Editor’s Note: Returning to Philly, we plunge right into the heart of own craft mixology scene — a fitting transition from our time spent at New England Distilling.
Some couples finish each other’s sentences. Others finish making each other’s drinks. For Phoebe Esmon and Christian Gaal, bartenders at the Piazza’s stylish lounge Emmanuelle, creating collaborative cocktails is an integral part of their relationship. The pair, recently engaged, have learned and worked side-by-side for years. At Emmanuelle, their handmade mixers, impeccably sourced artisanal spirits and local, seasonal accents take center stage. We sat down with the couple over a Satyricon at their low-lit, bewitching bar to chat about Philly, libations and innovation in the age of information.
What is your connection to Philly?
CHRISTIAN: I grew up in New York and I ended up at a Quaker high school called Friends Seminary and had a really good experience there, and ended up going to Swarthmore and made some really good friends there, who were from disparate parts of the country. And so that was what ended up motivating us to move to Philly together as college buddies. We were all from everywhere and Philly was right here, and it was a neutral place for everyone involved. That and New York was really expensive. That was I guess seven or eight years ago.
Philadelphia was the place where I sort of set out on my own, so this is where I built a life. And we ended up meeting, and that was a good thing.
What was your first project together?
PHOEBE: We did the back bar and the cocktail list for Kennett down in South Philly. And we worked together at the Farmers Cabinet and at Noble. Christian used to run the program at Noble and I worked there with him for about six months. And then we were on the Bartenders’ Guild together too. The BG is a professional association of industry professionals and enthusiasts. It’s not a union; I try to focus mostly on service projects within the community and education within the world of bartenders. We do a lot of seminars and tastings, and there’s a competition coming up soon.
CHRISTIAN: There’s lot of stuff that goes on nationally that gives you an opportunity to exchange ideas and get to know people from all over the country. One of the big things is Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans; it’s in the most humid part of the year in mid-July. They get everybody down there to sweat it all out and get dehydrated. It’s sort of a weeklong celebration of being dehydrated.
PHOEBE: And there’s the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. It’s a little closer to home and a little bit easier to access. It’s four days in May, but it’s like a smaller sort of version of what Tales is. It has seminars for the public but simultaneously it has a whole professional set of seminars so industry people can apply and go to this four days of free seminars and educational stuff and tastings.
CHRISTIAN: It’s good because if you’re approaching it from whatever skill level you’re at, you can find seminars that apply to what you want to learn. But yeah, there’s a lot of cocktails weeks popping up around the country.
How do you find people online and build that community?
CHRISTIAN: That’s the great thing about this industry; most people are really willing to share their knowledge and their experience when someone is trying something new. You’re able to sort of hook up with people and see what they’ve experienced. With Jeff [Morgenthaler], one of the big things he did is when he figured out that people could get paid for recipes by liquor companies, he decided to go the opposite route and open-source his recipes. It got a really great reception on the Internet and did a lot to spread people’s knowledge of him. So that’s a great example of the interconnectedness of our current lifestyle.
PHOEBE: I got a message from someone the other day on Facebook asking about a strawberry shrub that was in Imbibe [a drink on our list] last summer. And we’re happy to share – if you want to learn to do it, you might as well learn to do it as right as I’ve figured out how to do it. I’ll give you the information and you can work it out from there.
CHRISTIAN: Why reinvent the wheel when you can pick something up from someone and take it in your own direction?
What percentage of the drinks at Emmanuelle are bespoke [custom] cocktails?
PHOEBE: I would say 60% off of the menu, 40% are made to order. At least 40%.
Some bartenders would find that to be a hassle. Why do you like the challenge?
PHOEBE: I want people to be happy with their cocktails. And if they go through the menu…and they don’t see anything they would be interested in having, it behooves us to make something that does interest them. We’re in the service industry; we’re here to make you happy.
CHRISTIAN: There are people who are interested in cocktails and want to try them, but aren’t necessarily conversant in all of the ingredients that go into them. So I find that it’s sometimes easier to talk in terms of things that people have more experience with like food or beer or wine, and get them to divulge their preferences or their mood by talking through those other things.
We’ll ask someone questions like, “Do you put the black jellybeans to the side or do you eat them?” and what we’re really asking is, do you like anise? …It’s giving them a little bit of a chance to think about the ingredients in terms of things they’re more familiar with.
What are your current favorites on Emmanuelle’s list?
CHRISTIAN: One I’m really proud of because it’s been so popular and because I like the drink is the Baberaham Lincoln. It’s my kind of sour; I don’t drink sours that much but I could see myself downing these. It’s getting a lot of people who don’t really drink whiskey to try whiskey. It’s blended Scotch; it’s got Aperol, which is a bittersweet and bitter orange and rhubarb liqueur – it’s like Campari but a little lighter body. It’s got fresh lemon juice and Creme de Mure and a little bit of absinthe. And it just works, it’s tangy, it’s got bitterness, sourness, sweetness all in the same drink, so it’s got a lot of people drinking ingredients they would normally pass up.
