Beyond Classic Cocktails

At Seattle’s Canlis, there’s a story for each sip on offer.



To most, a “classic” cocktail means a mixed drink with pre-Prohibition roots. But not to James Mac Williams, head bartender at Canlis in Seattle. Instead, his interpretation of “classic” is more likely to invoke 18th-century France or ancient Rome.

MacWilliams is creating such exciting drinks as the Médoc Cocktail, for which he recreates Cordial Médoc (a cocoa-tinged, defunct liqueur from France), and the Median Fire Frappé, a reference to an incendiary weapon created in the Byzantine Empire.

In addition to the obscure, often house-made ingredients, each drink also comes with a story; Mac Williams even writes lengthy primers for his bar staff, who train as storytellers as well as mixologists.

To source drink recipes, MacWilliams scours old books and newspapers and jokes that he may be one of the few bartenders with a ProQuest account. “I find all kinds of interesting histories along the way,” he says, estimating that he’s accumulated around 500 pages of various recipes and research.

Many of the recipes call for long-lost ingredients, so MacWilliams often makes his own, a practice he calls “part of the bartending legacy. If you look at pre-Prohibition cocktail books,” he says, “you’ll find an appendix in the back explaining how to make ingredients in-house. That appendix may be as thick as the book itself.

“I like having a story, because it adds to the overall value of the cocktail,” MacWilliams explains. “It becomes something people take away with them, beyond the memory of the taste.”

Proserpina Margarita
Proserpina, the Roman goddess of springtime, ate pomegranate seeds because (as legend has it) those who eat its miraculous seeds can straddle earth and heaven.
1½ Lunazul Tequila
¾ ounce lime juice
¾ ounce St-Germain
¼ simple syrup

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and pour into highball glass with rim dipped in black lava salt.

Medoc Cocktail
This drink includes Cordial Médoc, a now-defunct ingredient from the Medoc Region of France. After much searching, MacWilliams located a tiny bottle of the spirit at a New York auction. Using recipes dating back to the 1700s as a guideline, MacWilliams created his own version, made with cocoa nibs, oranges and dried flowers. You can substitute Cordial Médoc with Crème de Cacao liqueur.
2 ounces Hendrick’s Gin
¾ ounce Cordial Médoc (or Crème de Cacao liqueur)
¾ ounce lemon juice

Combine all ingredients, shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with edible flowers of your choice.

McCracken Pike Manhattan
MacWilliams says he worked on this drink for nearly a year, with the goal of creating a new and improved Manhattan. He brews his own green walnut wine and makes the East Coast Bitters, which are based on tasting notes on Boker’s Bitters used in the original Manhattan.
2¼ ounce Woodford Reserve Bourbon
¾ ounce Green Walnut Wine
2 dash East Coast Bitte

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with Quatre Épices cherry.

A Rose By Any Other Name…Or Pretty Jessica                 
This drink is a riff on the Rose Cocktail, a 1930s-era drink with a number of variations, such as the Cognac-based French Rosé and the Gin-based English Rosé (which this cocktail most closely resembles). According to MacWilliams, the finished cocktail has “a flavor profile akin to Pinot Noir, but with a heavier mouthfeel.”
1¾ ounces Sapphire Gin
½ ounce Rothman & Winter Apricot Liqueur
½ ounce Dolin Dry Vermouth
½ lemon juice
½ ounce Cherry Heering
½ ounce egg white
Dash of Peychaud’s Bitters

Add egg white and whip into peaks. Emulsify the liqueur, Vermouth, lemon juice and cherry and then add gin. Shake hard for 15 seconds and strain into cocktail glass. Splash a dash of bitters on top of foam and swirl into rose shape.

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