant to be.
But the real performance is going on backstage. Behind the Zion Curtain.
That's where Matt Pfohl works in the space of an entry closet in the kitchen, stirring a classic Manhattan and shaking it's more of a dance because he rocks up and down with the shaker a side car that he calls the Honey Apple.
Utah's unique laws require most restaurants with alcohol licenses to keep the working bartenders, along with open bottles of liquor and beer taps, out of sight, either in back rooms or behind opaque walls, dubbed Zion Curtains.
They are meant to shield impressionable youth from seeing alcohol.
But hiding the showmanship that is cocktail making shortchanges customers seeking out Utah's burgeoning cocktail scene. In recent years, there has a been a revival of pre-Prohibition cocktail-making and styles that emphasizes local and house-made ingredients. The trend is sweeping the nation and has arrived in Utah.
Part of the fun in sipping a craft cocktail is seeing it made watching the bartender muddle the seasonal herbs, listening to him explain the history of the drink, learning about the specialty liqueurs, homemade syrups and hand-carved ice. And certainly hearing the "ka chunk" of the ice as she shakes your vodka martini.
Drinkers have always been able to watch bartenders double-fist shakers at bars and clubs. But increasingly it is in restaurants where patrons are less likely to overindulge because they're eating that some of Utah's best mixologists showcase the art of creative cocktails.
Some restaurants are able to mix drinks in full view of diners because they have a club license or obtained a liquor license in the short time that Zion Curtains weren't required. But newer restaurants such as Salt Lake City's Pallet, Finca and The Copper Onion have had to comply with the barrier requirements.
"People put me in a box and they think that I'm doing some villainous act that they need to hide from their children," said Scott Gardner, who oversees the beverage program behind frosted glass near the kitchen at Finca.
He said grandfathered restaurants that don't have the curtain have an unfair advantage.
"A lot of people that really want these drinks, they want to see them made," he said. "There's a bit of being a showman involved. I'm not talking about the flair like spinning bottles behind my back like Tom Cruise [in the movie "Cocktail"], but there's a lot of showman in the way that you stir a drink, in the way that you shake a drink."
Bar ballet • Copper Onion's vermouth and whiskey drink, called the Orange Hue, was recently mentioned in New York Magazine. But guests can't see beverage director Jim Santangelo emulsify the house-made orange marmalade something he does by rubbing the stem of a skinny bar spoon between his hands as if he's trying to start a fire.
Not being able to see it being made is like not being able to smell food coming out of the kitchen, said Chris McMillian, one of the founders of The Museum of the American Cocktail and head bartender at King Fish in New Orleans. Part of the resurgence of the cocktail culture is about the ingredients, but also the person on the other side of the bar "who actually cares about the outcome of your experience," he said. "To see a truly good bartender is like watching a ballet."
For this story, The Salt Lake Tribune got a peek behind the curtain at Finca, to watch Gardner make a tiki drink he calls Already Dead (see accompanying recipe). It's a riff on the Zombie, which has too much alcohol to be legal in Utah.
Gardner flicks his wrists as he moves rums and house-made cinnamon syrup from the jigger to a cup. A couple of drops of tiki bitters here, a dash of lime juice there and a cup full of specially cut cubes of ice that dilute more slowly. Gardner shakes "the bejesus" out of the drink, holding the shaker over his right shoulder and giving it his fast take on the shake. After he's poured the liquid into a tumbler, he hits mint against the sides to release the herb's oil.
The drink "loses its majesty" when people can't see the effort that goes into making it, he said.
The wall, he said, hampers his ability to interact with diners and to make money. While there are stools and a counter surrounding the wall, he said no one wants to sit "in timeout."
Gardner disagrees with lawmakers who believe letting him show his craft would entice people to drink. Rather, he believes, people who want a good cocktail would come to the restaurant rather than a bar.
"Utah needs this culture. The drinkers â¦ act like young drinkers. They go out and take shots. They don't know how to drink like grown-ups yet," he said.
Responsible drinking, he said, "comes from exposure. [Lawmakers] give alcohol more power by villainizing it."
