It’s no surprise that the manhattan originated in New York and the french 75 in Paris, but who would have guessed the mint julep got its start in 1784 as a brandy concoction? At the Roosevelt Room—a cocktail lounge in Austin, Texas—that’s just the tip of the historical cocktail iceberg. Co-owners Justin Lavenue and Dennis Gobis wanted a handful of classics on the menu but just couldn’t narrow it down; instead, they crafted a cocktail compendium of fifty-three drinks organized into eras like Prohibition, Tiki, and Modern Classics. “There were simply too many delicious drinks,” Lavenue says. “Too many with incredibly rich histories that have played a significant role in the development of bartending as a culinary art form.” Here, Lavenue shares two recipes from the early years: the original brandy-based iteration of the mint julep, and the sherry flip, the OG of “flip” cocktails from 1887.
The Local Palate sat down with Justin Lavenue of the Roosevelt Room in Austin, Texas, to discuss the inspiration behind the bar’s extensive historical cocktail menu.
What inspired this idea of an extensive historical cocktail menu?
We have a pretty extensive cocktail compendium at the Roosevelt Room that myself and co-owner Dennis Gobis developed in the years leading up to the bar’s opening. We knew we wanted to have a list of classics featured on our menu, but after sitting down with the current bar staff to try and decide the handful that would go on the menu, we seemed to be at a stalemate. There were simply too many delicious drinks, too many with incredibly rich histories, and too many that have played a significant role in the development of bartending as a culinary art form. So, we decided to be ambitious. We expanded the list from just ten drinks to the fifty-three that we felt were the most historically significant and divided them into what we believe are the seven major eras in the lifetime of mixed beverages. Now, guests can take a journey through tipsy history, and taste how drinks have evolved.
What was the process for deciding the cocktails that are included?
All of the drinks we chose play a significant role in the development of bartending as a culinary art form. Each has a rich and interesting history, and/or is incredibly delicious. We say and/or because some of the cocktails histories and origins have not yet been precisely pinned down, but they still serve a purpose on the menu as a whole, in that they are a certain style of drink that appeals to a specific type of drinker. For example, we don’t know the exact origins of the Champagne cocktail, but it was one of the few “cocktails” included in the first cocktail book, Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide—How to mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion.
I know you’re undergoing a major menu revision this spring. How often is the menu changed up?
Up until this point, we have kept the menu the same since there were so many to choose from and opted to further develop the individual drinks as we saw fit. However, we are now in the midst of a major update to the menu, in which half of the drinks are being switched out for new ones. All of the remaining original drinks will be re-imagined or re-tooled in some way, such as making improvements on recipes, preparations, glassware, or garnish.
Are the recipes changed or updated from the historical versions?
We have made, and continue to make, necessary updates to the drinks when we feel that the drink is worthy of being on the menu due to its significance and history. If the drink’s original recipe is antiquated in that one of the ingredients is no longer available, the drink would no longer appeal to modern tastes, or if the original technique to produce the drink or its serving style does not yield the best result, we make adjustments. We feel that just because something is old and important does not necessarily mean that it tastes good, so we make improvements to ensure that each drink is balanced and will be something our guests will enjoy.
With drinks like the brandy julep, which has evolved from its original iteration into what’s now considered a bourbon drink emblematic of the Kentucky Derby, why do you feel its valuable to offer the original version?
When guests experience a certain drink they know and love (e.g. the bourbon-based mint julep that is standard today), we think it’s important they know where it came from. Throughout the menu, we’ve often decided to include a version that may be lesser known, but often more delicious, such as the sherry-based flip, and a sazerac instead of an old fashioned. We do this so that our guests can get an appreciation of the drink’s entire history and how it has evolved over the years. If a guest is particularly intrigued by a certain drink, we’ll even make both versions (the one they know and the original), so they can taste them side-by-side.
Do you ever run into difficulties finding ingredients to create some of the more historical drinks you include on the menu? Has that kept you from including any drinks you would’ve liked to add?
Yes, absolutely. Many ingredients (spirits, liqueurs, fortified wines, syrups, etc.) simply aren’t available anymore because the company went out of business, the parent company discontinued the brand, or the original recipe was lost. Sadly, in cases like this, we can’t make the original version. Unless we can research or come up with a very adequate substitute, we feel the drink is better left to the imagination, and we’d rather not do it an injustice.
What’s your favorite cocktail era, personally?
I’m a big fan of the modern classics because I know many of the talented bartenders who created those drinks, which are some of the most interesting in terms of their flavor profiles. Although some people feel their histories are not as rich as many of the others on the menu, I actually think the opposite because those drinks have helped revive the cocktail resurgence that we find ourselves in today. Many decades from now, they are likely to be celebrated the way many of the older drinks on our menu are now celebrated.