PHOEBE: I really like the Filibuster cocktail. I love coffee; I’ve been working on coffee cocktails for a couple of years now. I have an abiding interest in Tiki and the applications thereof, and this is a stirred coffee cocktail between Smith & Cross Jamaican rum which has this spicy burnt rubber quality to it – sounds gross but it’s not, it’s delicious – and El Dorado five-year, which is a demerara rum from Guyana. And allspice liqueur, which you use in dashes, there’s a barspoon of that and it’s got cold-brewed coffee – we use Cafe du Monde, which actually has chicory in it; I think that’s some of the best cold brew actually, that’s what I discovered in New Orleans, it’s one of the good things about being there in the summer, though I drink iced coffee all year round – Swedish Punsch, Royal Combier. It’s one of the more complicated cocktails I’ve made; I have sort of a minimalist aesthetic in building cocktails generally.
The reason I put so much work into the homemade ingredients is that I want service to go as smoothly as it can, so I don’t want the bartender to have to reach for too many bottles. One of the best things about working here is we can sort of give more license to our imaginations in terms of the creativity and the cocktails, so this one does have homemade ingredients, but it’s an eight-bottle pickup which is unusual for me because I generally stick to topping out at 5.
CHRISTIAN: But that’s why it’s called the Filibuster. In reading the ingredients you can waste a few minutes.
Speaking of which, you are known for the zany, incredible names on your drink list. How do you come up with them?
CHRISTIAN: Sometimes I name them first, sometimes I sort of Zen out some kind of connection. I use Wikipedia a lot…I do a lot of historical research to dig up something that I find interesting. Sometimes it’s like putting a spotlight on something – I’ll find a weird little instance in history that I think people should know about it, and I’ll name a drink after that so that they will be curious about it and maybe they’ll go and do their own research, or it’ll give me an excuse to explain it to them.
The rest of the time when it’s sort of a normal name, it’s usually something that either I would like someone to recall or I think it might start a conversation between people. But there are lists we’ve done that are completely thematic, like all Shakespeare or all Tom Waits, and then it’s about looking at the ingredients, smelling it, tasting it, and trying to figure out what is this drink is saying to me, asking what is the personality of this drink and what would be an appropriate reference for it.
Classic cocktails have made a big comeback. Why did they go away?
CHRISTIAN: Prohibition had something to do with it, because there were a lot of people in the industry who either left the country or left the industry. Because even though there were speakeasies, it still wasn’t the number of bars that there were before the ban. So it was a slice of the previous job pool. A lot of people retired or went to London or to cruise ships or to Paris and started bartending in those places.
And also there was the fact that after Prohibition, there was the war. After that you had a lot of technological advancements, so there’s a sense of the modernity of the atomic age. As a result of that, a lot of drinks that used to be popular weren’t anymore, because the ingredients had changed. There was powdered everything, everything was pre-packaged. There was a sense that if it was pre-packaged it was superior.
PHOEBE: Because it wasn’t fresh. Because it always tastes the same. Not because it tastes better.
CHRISTIAN: Because lemons and limes go bad in a bomb shelter, and powdered juice doesn’t.
It’s about the effect of material science on a culture, and how the culture changed to absorb this new sense of value that wasn’t necessarily connected to natural things. It was connected to controlling natural things for man’s purpose. And I say man in both senses, like man. With a pipe. And capital Man with trousers. Or maybe slacks.
PHOEBE: And a belt and suspenders.
C: Not necessarily a belt. They had the Sansabelt.
So how were those cocktails revived?
CHRISTIAN: It’s pretty clear what started the trend, and that was for one thing the time was right, and for another thing it was somebody’s specific idea. There was a GM that was running the Rainbow Room in New York and had working under him a head bartender whose name was Dale DeGroff. He told Dale he’d been looking at cocktail books, and asked, “Why aren’t we doing this?” Dale went in and started reading the stuff and came up with a way to make it work. It was good timing in terms of what was going on in the late 70s and early 80s.
PHOEBE: In food there was an upswing in gastronomy in general, and I think you see parallels in the development of restaurant culture and bar culture.
CHRISTIAN: Here was a place that was offering really great food and that was what they were known for, and maybe some French wine, and at the same time single-malt Scotch was getting really popular, and there was a sense of history and of place. And so that became one of the new status symbols, was having a conversance with this artisanal production, and being able to judge the quality. And that was what gave some traction to it at the time, and after that it sort of just blew up, because the genie was let out of the bottle. And since then it’s been…
CHRISTIAN: …picking up steam. And a lot of that was happening in major international and metropolitan centers like New York, San Francisco, London, and as a result it’s now in the air, and so you see it migrating. As we speak there are people all over the country and even the world spreading this disease…
PHOEBE: Filling up their bitters bottles…
CHRISTIAN: …of dissatisfaction.
PHOEBE: …chopping up big blocks of ice.
CHRISTIAN: Every second, every minute, 15 people now become dissatisfied with the regular bar. We hear this all the time: “Fuck you,” and we’re like, why? “Because now you’ve spoiled all these bars for me.”
PHOEBE: I don’t really agree with that because you haven’t spoiled them. There are several kinds of bars and ours is one kind. But there’s a reason for every other kind of bar; I love a good dive bar more than the next person. Christian and I met in one.
Introduction. Molly O’Neill
Video. Lendl Tellington
Ambience. Emmanuelle | Hancock & Germantown | 215-791-8090