Hidden craft • A spray of oil squirts out of the lemon rind into the Martinez cocktail that Pfohl has made at the bar at Pallet. It's made of London dry gin and two spirits rarely found in Utah: Carpano Antica vermouth and maraschino liqueur. If he had shaken the drink, he could smell if it was balanced. But this is a stirred drink, so he uses a straw to pull out a drop to taste it.
If diners could watch Pfohl make such drinks, they'd know the perception that drinks in Utah are weak is wrong and they'd probably drink less, he said.
"You're not getting a beer and a shot that's gone in 5 minutes," he said. "I'm setting down a cocktail in front of you that's going to be paired with food. â¦ You're going to be socializing and all of a sudden this cocktail lasts a lot longer."
During business hours, he composes as much as he can at the bar, muddling herbs, flaming a lemon rind to caramelize the oil. But the cooks in the kitchen may get the best view. He's got a short shake, a long shake and one that rotates in a circle, depending on the drink.
"We've spent a lot of time to learn our craft. That's part of the allure of the place like this, is to be able to experience what the person behind the bar is passionate about," he said.
Art form • That's why diners like Kerry Bresnahan and Jenna Anderson go to Silver, in Park City, where they can sit at the upstairs bar to watch and talk to bartenders Jonnie Long and Davy Bartlett.
Silver has a club license, allowing the bartenders to mix original drinks in front of customers, such as the Jellyfish Sting, which involves cracking an egg on the rim of a glass and using the egg white to bind the rum, blueberry shrub, lime and bitters.
Silver's bar displays glasses filled with basil, pineapple mint, thyme and sage, all grown in Long's front yard.
"The biggest question we get is, 'Why don't you carry Red Bull?' " said Long after muddling basil leaves for a Silver Cooler. "The only thing worse than a drunk is a hyper drunk."
When it opened, Silver had a regular restaurant liquor license, and general manager Shawn Hyer considered handing out cards to explain to guests why the bartenders weren't making their drinks at the bar.
"We do have this burgeoning cocktail program and food scene that could rival anywhere else if we would be able to compete like everybody else," he said.
Being able to watch the show "enlightens your senses," said Bresnahan. "I would much rather come to a place like this than somewhere behind the Iron Curtain."
Anderson said she's driven by the same instinct that diners have to seeing chefs in an open kitchen. "It's an art."
1 cup water
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cleaned and cut rhubarb
1 cup granulated sugar
1 ounce rum
2 ounces homemade rhubarb syrup (from above)
1/2 ounce lime juice
1 to 2 strawberries
mint leaves for garnish
To make the rhubarb syrup, bring water to boil. Add rhubarb, stir and return to a boil. Add sugar and stir to dissolve. Simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Strain before using.
For each cocktail, place rum, 2 ounces rhubarb syrup, lime juice and strawberries in a pint glass and muddle. Add ice, shake and strain into a Collins glass filled with ice. Top with a splash of soda water.
Servings • 1
Source: Jim Santangelo, beverage director at The Copper Onion
2 1/4 ounces London Dry gin
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
3/4 ounce cherry brandy
Strip of lemon peel
Place all the ingredients in a cocktail glass. Stir and garnish with a strip of lemon peel
Servings • 1
Source: Matt Pfol, Pallet
2 cinnamon stick
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 ounce aged Jamaican rum
1/2 ounce 151 proof rum
1/2 ounce green chartreuse
1/2 ounce pineapple juice
1/2 ounce grapefruit juice
1/4 ounce lime juice
1/4 ounce cinnamon syrup
2 dashes Bittermen's Elemakule Tiki bitters
Fresh mint leaves for garnish
To make the cinnamon syrup, crush cinnamon sticks into small pieces and toast in a pan over medium heat. Once the cinnamon starts to smoke and becomes aromatic, stir in water. Add granulated sugar, stirring immediately so sugar does not stick to the pan. Once combined, simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Run through a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth before using.
For each cocktail, place rums, chartreuse, fruit juices, 1/4 ounce cinnamon syrup and bitters in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, cover and shake vigorously 20-25 seconds. Pour entire contents into a Collins glass. Garnish generously with fresh mint leaves. Drink should be opaque topped with about one centimeter of froth.
Servings • 1
Source: Scott Gardner, bar manager, Finca