Jeff Tan
Bringing it back behind the bar: Greg Boehm and Don Lee revive 1970s classic cocktails at Golden Cadillac.
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Stayin’ Alive

Jeffery Lindenmuth - April 2014

Once maligned and forgotten, disco drinks are a hit again, thanks to the spirited hustle of a cocktailian dream team.

Watch the video here.

Any suspicions that Golden Cadillac represents yet another lower Manhattan temple of highbrow cocktails quickly disappear as a man in the mask of a Mexican luchador steps forward to pour shots of Buttery Nipple from a bottle directly into the eager mouths of bar patrons, many also sipping on Tequila Sunrises or Mudslides. “It’s for charity. Four dollars,” implores the luchador, actually David Arnold, director of culinary technology at The International Culinary Center, on a mission to raise funds for the Museum of Food and Drink. It’s just another Sunday afternoon at Golden Cadillac, an unlikely effort by some of New York City’s cocktail impresarios to revive a catalog of 1970s cocktails that had long been cast aside like a stack of dusty Bee Gees LPs.

“We’ve reinvented cocktails no moustache-waxing mixologist would be caught dead making,” declares beverage director Don Lee, poking good-natured fun at his moustachio’d colleagues. In applying his mixological muscle to drinks that are generally scorned by the cocktail cognoscenti, Lee says he is reacting against bartending that has become, at times, too precious. “At PDT, we wore ties and vests because we wanted to look professional. But now those items, along with metal shakers and jazz music, have become the hallmarks of good cocktails to many people. We wanted to do away with the outward signifiers, to offer a fun alternative where the focus is on the quality of the product and the service,” says Lee.

At Golden Cadillac, Lee lavishes on some of the world’s most unloved cocktails the same skills that won him admirers as opening manager at New York’s celebrated PDT and later as cocktail director for Momofuku Ssäm Bar. In updating the Malibu Bay Breeze, for instance, Lee determined he could better balance the sweetness of coconut-flavored Malibu Rum by cooking fresh cranberries to extract their tart flavor. He clarifies the unsweetened cranberry cordial as well as fresh pineapple juice using agar-agar, adds some Absolut Citron to enliven the cocktail, and finally carbonates it all in a plastic soda bottle. The result is a drink that evokes the nostalgic suntan lotion flavor of a Malibu Bay Breeze, balanced for modern taste.

“What happens when you clarify pineapple or citrus juices is you drop out the pith and it becomes brighter, less bitter, and more flavorful,” says Lee. “It’s not just about aesthetics.” Clarified orange juice appears—or more correctly doesn’t appear—in the house Golden Mimosa, Bronx cocktail, and Harvey Wallbanger, traditionally a Screwdriver with a float of Galliano liqueur. Golden Cadillac’s take on the Wallbanger combines clarified orange juice with vodka and adds a dash of bitters to enhance the botanicals of the Galliano. Stirred and served up, the combination makes a refreshing apéritif cocktail—crisp, clear, citrusy, and refreshing.

Beneath their polyester shirts and plaid pants, Golden Cadillac co-owners James Tune, formerly of Pegu Club, and Greg Boehm are as serious as cocktail lovers come. Boehm, a publisher who turned his enthusiasm for cocktails into Cocktail Kingdom, a store which offers facsimile reprints of historic cocktail books and professional cocktail mixing equipment, has been a quiet patron of the bar arts for a decade. When bartenders or drink writers have a question, they call Boehm. His personal library of cocktail literature, likely the largest in the world, made it possible for award-winning programs like PDT and The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog to revive cocktails from the 1870s. In search of inspiration for his own bar, Boehm found it in the 1970s.

“This is totally different from my other research,” says Boehm, who passed over rare 19th century bar guides in favor of Jones’ Complete Barguide (1977), Playboy’s Host and Bar Book (1971), and Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide, Revised (1972). “I started looking through these books and different advertising ephemera. The aesthetics of the drinks, and all this stuff from the bicentennial, just brought back memories,” he says. In fact, the house sangria, made with Lancers semi-sparkling rosé, and the chicken schnitzel, are lifted straight from the Boehm family album.

Believing every great cocktail bar needs great food, Boehm enlisted executive chef Miguel Trinidad, owner of Maharlika and Jeepney restaurants in the same East Village neighborhood, to conjure a menu to match the cocktails. “Both Greg and I are children of the ’70s, so we started looking at old Gourmet magazines, and that’s how shrimp Louie and steak Diane found their way on the menu. I had forgotten all about peas and carrots,” says Trinidad, who renders the classic combination by caramelizing carrots and drizzling them with honey before tossing in truffle buttered peas. Trinidad’s deviled eggs are rich and creamy from the addition of sea urchin and get their mustard note from grape must borrowed from the bar. To better cater to the community, and the service industry, the kitchen remains open until last call.

In taking inspiration from an era, you always run the risk of creating a caricature of the time, a Disney representation. With its stylish interior and embrace of contemporary ingredients, Golden Cadillac never crosses the line into theme restaurant, with Crow Hill Design Studio’s Jeannette Kaczorowski acting as the arbiter of taste. A luchador serving shots? Sure. Disco Daiquiris garnished with miniature disco balls? “I gave in on that one,” admits Kaczorowski, “but I draw the line at having a real disco ball.”

Taking inspiration from Harlem’s now-closed Lenox Lounge and nearby Odessa cafe, Kaczorowski worked with Fieldlines Architecture to build a bar that has visual history. “A lot of New York bars in the 1970s began as diners, so they had that ’50s feel, and then textures and finishes got layered on top of that,” says Kaczorowski, who chose to bathe the bar in warm hues of orange and brown. Many surfaces are dressed in wood. The laminate tables left over from former resident Boca Chica now swirl with burlwood that appears lifted from the dash of a 1974 Jaguar.

With Golden Cadillac, Boehm and his team are shedding light on an era that has often been dismissed as the Dark Ages of the American cocktail. “I’m celebrating that the Tequila Sunrise really brought Tequila into the spotlight. And the Piña Colada is a once-great drink that had gotten bad. Don is taking Jell-O shots and making them balanced and delicious with just the perfect texture,” beams Boehm, with no trace of irony. “I know some people will poke fun, but when they come here, they get it. These drinks have a story that deserves to be told.”

Golden Cadillac recipes from Don Lee:
Uni Deviled Eggs
Golden Cadillac Cocktail
Bronx Cocktail
Golden Mimosa
Malibu Bay Breeze
Passion Sangria
Harvey Wallbanger
Piña Colada
Tequila Sunrise
'77 & 7 Jello Shot
Disco Daiquiri Jello Shot
Strawberry Daiquiri Jello Shot
Piña Colada Jello Shot
Miami Vice Jello Shot

Jeffery Lindenmuth is a consumer of fine drink for reasons personal and professional. He writes about wine, spirits, and good living from his home in Pennsylvania.